LOS ANGELES (AP)—Kobe Bryant worked around the clock to make sure he could answer the bell against the Los Angeles Clippers in the opener of a four-game season series against their Staples Center co-tenants.
Bryant scored 32 points and Sasha Vujacic scored all of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Lakers to a 113-92 victory Sunday night. It was touch and go for a while with the two-time defending NBA scoring champ, who was listed as a game-time decision after injuring his groin in the final minutes of Friday’s loss at Golden State.
“It’s sore, but you play through it,” Bryant said. “We did a good job staying on top of it and making sure that it was good enough for me to go out there and play and help the team. I didn’t sleep. I was doing therapy for 24 hours, iced it down, had a weight-training session for my legs, kept stretching and doing what I needed to do.
“I can’t really open up my stride as much as I’m used to, so I’ve got to take shorter, choppy steps as opposed to opening my gait,” Bryant added. “So if I can just keep it in my mind to keep my stride short, I’ll be all right.”
Andrew Bynum, ejected from last Thursday’s win over San Antonio after a couple of run-ins with Spurs center Fabricio Oberto, had 14 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots in his anticipated matchup against Chris Kaman.
Bynum established his low-post presence right from the start as the Lakers jumped out to an 18-point lead late in the first quarter with a 21-3 run, which included Bryant’s first 11 points—and an airball at the other end by the Clippers’ Corey Maggette from behind the 3-point line.
Kaman missed seven of his first eight shots, one of which Bynum blocked before converting his defensive stop into a short hook shot at the other end. The Lakers’ vastly improving 7-foot center added an alley-oop dunk off a feed from Derek Fisher 38 seconds later, then duplicated the play off a rainbow pass from Jordan Farmar for a 75-58 lead with 5:24 left in the third quarter.
“I don’t know if he gets too caught up with individual matchups or who he’s playing against,” Fisher said. “Right now, I think he’s really just focused on improving himself and continuing to show that he’s the real deal. He’s taking seriously his role of being a protector for us on the defensive end with shot blocking and controlling the defensive boards.”
Kaman recorded his ninth straight double-double and 19th overall this season, getting 18 points and 16 rebounds. Maggette finished with 27 points, including a desperation buzzer-beater from behind the midcourt line that capped his 21-point third quarter and sliced the Lakers’ lead to 82-76.
Already missing Elton Brand (Achilles’ tendon surgery) and Shaun Livingston (knee surgery) since the start of training camp, the Clippers were even more short-handed than usual as small forward Tim Thomas sat out his first game of the season with a sprained right ankle. Point guard Sam Cassell missed his 10th straight game because of a strained left calf.
“We’re undermanned, but we still have to keep fighting,” Maggette said. “We had the opportunity, but they’re the second-best bench scoring team in the league and they played a great game. They aren’t 14-9 for nothing.”
Maggette, coming off consecutive 23-point efforts on the road against Charlotte and Memphis, had only one field goal in the first half—a 10-footer with 2:09 left in the second quarter. But that was long forgotten when he flung the ball at the basket with one hand over Trevor Ariza from 48 feet away and it banked in.
“It was a crazy shot,” Bryant said. “It was a lucky shot. He’s a strong dude, man.”
The Lakers shrugged off Maggette’s miracle and opened the final quarter with a 22-6 burst that gave them a 104-82 lead with 4:56 remaining. Vujacic, who played 7 1/2 minutes through the first three quarters, helped fuel the decisive run with 11 points—including a pair of 3s.
“Whenever Coach leaves me in there and gives me that confidence, I’m more happy than I can be,” Vujacic said. “I’m more calm now. My teammates have confidence in me, and whenever I have those open shots, they’re supposed to go it.”
Bryant is 78 points away from becoming the 31st player in NBA history with 20,000 in the regular season. … The Lakers hold a 24-9 advantage over the Clippers since both moved into Staples Center in 1999. The teams split each of the previous three season series 2-2. … Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who underwent surgery to treat retinopathy in his left eye, returned to the bench after missing two games. He has to wear sunglasses for the time being to combat the bright lights in the arena. … When Ronny Turiaf came off the Lakers bench for the first time with 2:19 remaining, it put three Gonzaga alumni on the floor at the same time—including Dan Dickau and Richie Frahm of the Clippers.