He struck a frozen pose after another signature moment, sending a clear message to the hostile crowd that he and the Los Angeles Lakers are in control of their Western Conference semifinal.
Bryant scored 33 points in the Lakers’ 108-94 victory in Game 3 on Friday night that gave them a 2-1 lead in the series.
“I’m just doing what I do best,” Bryant said, “just challenging other teams to try to do something with me. We, as a team, play off of that. It’s on me to be aggressive.”
Lamar Odom(notes) had 16 points and 13 rebounds and reserve point guard Jordan Farmar(notes) had 12 points and seven assists in place of the suspended Derek Fisher(notes), who was ejected from Game 2 for a hard hit on Luis Scola(notes) when he set a pick.
Artest, who scored 25 points, was ejected for a flagrant foul on Pau Gasol(notes) in the final minute, the only carryover of the rough play that turned testy in Game 2. Artest was ejected from Game 2 for a verbal altercation with Bryant following Bryant’s elbow to Artest’s upper chest.
Artest was OK with the call in Friday’s game, adding that two of the referees explained why they called it that way.
“Just the end of the game, keeping things in control,” Artest said.
Yao said he would test the injury by running on Saturday and vowed he will play in Game 4 on Sunday.
“I really want to play,” he said. “When tomorrow’s test shows everything’s all right, I’m going to play.”
Yao’s health is only one of Houston’s worries after the Lakers snapped the Rockets’ nine-game home winning streak. Houston committed 17 turnovers that generated 20 points from the Lakers and went 6 for 25 from the field in the third quarter, when Los Angeles built a 74-62 lead.
“We didn’t play a playoff-quality basketball game, and they did,” said Houston forward Shane Battier(notes), who has guarded Bryant for most of the series. “We couldn’t find anything that was really working for us.”
Bryant had a quiet third quarter until the final 3 seconds, when his deep 3 put the Lakers up 74-62 and silenced the capacity crowd that booed him every time he touched the ball.
“It’s good to go into the fourth quarter with momentum,” said Bryant, who was 11 for 28 from the field. “It finished the quarter off the right way and then started the fourth quarter off the right way.”
Early in the fourth, Houston’s Von Wafer(notes) jumped into Sasha Vujacic(notes) on a 3-point try and hit the floor. Players from both teams rushed over, but Wafer defused a potential confrontation by walking away. Wafer made three free throws to cut Houston’s deficit to 81-71.
Artest muscled inside for a layup and Yao dunked to pull the Rockets within 90-84 by the 4-minute ark. Farmar hit a baseline jumper with 3:54 left to boost the lead back to eight. Farmar played 33 minutes, a playoff-career high.
“I usually don’t get nervous, but having been on the end of the bench,” he said, “I just really didn’t want to disappoint myself.”
Yao missed a baseline shot with 3 minutes left and Bryant beat the shot clock with another 3 with 2:21 left for a 95-84 lead.
“Each quarter, we had our problems,” Yao said. “In the first half, we had too many turnovers. In the third quarter, we just did not show up. We didn’t play well.”
Los Angeles pushed the tempo from the start.
Odom dunked an alley-oop pass from Trevor Ariza(notes) 9 seconds into the game and Bryant hit a 3-pointer a minute later to pass Larry Bird and move into sixth place on the all-time postseason scoring list.
Bryant went 5 for 6 from the field and had 11 points in the first quarter, then missed six of seven shots in the second. The Rockets slowed the pace, got to the free-throw line more and took a 46-43 lead, but Houston had two turnovers in the final 90 seconds as the Lakers took the two-point halftime lead.
: The Rockets had a 56-43 edge in rebounding. … Yao recorded his sixth straight double-double. … Bryant has 3,928 career points in the postseason. Former Laker Jerry West is ahead of him on the list with 4,457. … Rockets G Tracy McGrady(notes), who had season-ending surgery on his left knee on Feb. 24, sat on the bench.