HOUSTON, April 25 (Ticker) -- Kobe Bryant started slow and finished strong. Karl Malone was at full blast all the way through.

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Bryant's three-point play with 40.3 seconds left in overtime snapped a tie and Malone added a steal, key rebound and free throw with 6.4 seconds remaining to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 92-88 victory over the Rockets and a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference first-round series.

"I had a bad stomach before the game and had to get a lot of fluids in me," said Bryant, who scored six of his 18 points in overtime. "Once I started playing the game, I felt pretty good."

The 40-year-old Malone felt pretty good from the start. He had 20 points by halftime, finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds and drew the sixth foul from Rockets All-Star center Yao Ming while converting a three-point play in overtime.

"I came here for one reason and that's to win in the playoffs," said Malone, who left Utah after 18 years and signed with the Lakers in the hopes of getting an elusive championship ring. "I just tried to make some things happen."

"Karl Malone was definitely the difference in the game," said Lakers All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds. "I was actually surprised he could do that at 40. He gave us a spark with his physical play and his offense."

Malone took advantage of being left open at the perimeter, making 11-of-17 shots, and joined Hall-of-Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to score 20 points in a playoff game after turning 40.

Kobe Bryant again elevated his game in the clutch.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images/NBAE
"When we ask our power forward to help on O'Neal and Bryant, then we're going to be a little late on Malone and he's one of the best big-man shooters in history," said Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy about his defensive strategy. "But I don't want to take away from his greatness. What he did today is why he is who he is."

The Rockets rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit and tied the game at 81-81 on a jumper by Steve Francis from the top of the key with 39 seconds left in regulation. However, Francis fired an airball on another long-range jumper with 6.9 seconds left in regulation.

Two driving layups by Cuttino Mobley helped Houston build an 87-83 lead with 2:24 left in overtime. But Malone turned the momentum when he drew the sixth foul from Yao on a baseline drive and converted a three-point play with 1:27 remaining.

"He (Malone) saved us when we were flat in the overtime with that three-point play," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

"Obviously, the play of the game was (Malone's) right-hand drive when we were up four in overtime," Van Gundy said. "He made the shot and they called the foul, fouling out Yao in the process."

Yao, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, objected with the call.

"If that's a foul, then I cannot play defense," Yao said through an interpreter. "I thought the foul on me was the turning point of the overtime. I guess I have to put my hands behind my head and play defense like that."

Bryant then stole a pass by Jim Jackson and scored on a running bank shot in the lane to give the Lakers an 88-87 lead with 1:12 left.

Francis made 1-of-2 free throws after being fouled by Derek Fisher, tying the game at 88-88 with 56.4 seconds remaining.

Bryant again made the big basket for the Lakers. Backing in on Mobley on the right side, Bryant spun away from the defender and drove to the basket. Maurice Taylor came over and fouled Bryant, who made the layup and the free throw.

Francis then lost his dribble and Malone stole the ball with 32.9 seconds left. Van Gundy elected not to foul on Los Angeles' next possession and Fisher missed a jumper with 8.9 seconds remaining. But Malone grabbed the rebound, was fouled and sealed the win with his free throw.

"We had two turnovers in crucial situations and that really hurt us," Francis said.

Jackson had a career-high 20 rebounds to go with 16 points for Houston.

The Lakers built their biggest lead at 69-55 on a 3-pointer by Gary Payton with 56 seconds left in the third quarter. But Los Angeles made just 6-of-22 shots in the fourth quarter and went the final 4:30 of regulation without a field goal.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Los Angeles.