LOS ANGELES, Jan. 2 (Ticker) -- Michael Cooper made his reputation as a defensive wizard. He could have used his old self in trying to stop Kobe Bryant.

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Bryant scored 31 of his 42 points in the second half to spoil Cooper's return to Los Angeles as a coach, leading the Lakers to a 99-91 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Cooper played his entire career with the Lakers, winning five titles as one of the top defensive players in the game. After being named Nuggets interim coach Tuesday when Jeff Bzdelik was fired, Cooper preached defense and his team responded in a 97-92 win over Philadelphia on Friday in his coaching debut.

However, the Nuggets could not contain Bryant, who has reached 40 points in three straight games.

"He's shooting the ball all the time," Cooper said of Bryant. "When you have the ultra green light you're going to score 40. But it doesn't matter if Kobe got a hundred as long as we won. We came up short.

"I don't think his 40 really hurt us. I think it was the other guys - Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Brian Grant - getting those offensive rebounds in the second half in order for him to get 40."

The Western Conference's leading scorer entering the game, Bryant shook off a sluggish first half with 17 points in the third quarter, including his only two 3-pointers within a 28-second span to give Los Angeles a 69-54 lead.

"We have had great balance throughout the year," Bryant said. "We have had guys stepping up making big plays offensively and defensively. Tonight was a team effort. Caron Butler made a big stop defensively, (Grant) came in and gave us a huge boost. It was a great all-around game."

After Denver crawled back within 85-83 with just over two minutes left, Bryant had four free throws and two baskets to put the Lakers on top, 93-85. The superstar guard scored LA's first 14 points of the period.

"Tonight was one of those games where we had a 13-point lead where we could have blown the game open," Bryant said. "But that did not happen to us. It happens some nights but I feel we are getting better."

Lamar Odom scored 12 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for the Lakers, who defeated the Nuggets at home for the 16th time in 17 games.

Odom had Los Angeles' only basket during Denver's 15-2 run to close the first half while Bryant sat with four fouls.

"We have to take (Bryant's absence) as a challenge," Odom said. "I told the guys on the bench when Kobe comes out that we have to get used to playing without him. He's so smart on the court and has a high IQ that he knows how to stay out of foul trouble. I'm not going to be concerned. We won the game."

Denver center Marcus Camby was out with a hyperextended lower back and forward Kenyon Martin struggled through his back pain to 11 points. Carmelo Anthony scored 27 points in his second game back from a sprained ankle.

"He's not fully healthy," Cooper said of Martin, who was returning from a two-game layoff. "Kenny is a warrior. He wants to come out and compete. He doesn't want to leave the guys out there hanging. He came to play and it showed a little bit the rustiness from not having practiced. He'll be okay. We just have to rebound from this one and continue to learn.

In the locker room after the game, Anthony nursed a sore foot that was stepped on during the game.

"We're still trying to get adjusted to (Cooper)," Anthony said. "And he's still trying to adjust to us. I think we'll be all right. We still have people banged up. I was 7-for-21 but I try to do everything else - rebound, get to the free throw line - but I really couldn't do as much with my foot like this."

Bryant played with his right hand partially taped.

"We practice real hard," Bryant said. "Especially when we scrimmage. Some of our practices are more physical than the game. Sometimes you get bumps and bruises and in my case the thumb landed on Jumaine's Jones knee. It hurt me pretty bad. I played it safe and wrapped it up for the game."