LOS ANGELES, April 28 (Ticker) -- Kobe Bryant gave himself and the Los Angeles Lakers several days of rest and the Houston Rockets a long vacation.

The indefatigable Bryant had 31 points and 10 assists and the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference semifinals for the eighth straight year with a 97-78 victory over the Rockets.

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Kobe Bryant led the Lakers past Houston and into a matchup with the Spurs.
Catherine Steenkeste
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The second-seeded Lakers closed out the seventh-seeded Rockets in five games to set up an epic rematch with the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, who ended Los Angeles' three-year title reign in last year's conference semifinals.

That series starts Sunday, which certainly should benefit Bryant. Since Sunday's overtime win in Houston, he has flown to Colorado and back here for three straight days of pre-trial hearings.

"I'm very tired," Bryant said. "I've never played a game when I was this tired. I've never had a three-day span like this in my life. I feel tired. But it's the competition and the will to win, do the job the best way I can and help my teammates win the game by any means necessary."

Bryant arrived less than a half-hour before tip-off and appeared fatigued early in the game. But he got a second wind in the second quarter, scoring 14 points, then matched Houston's total -- nine -- in the third period.

"I was hoping we could jump out to an early lead and kind of coast a little bit, but they jumped on us early," Bryant said. "Because of circumstances, you kind of force yourself to pick up your energy and pick up the pace a little bit."

The superstar guard was rubbing his eyes in the third quarter, which the Rockets may have been doing in disbelief. They endured their second nine-point quarter of the series and went down meekly in their first postseason appearance in five years.

"My eyes just got real heavy," Bryant said. "I just kind of blinked them once in a while. They were very heavy. But I just tried to shake it off."

"It could be a lack of (playoff) experience. Who knows?" Rockets guard Cuttino Mobley said. "You're supposed to want it more. You're supposed to get into fights on the court, if anything."

Karl Malone had another solid game with 18 points for the Lakers, who have reached the conference semifinals every year since 1997 -- when Bryant and superstar center Shaquille O'Neal first became teammates.

Jim Jackson scored 17 points and Mobley and Steve Francis added 16 each for the Rockets, who committed 22 turnovers. All-Star center Yao Ming managed just 10 points.

Bryant had some trouble in the first quarter staying with Mobley, who made three 3-pointers and scored 14 points, giving Houston a 27-24 lead and sending Bryant to the bench.

But a reverse two-hand dunk gave the Lakers a 31-29 edge early in the second period and seemed to get Bryant going.

"His man got 14 points in the first quarter and I took him out and just let him sit down for a couple of seconds because he couldn't get focused on it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

"On my way back to the bench, (Jackson) just wanted to get me a blow, try to get my rhythm, get my legs under me, so I can get a feel for the game and get my energy quickly," Bryant said. "It helped out a lot."

The Rockets still held a 48-47 halftime lead before unraveling in the third quarter, making just 2-of-16 shots while committing four turnovers. Malone had two jumpers in a 9-1 burst that gave the Lakers the lead for good and Bryant had a layup and 3-pointer to make it 69-55 with 1:08 to go.

"(He) had a great game despite everything that was going on," Francis said.

Bryant left to a standing ovation and hugs from his teammates midway through the fourth quarter.

"All I have to do is get out there and play and then go to sleep," Bryant said.