Kobe Bryant sat out the entire second quarter, watching from the bench as his team fell behind by as many as 21 points.
Then he did something about it when he checked back in.
The 17-time all-star erupted for a season-high 31 points in just 32 minutes to lead the Lakers past Denver, 111-107, on Tuesday night.
“I’ve been watching him do it since I was a little kid,” 21-year-old Julius Randle said. “This is nothing new.”
Indeed, Bryant has 427 30-point games in his legendary career, but playing at such a high rate has been a recent development in his 20th season.
While shooting 10-of-22 from the field and 9-of-11 at the foul line, Bryant also displayed much of the tenacity that earned him 12 All-Defensive honors throughout his career.
Denver’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Will Barton, scored 23 points before halftime, but managed just two the rest of the way with Bryant switched in as his primary defender.
“Barton was tearing us up in the first half and I decided to ask Kobe if he wanted to guard him,” head coach Byron Scott said. “He said, ‘I got him.’ He had two points after that.”
When Bryant wasn’t locking down defensively, he was heating up on the other end. He poured in 13 points in the first quarter and 11 in the fourth, including a turnaround dagger with 32.2 seconds let to put the Lakers up, 107-100.
The outburst kept a strong streak going for Bryant, who has shot 48.2 percent in his last seven games after hitting just 29.6 percent through his first 17 contests.
“There have been games where I was like, ‘What the hell?’” Bryant said. “Because I knew how hard I worked. I knew how many shots I took. And there was nothing I could do. You just have to stay with it.”
Mile High Madness
At first, it seemed like the Lakers (5-23) might finally be in for an easy night, as they jumped out to an 11-3 lead. But everything changed once Barton checked in, as he dropped 18 first-quarter points in only eight minutes. Powered by their bench leader, the Nuggets ended the frame on a 31-15 run.
Matters only worsened for the purple and gold in the second quarter, with Denver rolling off 13 unanswered points for a 64-43 lead.
But after ending the half on an 8-0 sprint, the Lakers finally clawed their way back in the third period when 12 straight points closed their deficit down to one. At the quarter’s final buzzer, Los Angeles led by three, having shot 14-of-19 while doubling Denver’s 16 points.
Though the lead went back to the Nuggets (11-17) a couple times in the fourth, L.A. managed to keep its hosts at bay, thanks largely to Bryant’s nine points in the final five minutes.
“It was a great test for me tonight to see if I could still play both ends of the floor,” said Bryant, who missed the Lakers' last game on Saturday due to a sore shoulder. “I felt like I could do one. I didn’t know if I could do both. It felt good to be able to do that.”
In addition to Bryant, Lou Williams (17 points, 6-of-11) and Jordan Clarkson (16 points, eight rebounds) helped keep the scoreboard running for L.A.
Hundreds of University of Wyoming fans made the two-hour drive from Laramie to Denver in order to see former Cowboy Larry Nance Jr. play for the first time in their neighboring state.
The rookie didn’t disappoint, throwing down a pair of posterizing jams, plus an alley-oop layup from Bryant.
“I felt like I was back playing in the Arena-Auditorium in Wyoming,” Nance said. “It was really cool getting to hear the ‘Larry!’ chants, the fans screaming. It was awesome.”
Barton shot 1-of-5 in the second half. … The Lakers’ win was their first against a Western Conference team this year. … All 10 of Bryant’s baskets came from the left side or middle of the floor. … Brandon Bass had a season-high four blocks. … Denver was without leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (left ankle sprain) and seventh overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay (right ankle sprain). ... A crowd of 19,124 attended at Pepsi Center.