for this game

Bryant shines, powers Lakers to Pacific Division title

Apr 12, 2008 - 6:48 AM LOS ANGELES (Ticker) -- In a matchup of MVP candidates, it was Kobe Bryant who made the biggest statement.

Bryant had 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists to lead to the Los Angeles Lakers to the Pacific Division title with a 107-104 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night.

Chris Paul, who entered Friday's game leading the NBA in assists (11.5) and steals (2.7) as well as having the Hornets atop the Western Conference standings, finished with 15 points and 17 assists but was overshadowed by Bryant's performance.

"It was a tough game out there tonight," Paul said. "They did a great job defending me and putting the pressure on. I knew coming in that they were going to be ready for us, and it showed from the tip-off."

Bryant has three championship rings and two scoring titles but has yet to capture MVP honors after 11 Hall of Fame-caliber seasons. In this one, he made 9-of-17 shots from the field, including 3-of-7 from beyond the 3-point arc.

"This was a great team effort tonight, and we got the job done," Bryant said. "The MVP (these) days is not an individual award, you really have to make your teammates better and elevate your ball club, and I think for me to be nominated in that race is an honor."

With the win, Los Angeles (55-25) pulled to within one-half game of New Orleans (55-24) for first place in the West.

"It's important to win games, and I think it's great for us in terms of taking significant steps," Bryant said. "This was the first step, and we want to take another one on Sunday against the Spurs."

The Lakers stormed out to a 39-20 lead after the first quarter on the strength of 10 points by Bryant, who closed the period with back-to-back 3-pointers.

"We really jumped out," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "There's no doubt about it that the defense was very active. Defensively, at the end of the game, too, we had three turnovers that were very important at the end."

The Hornets picked up their play in the second, keeping pace with the Lakers, but couldn't narrow the deficit and trailed by 20 entering the locker room.

"They were just physical and much more aggressive," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "They were playing with a purpose, and we turned that around on them in the second half to make the game closer."

However, New Orleans put together a 21-6 run to begin the third quarter highlighted by Tyson Chandler's alley-oop dunk as the Lakers lead shrunk to 71-66 with 5:15 remaining in the quarter.

Chandler pulled the Hornets within four when he put back a missed jump shot by Paul with just over three minutes to play in the third, but Bryant scored five points in the closing minutes of the period to give the Lakers an 82-75 lead entering the fourth.

"Tyson did a great job with his inside presence tonight," Paul said. "They took me out of the game early, and he stepped up his game. It was good to see our team fight back and never give up when we were down big in the first half."

Bryant capped a 10-2 run to begin the fourth with an emphatic reverse dunk as Los Angeles' lead bulged to 92-77 with 9:24 left to play.

The Hornets refused to go quietly, storming back to within four points on the strength of a 15-4 surge and trailed, 96-95, after Peja Stojakovic drilled a three with just under four minutes remaining in the game.

"They have guys that can score," Lakers center Pau Gasol said. "We did a good job shutting down Paul, but that gave other guys open looks."

But, after a pair of free throws by Ronny Turiaf, Bryant found Derek Fisher in the left corner for a 3-pointer as the Lakers forged a 101-95 advantage, which they did not relinquish.

"We almost let that big lead slip away, but we are happy about the win, happy that we stayed in the game when they made their run," Gasol said.