Bryant scores 35 as Lakers hold off Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The rest of the NBA better watch out. The
Los Angeles Lakers are back in the playoff hunt and they're playing
their best basketball of the season.

Kobe Bryant scored 35 points, Shaquille O'Neal fought off foul
trouble for 19 points and 12 rebounds and Devean George hit a key
3-pointer as the Los Angles Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers 97-94
Tuesday night.

"When everyone plays like that, no one can really beat us,"
O'Neal said. "We're starting to pick it back up."

The Lakers have won 12 of 16 and four straight, with three of
those on the road. The Lakers (23-23) will need to win at New York
on Thursday to avoid a sub-.500 record at the All-Star break for
the first time since 1993-94.

The Lakers are at .500 for the first time since they were 2-2 on
Nov. 3. Following a Christmas loss to Sacramento, the Lakers were
11-19. Since then, they are 12-4 and are only 2½ games behind
Houston for the eighth seed in the West.

"We're playing better now than we have at any point of the
season," said Bryant, who scored over 30 for the fourth straight

Bryant didn't need to throw a punch this time to keep the Pacers
on the ropes.

It was the first game between the teams since Reggie Miller and
Bryant fought after a Los Angeles win last March at the Staples
Center. Bryant threw a punch at Miller and the two landed on the
scorers' table near the Pacers' bench.

Shaquille O'Neal and Brad Miller were also involved in a fight
last season when Miller was still with the Bulls. The two tapped
fists before the game and there were no signs of bad blood between

The Lakers led by nine with 2 minutes left before Indiana reeled
off six straight points to trail 94-91 with under a minute left.

Then George -- a 30 percent 3-point shooter -- drilled one to make
it 97-91.

"I'm his biggest supporter, but I'm also his toughest critic,"
Bryant said. "To see him hit a shot like that, I was really,
really happy for him."

It proved to be huge, as Brad Miller, Indiana's All-Star center,
made a 3 from the top of the arc to make it 97-94 with 30 seconds

Bryant misfired on a jumper and Indiana's Al Harrington grabbed
the rebound. He paused as if he were going to call a timeout, then
passed to Reggie Miller who missed a 35-footer as time expired.

"I got a great look at it," Miller said. "It was probably a
couple of feet farther that I'd have liked it to been, but I've hit
shots like that before."

Harrington said he thought the Pacers had a timeout, but he
remembered the officials telling him they were out of them.

"I wish I could have gotten it to Reggie a little quicker," he

Jermaine O'Neal had 23 points and 20 rebounds for Indiana.
Harrington scored 22, Erick Strickland had 18 points, Reggie Miller
14 and Brad Miller had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Samaki Walker had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers.

Bryant was coming off a 42-point game against Utah on Saturday
and had scored 38 and 40 the two games before that. He continued
that hot streak early, scoring 20 points in the first half on
9-for-16 shooting.

"Phil wants me to be more aggressive, especially at the start
of the game," Bryant said. "I can respond to that and I've been
able to do it."

The Pacers withstood Bryant's scoring bursts though, and led
48-46 at the half, as both teams struggled shooting the ball.
Indiana shot 30 percent in the second quarter while the Lakers made
just 36 percent of their shots.

The awful shooting continued in the third and Shaquille O'Neal's
foul trouble became a problem. O'Neal picked up his third and
fourth fouls in the opening minutes of the half and sat out the
final seven minutes of the third quarter.

The Pacers led by two when O'Neal left but shot only 23 percent
in the third and quickly fell behind. The Lakers went ahead for
good, 72-70, following two free throws by Bryant. He added a
driving layup to end the third.

"We had our opportunities," Reggie Miller said. "That was a
time where we want to create a little space. If you can't create
any distance or space and make them comeback, it's virtually

Reggie Miller tried to rally Indiana in the fourth. He hit two
3-pointers as Indiana pulled to 85-83 with 3:52.

The Lakers would score five straight points, when Indiana turned
to Reggie Miller again. This time a charging Bryant batted Miller's
left arm on a 3 attempt. Miller made two of three free throws to
make it 90-85.

After two Robert Horry free throws gave the Lakers a 94-85 lead,
the Pacers got baskets from O'Neal, Strickland and Harrington.

Game notes
The Pacers played for the final time without coach Isiah
Thomas (two games) and Ron Artest (four games) who were suspended
by the NBA. ... The Pacers are off until next Tuesday when
Cleveland visits. ... The Pacers had their fourth sellout.

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