That gave him plenty of incentive to deliver a special night at Madison Square Garden -- and he unleashed the biggest game the present building has seen.
"It's a blessing to do what you love and to have moments like this," Bryant said.
Bryant teased and pleased a sold-out crowd that took turns booing him and saluting him with "MVP!" chants during an electrifying performance. He passed Michael Jordan's opponent record of 55 points at the present building, known as "Garden IV," when he hit three free throws with 3:56 remaining, then bettered Bernard King's mark of 60, set on Christmas Day 1984, with two more foul shots with 2:33 to play.
Bryant, who also finished with the highest-scoring game in the NBA this season, left to a loud ovation after the 24th 50-point game of his career. It was also his fifth 40-point game here, where the Knicks played their first game in February 1968.
It saved him from a rough night with Lee, the director and Knicks superfan he is working on a project with.
"On a lighter note, I'm going to review this documentary I'm doing with Spike Lee tonight after the game and I didn't feel like sitting next to him and hearing him talking trash about the Knicks, so that was added incentive as well," Bryant said. "Seriously. He's going to get an earful tonight."
D'Antoni might, too. He's a rival from past postseasons when he was coaching Phoenix and playfully sparred with Bryant as an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team this summer. Bryant said not to underestimate his desire to quiet the coach.
"We tried to do the rope-a-dope a little bit where he might shoot himself out, but he didn't," D'Antoni said. "He just kept on going."
Pau Gasol added 31 points and 14 rebounds in the Lakers' first game since losing Bynum, their starting center, for eight to 12 weeks with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee. They'll be fine without him if Bryant plays the way he did Monday, going 19-of-31 with an array of tough jumpers, powerful drives to the basket and perfect foul shooting. He also hit all 20 free throws.
"He was on fire from the start and finished the game almost the same way," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "That was a remarkable performance."
Jackson also was the coach when Michael Jordan set the previous Garden record for most points by an opponent with 55 for Chicago on March 28, 1995. He recalled that Jordan was playing in just his fifth game in 22 months.
"He wasn't really totally himself as a player yet," Jackson said. "We just stuck him in the post."
He added, "Both remarkable performances."
Bryant said he didn't know Jordan owned that record.
"But I watched the game, actually, when he had that game," he said, "just oohing and aahing and just marveling at the performance, as I'm sure we all were."
Bynum was hurt Saturday at Memphis when Bryant missed a driving shot, then crashed into his leg. The center isn't expected to need surgery and said he was confident he would return in time for the playoffs.
Lamar Odom moved into the starting lineup and Gasol slid to the center spot to replace Bynum, who was carrying a tall black crutch, though he was limping along without using it. Odom had six points and 14 rebounds.
The Lakers reached the NBA Finals last season despite losing Bynum for the final 46 games with an injury to his left knee, but they missed his inside presence when they were overpowered by Boston in six games.
Gasol and Odom were too big for the undersized Knicks, but the Lakers will get a truer test of where they are without Bynum when they visit the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers later this week.
Al Harrington scored 24 points, David Lee had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and reserve Wilson Chandler added 20 points for the Knicks, who had won three straight and six of seven, but didn't have the firepower to stay with the Western Conference leaders in the opener of their brutally tough week.
New York hosts Cleveland on Wednesday and Boston on Friday. It's the first time a team has played three straight games against opponents with .750 winning percentages after Feb. 1 since the Celtics did it in February 1995, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Odom made a free throw 14 seconds into the game to open the scoring, then Bryant and Gasol combined for the next 30 Los Angeles points. Bryant's 3-pointer with 35 seconds left gave him 18 points and the Lakers a 31-26 lead headed to the second.
"He wouldn't speak to anyone on the court. He was very quiet tonight. By the time he hit his first two 3s, you could see what he was attempting to do in the game," David Lee said.
"It was very obvious to all of us by the middle of the first quarter that he wasn't in a distributing type of mode or in a getting 10 rebounds type of mode, that he was going to try to score the basketball tonight."
New York was down only one before Bryant returned from a break with 7:25 left in the half and took over the game. He scored nine points in a 1:15 span to make it 49-42 and had 16 points in the second quarter, giving Los Angeles a 65-54 advantage.
He hit the 40-point mark during a 15-4 spurt midway through the third quarter that allowed the Lakers to finally shake free of their Knicks.
Bryant's night quickly became the talk of the league.
"I've never had a night like that," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who scored 32 in Miami's win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night. "You could tell, just watching the highlights, he had a pep in his step and he was on a mission. With Bynum out, he's going to have to do a little more, and I think he understands that. I mean, 61 points, that's Kobe -- that's all you can say."
Hearing Wade, Heat rookie Michael Beasley became wide-eyed.
"Kobe scored 61?" he asked. "You serious?"
Bryant and Lee both picked up NBA awards Monday. Bryant was the Western Conference player of the month after averaging 27.2 points and 7.1 assists while leading the Lakers to a 12-4 record in January. Lee won East player of the week behind his averages of 19 points and 15.3 rebounds, plus 53.5 percent shooting while helping the Knicks go 3-0. ... Bryant's previous best at Madison Square Garden was 46 points on Feb. 6, 2003.