Kobe Bryant wasn't great all night, just when he had to be.
LeBron James couldn't answer.
The Cavaliers held Bryant to what can be considered just an "average night" by his standards, but his flair for the dramatic was working just fine. Bryant nailed three difficult long-range jumpers in the stretch run to foil a gutsy Cavs' effort and lead his Lakers to a 99-98 win Thursday night at Staples Center.
Bryant suffered a sprained right wrist in the game and scored just 27 points, off the pace he'd set recently by scoring 40 or more points in five consecutive games. But he delivered in the clutch, while James couldn't.
James, who finished with 28 points and nine assists, split a pair of free throws with 5.2 seconds left that could've tied the game. Drew Gooden pulled down the rebound and called timeout with 4.2 seconds to go.
It set up a heart-pounding finish as Bryant stared down James at the final horn, but James' 18-foot jumper came up just short. Of all his accomplishments, James has never made a game-winning shot in the NBA. Bryant has made many.
This one came with 8.6 seconds left, a fallaway over the top of James to break the tie for good. He also made jumpers from the same area to carry the Lakers with 1:50 left and 50 seconds left.
Eric Snow, along with Ira Newble and James, were relatively effective in slowing Bryant much of the night, keeping him from getting to the foul line until the last minute of the third quarter.
But Bryant's teammate, Lamar Odom, was very efficient and helpful to keep the Lakers in it. He scored 20 points with 10 rebounds and nine assists to fuel the Lakers, who also got 15 points from former Cavs center Chris Mihm.
The Cavs at least rolled out a new offensive attack. Instead of using the drive-and-kick game that has led to oodles of missed 3-pointers and become faulty since the loss of Larry Hughes, the strategy called for a high volume of post ups for James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Ilgauskas had often been forgotten recently, averaging just 12 points since the loss of Hughes before Thursday night. Ilgauskas got the ball time and time again in the post this night, as the Cavs attempted just 11 3-pointers, making six. Ilgauskas scored 14 of his 29 points in the second quarter to stake the Cavs to a lead, but he was limited in the second half by foul trouble. It helped the Cavs shoot 55 percent in the losing effort.
Anderson Varejao played for the first time this season and the first time since injuring his shoulder in the summer. His time was very limited, less than a minute in the third quarter.
Sasha Pavlovic also played for the first time since spraining his ankle six weeks ago, contributing seven uneventful minutes off the bench.
In other NBA action: Phoenix 112, Golden State 99; Detroit 83, San Antonio 68.