DALLAS — Kobe Bryant was just a little better than Dirk Nowitzki in a spirited game befitting Western Conference leaders — not teams battling for ninth place.
Bryant had 38 points to win a scoring duel with Nowitzki, and Steve Nash helped beat his former team by getting 20 points for the first time with the Los Angeles Lakers in a 103-99 victory against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.
Nowitzki finished with a season-high 30 in a game that had a playoff feel from the start, even though both teams still have plenty of ground to make up to even qualify for the postseason. They trail eighth-place Houston by several games, but they are the franchises that have the last three NBA titles won by teams from the West.
Bryant and Nowitzki had 16 points apiece in the first half and were still even at 24 after the third quarter before Bryant scored 14 in the fourth, including seven in the last 3 minutes. They were a combined 8 of 9 from 3-point range and hit 24 shots and 12 free throws between them.
“It’s fun,” said Bryant, who also had 12 rebounds and seven assists. “He’s one of my all-time favorites. He’s a throwback type of player. He doesn’t mind the physicality. He made some incredible plays down the stretch.”
Bryant, who went past the 31,000-point mark, was playing in Mark Cuban’s building two days after the outspoken Dallas owner suggested in a radio interview that the Lakers might have to consider dumping the five-time NBA champion through the amnesty clause.
The Lakers responded by calling the comment inappropriate, and Cuban defended himself before the game.
“Amnesty THAT,” Bryant tweeted after the game.
“I’m sure if he wants to amnesty Dirk, that’s something we’ll be willing to entertain,” Bryant told reporters.
The Mavericks were so frustrated trying to guard Bryant, O.J. Mayo got called for a foul and a technical when he jumped around wildly after the whistle blew on a drive to the basket by Bryant. Nash made the technical shot, and Bryant hit his pair of free throws for a 94-90 lead.
“He’s been the best player in my decade,” said Nowitzki, who also had his season high with 13 rebounds after missing the first 27 games following knee surgery. “I’ve been in the NBA a long time and he’s the one player I love to watch. It was a big game on the national TV stage. It was a fun one. We just came up a little bit short.”
Nowitzki was called for a technical earlier in the fourth quarter after a display similar to Mayo’s when he missed a shot during a physical sequence with Metta World Peace.
“It was very intense,” said Mavericks rookie Jae Crowder, who spent his share of time trying to guard Bryant. “From the crowd standpoint, from the player standpoint, from the officiating. You could tell.”
Three times in the final 3 minutes, Bryant put the Lakers up four after the Mavericks had pulled within two. The last gave Los Angeles a 101-97 lead with 46.9 seconds left.
Nowitzki scored to make it a two-point game, and World Peace missed a free throw to give Dallas a chance to tie. Mayo missed a 3-pointer with about 5 seconds left, and Bryant clinched it with a free throw that made it a two-possession game.
“That’s why he’s Kobe Bryant,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s not John Smith. No disrespect to John Smith, whoever he is. That’s what does. That’s what he loves. That’s what he trains for.”
Nash had 13 of his 20 points and three of his four 3-pointers in the second half, including one that answered Mayo’s only bucket from long range and put the Lakers up 99-95.
“He came on in the second half and really gave us a big boost,” Bryant said. “He was very aggressive and it forced them to make changes defensively. He’s extremely clutch.”
Dwight Howard had three big free throws in the fourth, including one that put Los Angeles ahead for good at 91-90, and finished with nine points and 13 rebounds.
The Lakers had the biggest lead at six — several times — and the Mavericks erased each one through three quarters. Nowitzki’s 3-pointer from the top of the key late in the third made him 4 of 4 from long range and capped a 7-0 run for a 71-70 Dallas lead, but Bryant scored twice on drives after a timeout to put the Lakers in front again.
In the first half, Nowitzki was 5 of 8 from the floor, made both 3-pointers and all four free throws and led everyone with eight rebounds. Bryant, meanwhile, was 3 of 4 from long range, including a pair from well behind the arc, but just 1 of 6 inside the line. He had a game-high six assists before halftime.