In the end, Kobe had the last word.
Artest, the fiery forward who's one of Houston's top 1-on-1 defenders, used all of his tactics in vain to stop Bryant in the final quarter. He also had a dismal offensive night, scoring only 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting with six turnovers.
While Artest was smiling about the matchup afterward, Bryant still had his game face on.
"It wasn't much of a battle," Bryant said. "I kicked his (butt) tonight. We've had some battles in the past and he's gotten the best of me a few times. Tonight, I got the best of him."
Pau Gasol scored 20 points and Josh Powell added 17 for the Lakers, who overcame the absence of Lamar Odom to snap a three-game road losing streak. Odom, the Lakers' second-leading rebounder, served a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in Monday's loss to Portland.
Reserve Von Wafer scored 20 points for the Rockets, who've lost all three meetings with the Lakers this season.
The Lakers led 75-72 when Bryant re-entered the game after a rest with 6:57 left. Only seconds later, Artest and Bryant faced off and exchanged words before referee Gary Zielinski quickly stepped in to separate them. Both stars got technical fouls before Wafer sank a 3-pointer to tie it at 76.
"It was edgy," Bryant said. "I would expect nothing less. He's a competitor, I'm a competitor. It's fun."
Artest and Bryant continued to shove each other as Luke Walton hit a jumper to give the Lakers the lead. Later, Bryant stripped the ball from Artest, but then missed a jumper with Artest defending, one of the few minor victories for Artest down the stretch.
Later, Bryant drove inside and converted a three-point play, then swished a 3-pointer after Artest tried to make a steal. That put the Lakers up 85-80 and Bryant held his follow-through and glared at the crowd before trotting down the court.
But Bryant then drove past Yao Ming for a layup, then hit a tough fadeaway over Artest to put the Lakers up 92-86. After the second basket, Bryant gave a finger-wag toward the Rockets' bench -- seeming to mock Houston center Dikembe Mutombo's signature gesture after a blocked shot.
"That's part of the game," Artest said. "You've got to talk trash to the fans. It's entertaining."
Bryant put away the game when he leaned into Shane Battier and hit an off-balance jumper with 38.5 seconds left. Battier was called for a foul and Bryant hit the free throw for a 95-88 lead.
Bryant and Artest continued to jaw at each other down to the final buzzer, even with the outcome decided.
"We're not friends out there at all," Artest said. "After the game, after the season, this will be something we'll probably talk about at a pickup game or something. Not personal at all."
Yao also struggled, scoring 16, but giving away four of Houston's season-high 23 turnovers. The Lakers often sent double-teams to Yao's blind side, as he made moves to his left. Yao only took three shots in the second half and missed two of them.
"He's big and he couldn't get a rhythm," Bryant said. "If you give him a single look, he'll tear you up."
The Lakers broke a 24-all tie with 10-3 burst in the second quarter. The Rockets, averaging only 14 turnovers per game, coughed up 10 in the first 15 minutes.
Yao went to the bench for a rest with 8:50 left in the first half, and the Rockets mounted a 14-0 run.
Trevor Ariza's jumper with 3:54 left in the half ended the Lakers' five-minute scoring drought. Artest hit a pull-up jumper and Wafer swished a 3-pointer before Yao returned with 2:12 remaining in the half.
Artest drove for a layup, drew contact and converted the three-point play to give the Rockets a 51-40 halftime lead, Houston's biggest to that point.
Bryant had only six points and two turnovers in the first half.
- The teams shot a combined 7-for-39 from 3-point range.
- The Lakers scored 16 points in the second quarter, a season low.
- Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson called Odom's suspension "unfortunate, but probably warranted."
- The Rockets went 13-for-15 from the free-throw line after going 20-for-35 (a season-low 57 percent) in Monday's 97-95 win in Denver.