Kobe the victor in NBA’s premier matchup

LOS ANGELES — In every great battle, there comes a time when you can’t look back. At that point, at that moment, you have to show what you’re made of.

Never shy of issuing a challenge, Kobe Bryant did just that to good friend and rival Carmelo Anthony late in the Lakers’ Christmas tussle with the Knicks at Staples Center.

After Metta World Peace fouled out of the game with just under two minutes remaining and the Lakers ahead by four, the issue of guarding the NBA’s early-season MVP favorite fell on Bryant. The challenge was delivered.

“Show me what you got,” Bryant told Anthony in the fourth quarter on Tuesday. “Let’s go.”

And Bryant and his Lakers backed up the talk, holding New York to only 16 fourth-quarter points (and Anthony to only one missed field goal in the final two minutes) en route to a 100-94 win, a season-high fifth straight for Los Angeles (14-14).

The setting for the game was anything but normal — for the first time since 1977, the league’s top two scorers played one another on Christmas (Pete Maravich and George Gervin were the last to do it). But the trash talk is something of a normalcy for these two, particularly Bryant.

“If you can’t trash talk with your friends, what type of relationship is that?” Bryant asked afterward.

Bryant got the win, the bragging rights and the top spot on the NBA’s career Christmas Day scoring list, passing Oscar Robertson. But he had to share the game’s top-scorer honors, scoring 34 points, the same as Anthony.

Bryant made 14-of-24 shots. Anthony made 13-of-23.

The Staples Center hardwood provided a canvas for each to display his scoring talents.

Bryant was hot out of the gate, scoring 13 first-quarter points. After making his first two shots of the game, Anthony made just two of his final nine of the first half, and the Knicks trailed 51-49 at intermission.

World Peace was physical with the Knicks All-Star, forcing him into turnovers and bad shots in the game’s first 24 minutes.

“The opportunities that ’Melo got, I mean, he had to work for them,” Bryant said. “That’s the beauty about competing against Metta. You have to have your hard hat on.”

Despite the A-plus defense his teammate was playing, Bryant knew the best from Anthony was yet to come.

“He’s just going to keep on going,” Bryant said. “I know because I do the same thing. It means nothing. He’s going to continue to look for his opportunities and if he gets them he’s going to knock them down.”

Sure enough, Anthony scored half of his 34 points in the third quarter, including 10 during the team’s 15-5 run to open the half that resulted in a 64-56 lead.

The third quarter provided the best act of the game as the two stars combined to score more than half of the points in the period, playing every bit the part of the top two scorers in the league.

“I think it’s great for the NBA,” Knicks guard Jason Kidd said. “I think it’s great for the game. (A) Christmas Day game when you have the top two scorers going at it and they both compete at a high level and both want to win. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Added Bryant: “It’s fun. It’s competitive. You get the chance to watch a truly great player up close and watch him do what he does best and us, kind of, go tit for tat a little bit.”

For the Lakers, the fun may be just beginning. After winning their fifth straight, and second in a row with Steve Nash in the lineup, things appear to be looking up for a team that returned to the .500 mark for the first time since losing to Orlando on Dec. 2.

But have they turned the corner?

“I’m not really sure what that means at this point, because it’s so early,” Bryant said. “I think we’re playing better. I think we’re figuring some things out. It’s still early in the season to turn the corner.

“We want to continue to improve and get better and in the late stages of the season you want to go into the playoffs feeling like you’re feeling the right way and playing with the right kind of momentum.”

The momentum the Lakers have on their side now was enough to get past the one of the top teams in the NBA and allow Bryant to stand tall as the league’s leading scoring while adding a notch in the win column.

“It’s fun,” said Anthony of facing Bryant. “He gets the last laugh because he wins.”