HOUSTON(AP) Kobe Bryant praised Von Wafer moments after the former Laker had the best game of his career.
Of course, Bryant had to spoil it first.
Bryant sank a 3-pointer with 27 seconds left and scored 33 points, and the Lakers beat the short-handed Houston Rockets 105-100 on Tuesday night.
Bryant had 13 points in the fourth quarter, finally getting the better of Wafer, who scored a career-high 23 points in place of the injured Tracy McGrady.
Wafer was the Lakers' second-round pick in 2005. He was waived in October 2006, but Bryant remembers him well.
"Any time you play against somebody who was either traded or left the ballclub, they have extra incentive,'' Bryant said. "He's always been a streaky shooter and he played well. I told him I was proud of the way you've been playing.''
McGrady is out at least two weeks to fully recuperate from a sore left knee that's bothered him for months. Wafer scored 15 points in McGrady's place against New York on Saturday and did an even better McGrady imitation in this one, mixing deep jumpers with fearless drives to the basket.
"I'm just getting into a rhythm out there,'' said Wafer, who hit 10 of 14 shots. "I'm just getting my legs more and more under me. It's just good to do all that I can while I'm out there and hopefully, I can get a chance to stay out there.''
Carl Landry had a season-high 21 points and eight rebounds for the Rockets, who also played without Ron Artest. Artest has missed five of the last six games with a sprained right ankle. An MRI exam also showed a bone bruise that the Rockets say will keep him out 7-10 more days.
The Rockets still fought the Lakers to the wire, taking a 100-99 lead when Shane Battier swished a 3-pointer from the corner with 47 seconds left.
Bryant answered with a deep 3-pointer from the wing on the Lakers' next trip and held his follow-through as the crowd went silent.
"There's nothing we could really do about it, he (Battier) made a big shot, which he does,'' Bryant said. "Once the ball went in, it was our turn.''
Battier and Wafer chased Bryant all night on defense and the reigning MVP was only 8-for-23 through three quarters. He went 5-for-9 in the fourth quarter, hitting four shots in the final 5:47.
"My shots felt good, they just weren't going in for me,'' Bryant said. "Once the fourth quarter came around, I had to focus even more to try to put the ball in the hole.''
Rafer Alston missed a floater, got his own rebound and was fouled, but missed two free throws with 9.6 seconds left. Pau Gasol hit one of two free throws with 7.5 seconds remaining and Yao Ming missed a shot in the lane on the Rockets' last chance to tie.
Trevor Ariza added 14 points for the Lakers, who've won 10 of 11.
Yao had 19 points and 17 rebounds for the Rockets, who lost for just the second time in their last 11 home games. They were still encouraged with how they played without two of their top stars.
"I loved our effort,'' Battier said. "If we play like that, then we will have a lot of victories in the future.''
The Rockets hit nine of their first 13 shots and Wafer's 3-pointer with 5:22 left in the first quarter put Houston up it 20-11. The Lakers answered with a 10-2 spurt and the Rockets led only 26-25 after the first quarter.
Wafer grabbed a loose ball early in the second quarter and beat Bryant down the floor for a dunk. Later, Bryant spun around Wafer and missed a layup. Wafer got the ball and threw a long pass to Brent Barry for an easy layup.
"He was really good tonight,'' Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "He just attacked the rim, made shots, did it all.''
Houston led 38-34 when Dikembe Mutombo made his season debut with 8:01 left in the half. The 42-year-old Mutombo, signed on Dec. 30, had two baskets and an offensive rebound in just over four minutes of action.
The Rockets shot a season-high 62.5 percent in the first half, but the game was tied at 54. Bryant outscored Wafer only 16-14 in the first half; Bryant was 6-for-17 from the field and Wafer was 6-for-7.
Yao dominated the first nine minutes of the third quarter with 11 points and six rebounds. He earned his fourth foul with 2:53 left in the quarter and earned a rare technical when he kicked a courtside table going to the bench.
Wafer hit a deep jumper and drove the lane for another basket to keep Houston ahead. He swished a jumper from the top of the key in the final minute for an 82-78 Houston lead.