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L.A. Lakers 106; Houston 99 (2OT)

HOUSTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Kobe Bryant scored 17 of his season-high 52 points after regulation Tuesday night as the Los Angeles Lakers turned back struggling Houston, 106-99, in double overtime.

Shaquille O'Neal missed his second straight game with a sore left knee, thwarting any chance for a rematch with Yao Ming. The Rockets' highly-publicized rookie from China dominated inside, collecting 24 points and 14 rebounds, but the game shifted when he fouled out with 29 seconds left in the first overtime.

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"It was very unfortunate losing Yao in a situation where he was doing a great job," said Houston Coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "With games like this, with something on the line, I think he responded in a really big way."

"That's who we were going to, so it affected us big-time," said Rockets point guard Cuttino Mobley. "The rest of us weren't really mobile at the time. We didn't have a rhythm at the time, so it affected us a little bit."

Bryant overcame an injured right knee and scored all nine of the Lakers' points in the first extra session, then forced a second overtime by burying a turnaround jumper with 19.7 seconds left.

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He had eight points in the decisive period, and recorded an assist on a dunk by Mark Madsen that gave Los Angeles the lead for good at 95-93 with 3:58 remaining.

"My teammates are looking for me to carry the load," Bryant said. "It's a huge responsibility, especially in overtime."

Bryant reached the 40-point mark for the sixth straight game, and has at least 35 points in his last 10 -- both franchise records. He eclipsed his previous season high of 51 points, set Wednesday at Denver.

"I can't really grasp it," Bryant said. "I just go out and play. Maybe when I retire I'll look back and say, 'Wow.'"

The All-Star guard made 19-of-38 shots from the floor, including 3-of-9 three-pointers, and was 11-of-11 from the free-throw line. He also has eight rebounds, seven assists, and three blocks in a career-high 54 minutes.

"(Coach) Phil (Jackson) said this morning that this is the biggest game of the year," Bryant said. "That is a challenge I can respond to.

I will worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. The fact that it was the biggest game of the year meant a lot to me and a lot to us, and I have to come out and play."

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Rick Fox scored 15 points, Derek Fisher added 13, and Robert Horry collected eight points, 11 rebounds, and six assists as Los Angeles won for the eighth time in 10 games.

Steve Francis scored 17 points, and Mobley and Maurice Taylor added 16 apiece for the Rockets, who have lost five of their last six games and fell into a tie with the Lakers for eighth place in the Western Conference.

"It hurts big-time," Tomjanovich said. "We're trying to grow up. This was a big one right here. We have to go through this stuff. We have to play games with something on the line and learn from it."

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