Lakers end Celtics' six-game win streak

BOSTON (AP) -- Kobe Bryant is back, Karl Malone is on his way and
even Shaquille O'Neal managed to stick around for the whole game
this time.

Bryant made a quicker-than-expected return from a shoulder
injury, scoring 18 points with 10 assists Wednesday night to lead
the Los Angeles Lakers to a 117-109 victory over the Celtics.
O'Neal, who was ejected from the Lakers' previous game, had 28
points and 17 rebounds to help snap the Celtics' six-game winning

Initially expected to be out a month, Bryant did not fly with
the team to Boston because he wasn't planning to play. He arrived
at the FleetCenter less than 90 minutes before gametime and said he
felt strong enough to return after missing just two games.

"They trust my decision. I knew I was ready to play," said
Bryant, who was not listed among the probable starters, but was
announced as a late addition about five minutes before tip-off.
"Once I knew I could move my shoulder and elevate it, I knew I'd
be out there playing."

Bryant wore his jersey over a purple shirt that had the left
sleeve completely cut off and the right sleeve cut off at the
biceps, covering a brace.

"They did a good job protecting my shoulder," he said. "If I
got hit from any angle I wasn't going to be affected."

Gary Payton added 20 points for the Lakers, overwhelming
preseason favorites to win it all who are fighting for home-court
advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They will get another
boost Friday, when Malone is expected to return after missing half
the season with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right

"(Bryant's) presence definitely helps lift morale," forward
Rick Fox said. "Karl is supposed to be back Friday and that's as
whole as we've been in a long time."

Paul Pierce scored 30 points and Ricky Davis had 24 for Boston.
Chucky Atkins scored 19 and Mark Blount had nine points and 11

Los Angeles led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter.
The Celtics got within six with about two minutes left, but
couldn't stop O'Neal, who had 15 points and six rebounds in the
fourth quarter alone one game after he was ejected with four
minutes left for two quick technical fouls against Utah.

"We couldn't get the stops when we needed," Davis said. "It
was tough in there to grab rebounds with Shaq."

Bryant reinjured his shoulder last Friday in the first minute
against Seattle after missing six games earlier in the season due
to a sprain of the same shoulder.

He shot just 4-for-16, but he made 10 of 14 free throws and did
not seem to be favoring his arm.

"Kobe came out and gave it a chance," coach Phil Jackson said.
"(It was) not a very good shooting night for him, but it was
enough to help us win the ballgame."

Los Angeles led 111-100 lead before Pierce hit a 3-pointer and
Atkins had a steal and fast-break layup to make it a six-point game
with 1:57 left. O'Neal answered with a thunderous dunk.

Boston cut it to six again, and after Bryant missed two free
throws, O'Neal shook the basket with another dunk with 20.9 seconds
left to stop the rally.

Malone has been out since Dec. 21 and began practicing with the
team this week. If he makes it back on Friday, Malone will have
missed 39 games; he had missed only 10 games total in his first 18
years in the NBA, just six due to illness or injury.

"We are close," Malone said. "I just want to run up and down
(in practice on Thursday). ... It's going to take me some games to
get back into it."

Davis started the second half with a steal and breakaway, but
when he tried a highlight-show dunk he lost control of the ball.
With half of the court to himself, Davis tried to go between his
legs and make a windmill dunk, but the ball flew up and over the

Davis retrieved the ball, and before Bryant could get back on
defense, Davis made a windmill dunk as his teammates burst into

Game notes
At the end of the first quarter, Davis was fouled by Brian
Cook going for a last-second layup. The two bumped chests afterward
and were given double technicals. ... Payton passed John Stockton
for 29th on the scoring list. They are the only two players in NBA
history with 19,000 points, 7,000 assists and 2,000 steals. ...
O'Neal missed the Lakers' last two trips to Boston and hadn't
played here since 2001. ... Los Angeles is 23-17 without Malone and
19-5 with him.