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Van Exel buries Lakers

Bryant back for L.A., but Nuggets spoil his return

Nuggets 107, Lakers 101

Nick Van Exel spoiled Kobe Bryant's return to the Los Angeles Lakers' lineup.

Van Exel hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 37 seconds remaining and iced the game with eight straight free throws as the Denver Nuggets overcame 38 points by Bryant for a 107-101 victory Wednesday night.

"I've said this a dozen times. When the game's on the line, there's not anybody else I'd rather have the ball than Nick," Nuggets coach Dan Issel said.

Bryant, who returned after missing three games with a sprained right ankle, hit 16 of 28 shots, but missed an uncontested 3-pointer after Van Exel put Denver ahead for good, 99-96.

"Whew! It was kind of scary," Denver's Antonio McDyess said. "I'd rather have Shaq try to shoot the free throws than Kobe trying to hit that 3. We kind of escaped when he missed."

After Bryant's miss, Van Exel hit two free throws with 30 seconds left. The Lakers got as close as 103-101 in the final 17 seconds, but lost for just the third time in 12 games as Van Exel kept converting free throws.

McDyess added 14 points and 16 rebounds to help the Nuggets end Los Angeles' four-game winning streak. Denver had lost 11 of 14.

Van Exel finished with 27 points and had 11 assists, and Raef LaFrentz had 19 points.

Shaquille O'Neal finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds. He and Bryant combined for 26 straight points for the Lakers during a 15:45 span of the third and fourth quarters.

76ERS 79, HEAT 69: Dikembe Mutombo grabbed 18 rebounds, blocked five shots and altered countless others, more than making up for another poor shooting night from Allen Iverson.

Philadelphia beat visiting Miami for the third time this season as Mutombo forced Heat center BrianGrant to shoot 1-for-13 and forward AnthonyMason to go 1-for-8.

PACERS 99, BUCKS 86: Reggie Miller scored 24 points, and Jalen Rose had 16 points and 12 assists as Indiana found its shooting touch at home.

The Pacers, who hit just 34 percent in Monday's loss at Charlotte, sank 40 of 71 field goals (56.3 percent) to build leads as large as 25 points in the third quarter.

HORNETS 91, NETS 88: Jamal Mashburn overcame a horrendous shooting night by scoring 10 of his 23 points in the final 1:51 to lift host Charlotte to its fifth straight victory.

DavidWesley led Charlotte with 26 points. StephonMarbury led the Nets with 19 points.

RAPTORS 95, HAWKS 88: Vince Carter scored 32 points and Antonio Davis added 18 points and 15 rebounds in Toronto's victory at Atlanta.

The Raptors, who never trailed, won their third straight as Carter topped 30 points for the fifth time in six games.

TIMBERWOLVES 111, PISTONS 100: Terrell Brandon scored 23 points, and Wally Szczerbiak added 22 for host Minnesota.

KevinGarnett added 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the Wolves, who won for just the second time in seven games.

ROCKETS 95, BULLS 78: Steve Francis scored 21 points, and Hakeem Olajuwon added 17 as Houston won at Chicago.

Reserve KennyThomas had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Rockets, who have won five of six and finished February with a 9-4 record.

MAGIC 97, SUNS 91: Tracy McGrady nearly had his first career triple-double, and Darrell Armstrong scored four crucial points in the final 1:21 as visiting Orlando snapped Phoenix's four-game winning streak.

The Suns, who started their streak by ending the Magic's nine-game run in Orlando on Feb. 20, were noticeably slower without Shawn Marion, sidelined with a concussion sustained in a fall late in Sunday's game against Utah.

McGrady had 25 points on 10-for-28 shooting, 12 rebounds and eight assists.

KINGS 122, WARRIORS 101: Predrag Stojakovic scored 24 points as Sacramento set a record for road wins in a season.

Lawrence Funderburke added 18 points as the Kings won their second straight and fifth in the past six. The victory was also their 15th on the road this season, the most since moving from Kansas City and the most overall since the 1982-83 season.