Bryant broke out with 36 points and led a late rally as the Lakers edged the neophyte Nets, 106-103, and moved within one win of their third straight championship.
Obscured by the imposing shadow of Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant had quietly averaged 23 points as the Lakers won the first two games. He had been reduced to a complementary player as O'Neal destroyed the Nets in Los Angeles.
Hosting the first Finals game in franchise history, the Nets went to double-teams and zones that somewhat slowed O'Neal but opened up the floor for the other Lakers -- specifically Bryant, who reminded everyone that he also is one of the top players in the game.
"I was just playing off him," Bryant said. "They collapse on him and they make it hard for him to breathe down there, then that's when I take over."
Showing aggression he had not displayed in the first two games, Bryant made 14-of-23 shots. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, including two tough baskets over defensive demon Jason Kidd that kept the lead at four points.
"Great players make great plays," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "He made two big ones."
In the shadows of the oil refineries of northern New Jersey, the Nets also got another overpowering whiff of "Shaq Diesel." Despite the double-teams, O'Neal had 35 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks while racking up 15 fouls on New Jersey's centers.
"I was baiting them a little bit, then I was kicking it out to my guys," said O'Neal, who made 12-of-19 shots. "We're used to every type of defense. I've been getting double-teamed since age 6. I've seen every type of double-team that has ever been created."
Bryant wasn't the only Laker to benefit from the attention given to O'Neal. Derek Fisher scored 13 points, Devean George added six clutch points in the final period and foul-plagued Robert Horry returned late to make another huge 3-pointer.
"Without Robert in there, it changes up a little bit of how experienced we are," Jackson said. "Devean did a fine job, however."
Off Exit 16W, the Lakers are one win shy of their 15th W -- and a third straight title. Like the pungent aroma nearby, they can almost smell it.
"We're a confident bunch," Bryant said. "We're playing extremely well together."
"I hate to talk about things in those terms," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who is on the verge of his ninth championship, which would tie the legendary Red Auerbach. "Obviously, that's presumptuous, to talk about sweeping. We want to win this series."
Kidd was magnificent with 30 points and 10 assists. Kenyon Martin added 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. But it still wasn't enough for New Jersey, which must win Game Four on Wednesday to avoid the first Finals sweep since 1995.
"We understand what the odds are, but it's been like that for us all season," Kidd said. "We're going to come out and give it our best shot come Wednesday."
"You guys were treated to seeing three of the best players in the world play tonight," Scott said. "Unfortunately, they had two of them."
The Lakers' rally actually started with O'Neal on the bench. George made two free throws and a follow dunk around a drive by Bryant to cut the deficit to 94-93 with 4:39 left.
Kidd hit a jumper, but O'Neal -- who was 11-of-17 from the line -- made two free throws before finding Horry for a 3-pointer that gave LA the lead for good with 3:04 to go.
On the next possession, Bryant drilled a 22-footer from the left wing over Kidd, who made a jumper off a scramble at the other end.
Then it was O'Neal's turn. He spun left for a banker that beat the shot clock and made it 102-98 with 58 seconds to play, then soared to block a drive by Kidd 10 seconds later. But Bryant kept things tense by missing a pair of free throws with 42 seconds left.
"The commissioner called me and he said, 'Kobe, if you have a chance, I want you to make it interesting for NBC,'" joked Bryant. "I said, 'OK.' I went up, missed the two."
After Keith Van Horn halved the deficit with a long jumper, Bryant dribbled into the lane and nearly lost the ball to Kerry Kittles. But he grabbed it and spun for a 10-footer over Kidd with 19 seconds to go.
"(Kidd) was coming after the ball," Bryant said. "He has some of the best hands, strongest hands in the league. ... It was a matter of just wanting it. If I would have lost possession of the basketball, we would have been in overtime. Who knows what might have happened?" "I thought Kerry came up with the steal," Kidd said. "So when I saw Kobe had the ball, I tried to stick my hand in there and he turned to his right. I'm not going to block his shot."
Kidd made a 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left, but Rick Fox sank two big free throws. With the Nets out of timeouts, Kidd's desperation runner from 30 feet bounced off the backboard, draining the emotional sellout crowd.
"We played our heart out," Martin said. "Very deflating."
Van Horn scored 14 points and Todd MacCulloch added 10 for New Jersey, which had by far its best shooting game of the series at 52 percent (43-of-83). However, LA shot 54 percent (37-of-68), including 8-of-16 from the arc.
Kidd fueled a 19-3 spurt that began late in the third quarter.
He had 11 points -- including two floating drives down the lane at O'Neal -- and two assists. When he found Richard Jefferson for a layup, the Nets had an 84-78 lead -- their biggest of the series.
It eventually grew to 94-87 with 6:44 left on Martin's alley-oop dunk courtesy of Kidd before the Lakers made their late push.
Before the game, Scott paid O'Neal the ultimate compliment, saying, "You could put him on the Memphis Grizzlies, they'd probably be in the Finals."
From the start, Scott put more than one defender on O'Neal, bringing double-teams after he caught the ball. All that did was open the perimeter as Fisher made two 3-pointers in a 15-1 burst that gave the Lakers a 28-15 lead. It marked the third straight game in which the Nets fell behind by double digits in the first period.
O'Neal still did his thing, going through all three New Jersey centers in the first quarter for 11 points. Aaron Williams picked up three fouls in less than three minutes and quickly returned to the bench.
"When we felt like he was in a danger zone for us, we knew he could score, we wanted to attack the ball, attack the dribble as soon as he put it down," Scott said.
With O'Neal off the floor to start the second quarter and the Lakers holding a 31-23 lead, Bryant fed Brian Shaw for a 3-pointer around a pair of jumpers, pushing the advantage to 38-25.
The Nets again went cold, scoring just one basket in the first seven minutes of the period. But they got back in the game as MacCulloch scored six points and Martin five the rest of the way, pulling within 52-46 at halftime.
Even with the double-teams, O'Neal had 21 points in the first half. Bryant added 14 while the Nets went without a second-chance point.
Bryant had 10 more in the third quarter, including a jumper from the right corner that gave LA a 75-65 lead with 2:56 left. But for the third straight game, the Lakers again let the Nets back in it.