Pau Gasol scored 20 points and Josh Powell added 17 for the Lakers, who overcame the absence of Lamar Odom to snap a three-game road losing streak. Odom, the Lakers' second-leading rebounder, served a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in Monday's loss to Portland.
Reserve Von Wafer scored 20 points for the Rockets, who've lost all three meetings with the Lakers this season.
The Lakers led 75-72 when Bryant re-entered the game after a rest with 6:57 left. That's when things got interesting between him and Artest, the fiery forward who's one of Houston's top 1-on-1 defenders.
Only seconds after Bryant came in, Artest and Bryant faced off and exchanged words before referee Gary Zielinski quickly stepped in to separate them. Both stars got technical fouls before Wafer sank a 3-pointer to tie it at 76.
Artest and Bryant continued to shove each other as Luke Walton hit a jumper to give the Lakers the lead. Later, Bryant stripped the ball from Artest, but then missed a jumper with Artest defending.
Bryant got the final word.
He drove inside and converted a three-point play, then swished a 3-pointer after Artest tried to make a steal. That put the Lakers up 85-80 and Bryant held his follow-through and glared at the crowd before trotting down the court.
Aaron Brooks swished a 3-pointer, got fouled by Derek Fisher and hit the free throw before Artest stole the ball from Bryant and Wafer scored again to give the Rockets a brief lead.
But Bryant then drove past Yao Ming for a layup, then hit a tough fadeaway over Artest to put the Lakers up 92-86. After the second basket, Bryant gave a finger-wag to the Rockets' bench
-- seeming to mock Houston center Dikembe Mutombo's signature gesture after a blocked shot.
Bryant put away the game when he leaned into Shane Battier and hit an off-balance jumper with 38.5 seconds left. Battier was called for a foul and Bryant hit the free throw for a 95-88 lead.
Bryant and Artest continued to jaw at each other down to the final buzzer, even with the outcome already decided.