(AP) — Since the calendar flipped to February, Kobe Bryant has had a difficult time finding his stroke.
He had no such trouble knocking down shots against the Phoenix Suns last month.
In the opener of a home-and-home series Friday night, Bryant again tries to bounce back from a dismal performance when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Suns, whom he torched for nearly 50 points five weeks ago.
Bryant is averaging a league-best 28.7 points, but nothing has come easy lately for the two-time scoring champ. He finished with a season-low 10 points on 5-of-18 shooting against Atlanta on Tuesday, but the Lakers (17-12) held on for an 86-78 victory as they improved to 12-2 at home.
The 14-time All-Star has shot below 40.0 percent in six of seven games this month after failing to reach that mark in four of his first 22 contests. Brutal starts have been the biggest reason for his struggles.
Bryant went 1 for 10 before halftime Wednesday and has shot 21.7 percent (5 of 23) in the first half of the last three games.
Although he’s been misfiring lately, Bryant had a season-best 48 points and went 18 for 31 in a 99-83 victory over the Suns on Jan. 10. He has routinely frustrated Phoenix, averaging 31.0 points in the last 23 meetings including the 2010 Western Conference finals. Los Angeles has won 17 of those games.
While the Lakers and Suns were known for their high-scoring ways over the past few seasons, neither has been as prolific in 2011-12.
Los Angeles is putting more of an emphasis on defense under new coach Mike Brown, allowing an average of 90.4 points – 5.0 fewer than last season. The Lakers held the Hawks to 34.4 percent shooting and improved to 13-1 when limiting opponents to 91 or fewer points.
“On the defense end of the floor I thought that our guys were very active,” Brown said. “On the days when we don’t shoot well, that’s what’s going to help us win ball games, especially come playoff time in a seven-game series.”
The Lakers completely frustrated Grant Hill in the first meeting, limiting him to five points and 1-of-12 shooting. He posted his lowest field-goal percentage when attempting at least seven shots in his 17-year career.
Controlling the boards has also been a big key for the Lakers, who are averaging 45.3 rebounds per game.
Pau Gasol had 20 points and 13 rebounds against Atlanta, while Andrew Bynum had 15 points and 15 boards as Los Angeles finished with 52 rebounds.
The Lakers dominated the glass in the first meeting of the season with the Suns, outrebounding them 49-35 with five players grabbing at least seven boards.
Phoenix (12-18) fell 101-99 to Atlanta on Wednesday, completing a stretch of three games in as many nights with three losses. Steve Nash (22 points, 16 assists) and Hill (18 points) returned and played well after getting the night off Tuesday in a 109-92 loss to Denver, but the Suns had no answer for Josh Smith.
Phoenix, which led by as many as 15 in the third quarter, allowed Smith to score 20 of his 30 points after halftime.
“It’s one of those deals where we played good basketball for 35-38 minutes but it’s a 48-minute game,” coach Alvin Gentry said.
The Suns, losers of nine of 10 at Staples Center against the Lakers, host Los Angeles on Sunday.