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Pau Gasol had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Pacific Division-leading Lakers (38-22), who have won three of four without Bryant. The NBA scoring leader is resting his bruised shin.
Los Angeles also played without Brown, who left Staples Center shortly before tipoff for undisclosed personal reasons. Assistant coach John Kuester ran the team.
Barnes played an enormous game in a reserve role while matching his highest-scoring performance in two seasons with the Lakers. He scored six consecutive points after Denver trimmed Los Angeles' lead to one point, hitting a 3-pointer and adding a clutch jumper with 1:29 to play.
Andre Miller scored 20 points and Al Harrington added 18 for the Nuggets, who had won five of seven. Arron Afflalo also had 18 for Denver, which is hanging on to a playoff spot.
Los Angeles led for all but the opening minutes, going up 87-75 with 9:25 left. Denver trimmed the lead to one point with a 15-4 run capped by Harrington's 3-pointer with 3:38 left, but Barnes hit a clutch 3-pointer and added a free throw and a jumper before throwing a phenomenal half-court alley-oop to Bynum in the final minute.
Despite committing 23 turnovers, the Lakers took three of four from Denver to win the season series after the Nuggets took it in each of the past two years. With six games left, Los Angeles is 1 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers for the division lead and the No. 3 playoff seed.
Kuester filled in when Brown left Staples Center after his regular media briefing about 75 minutes before game time. Bryant also moved up next to the assistant coaches, yelling out advice and strategy.
Bryant is no longer wearing a protective boot. The fifth-leading scorer in NBA history is walking without pain, but must run and jump without pain before he'll return.
Bryant has built a career on playing through any amount of pain, but with the Lakers comfortably in the playoff picture, he apparently feels he can take a brief rest from the compacted regular season. Brown wouldn't speculate on how long Bryant will sit, saying they'll re-evaluate his injury before Sunday's game against the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
Bryant hadn't missed a game all season before his current week off, and he has missed just 99 games in his 16 NBA seasons. He is closing in on his third scoring title with 28.1 points per game, slightly ahead of Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, who won the last two scoring crowns.
The Lakers started well without Bryant, picking up from their emphatic road win over San Antonio by jumping to a 14-point lead in the first quarter. Barnes scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the first half, including a rainbow jumper at the buzzer.
Denver kept it close with relentless attention to Bynum, who had 30 rebounds against the Spurs.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)