And the defending NBA champions contributed to their own demise with a brutal, uncharacteristic fourth-period performance.
Bryant scored all but two of his 27 points after halftime, including a go-ahead, 10-foot jumper in the lane with 23.9 seconds remaining, and the Lakers rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat the Spurs 89-85 on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
"Kobe, he was doing a trust-his-teammates thing in the first half," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "That's why he had five assists, and he was checking it all out and see where his territory was going to be. In the second half, he went to work.
"Obviously a difficult loss and we had a great opportunity. We didn't take advantage of it. Hurts like hell."
Bryant, who finished with nine assists and five rebounds, shot 1-for-3 in the first half and 10-for-18 in the second.
"I know I can make that push and I knew once I did, I could get the game back under control, get it under 10 where we knew we could be in striking distance," Bryant said. "In the first half, we were a little rusty, a little sluggish and a little tentative. Second half, it wasn't there.
"It is big for a young team to come back from 20 against the defending champs."
Defensive specialist Bruce Bowen held Bryant in check in the first half, but it didn't last.
"Kobe put them on his back," Bowen said. "We had an excellent opportunity, and we let it get away. I'm very disappointed."
Game 2 will be played Friday night before the best-of-seven series shifts to San Antonio for the third and fourth games. The Lakers are 7-0 in the postseason at Staples Center, where they've won 13 straight games overall.
Bryant's jumper put the Lakers ahead for good after two free throws by Manu Ginobili with 1:22 remaining and a follow shot by Tim Duncan with 41 seconds left tied the game at 85. After Bryant's basket, Ginobili missed a 3-pointer and Sasha Vujacic made two free throws with 7.3 seconds to go, completing the scoring.
The Lakers outscored the Spurs 24-13 in the fourth quarter, when San Antonio shot 3-for-21, including 1-for-9 from 3-point range.
"We almost gave up home-court advantage to a great effort by the Spurs," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "That was a big comeback. We were deep in the hole, there was no doubt about it. Twenty down and half the quarter gone in the third period. It was a struggle to fight back into the ballgame by the end of the third quarter."
Pau Gasol had 19 points and seven rebounds, Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic scored 10 points apiece, and Lamar Odom had eight points and eight rebounds for the Lakers.
Duncan led the Spurs with 30 points, 18 rebounds and four blocked shots. Tony Parker had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists; Bowen scored 12 points, and Ginobili added 10 for the Spurs.
Ginobili shot just 3-for-13, and Jackson credited Vujacic for his defensive work on the Spurs' star.
"Sasha had an assignment out there tonight and he played Ginobili very well," Jackson said. "Offensively, Sasha had a lot better games, but defensively, that was one of his best."
Vujacic played a career playoff-high 31½ minutes.
The well-rested Lakers hadn't played since Friday, when they beat Utah to advance to the conference finals for the first time in four years. The Spurs advanced by winning at New Orleans three nights later, but their flight to Los Angeles was delayed several hours and they didn't arrive at their hotel in suburban Santa Monica until Tuesday morning around 9 a.m.
"No one gives any excuse," Parker said. "We were in pretty good shape, had a great lead. We had a great chance to win the game and we just didn't play well enough in the fourth quarter."
Popovich also said the plane debacle had nothing to do with his team's late-game problems.
"They probably wore us down to some degree, I'm sure," he said. "And then, with that, we made very poor decisions. The ball stopped moving. Shots at the end of the clock, no penetration to the rim, all jump shots and they deserve credit for that and they came back and had a hell of a win."
Two straight baskets by Bryant cut San Antonio's lead to three points with eight minutes remaining. Bowen made a 3-pointer with 7:38 left, but the Spurs went stone cold at that stage, going scoreless for nearly 6½ minutes.
The Lakers took advantage, scoring 10 straight points for a four-point lead. Bryant put them ahead for the first time in the game by making two foul shots with 2:42 left, and added a jumper 24 seconds later following a turnover to make it 85-81.
The Spurs outscored the Lakers 14-2 to start the third quarter for a 65-45 lead, drawing groans from the crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center, where the Lakers haven't lost since March 28.
Suddenly, the Lakers came together, scoring 14 straight points in a span of 3:05 to draw within six. Bryant had seven points and two assists during the run.
Ginobili's 3-pointer ended a four-minute scoreless drought, and the Spurs led 72-65 entering the fourth quarter.
Duncan dominated the inside in the first half, getting 16 points and nine rebounds as the Spurs took a 51-43 lead.