DALLAS -- Depending on the chat room of choice, the banter around the office, or even the perspective from the local coffeehouse barista, the Lakers were supposed to return from their rapidly disintegrating trip anywhere from fifth to seventh in the Western Conference.
Instead, they're back in a tie for first after an engaging 102-100 victory Tuesday over the Dallas Mavericks, a sturdy defensive effort in the early going followed by a hang-on-at-all-costs ending.
Kobe Bryant limped mildly and smiled broadly, Vladimir Radmanovic cracked one-liners, and the Lakers ended a losing streak at an opportune time after twice disobeying the "can't-lose" credo in the West.
"We had to stop the bleeding," Bryant said.
They did, in many ways, individually and as a team at American Airlines Center.
Bryant was granted a mulligan for his 11-for-33 debacle against Houston, following it with 29 points on more concise 12-for-23 shooting. Apparently, his late-night shooting expedition a few hours after losing to the Rockets paid off.
Lamar Odom matched up his 17 points with 17 rebounds, and Radmanovic tied a season high with 21 points.
The Lakers (46-21) also moved into a tie with Houston (46-21) after the Rockets' 22-game winning streak ended an hour later against Boston. The Lakers' four-game trip ends Thursday in Utah.
On the day Phil Jackson said the Lakers were merely "still hopeful" that Andrew Bynum would return in time for the start of the playoffs, the Lakers proved they could win without Bynum and Pau Gasol.
They also improved to 2-1 against the Mavericks (44-24) this season, with one game left against them next month at Staples Center.
It wasn't easy, even though the Lakers took a 76-51 lead on Bryant's spinning, back-to-the basket layup with 5:44 left in the third quarter.
Dallas fought back despite three three-pointers by Radmanovic in the fourth quarter and pushed the Lakers to the final seconds.
With the Mavericks down two, Dirk Nowitzki fumbled a low inbounds pass from Josh Howard, picked the ball up well behind the three-point line and, with Odom all over him, launched an off-balance three-point attempt that glanced off the backboard as time expired.
Considering the opponent and the lack of able bodies, it was one of the best victories of the year for the Lakers, no?
"It's one of them," Jackson said wryly. "But I think we have 45 other ones that are good too."
Nowitzki had 35 points. Jason Kidd had one point and seven assists in 28 minutes.
The game was vindicating for Radmanovic, who had been wandering in uneventful territory for several games before breaking free by taking a season-high 10 rebounds and making four of seven three-point attempts.
"Wow, I can shoot," he joked. "Amazing."
Radmanovic went on to say that shooters, including him, sometimes have off nights.
"Obviously tonight wasn't that night. Too bad for those guys," he said with a smile.
Radmanovic wasn't the only one feeling justified.
Odom said he wanted the ball more often, and got it, taking 15 shots (making only five) and hitting seven of eight free throws. His two free throws with 29.8 seconds left gave the Lakers a 100-97 lead.
"That's all I practiced [Monday]," he said. "And look what it came down to."
Odom was shooting 67.4% from the free-throw line coming into the game.
The Lakers led at halftime, 59-38, after holding Dallas to 33.3% shooting. There were even some boos as the Mavericks headed to the locker room.
Of course, they turned to cheers when the Mavericks went on a 23-3 run to cut the Lakers' lead to 79-74 with 9:36 to play. But the Mavericks never managed to take the lead.
The Lakers escaped unscathed . . . almost. Bryant, already playing with a torn ligament in his right pinkie finger, jammed his hip when he fell to the court after being fouled by Jerry Stackhouse with 2:19 to play.
"It hurt for a minute and then it released," he said. "I'm A-OK."
So were the rest of the Lakers.