Then it happened, as it sometimes does around here: Bryant tossed his teammates on his back and made sure the Lakers would keep pace with San Antonio atop the Western Conference.
They got pushed around by the new-look Mavericks, but then they shoved back, the latest indicator they intend to be around for a while when the games really start to count, although the distinction between the regular season and playoffs was again blurry in another high-intensity event.
Lakers fans sighed when Bryant made only three of his first 10 free throws -- an alarming path of misfires for a career 83.9% shooter from the line -- but then began rejoicing with every Bryant journey through the lane.
He scored 22 of the Lakers' 28 points in the fourth quarter -- including their last 14 -- and continued to splurge with eight more in overtime, using a driving layup, a running hook shot and a 16-footer to put the Lakers ahead, 104-98, with 1 minute 32 seconds to play.
When it was finally over, after Dirk Nowitzki airballed a three-point attempt with 4.9 seconds left in overtime and Odom made a free throw at the other end, Bryant delivered one serious note among an otherwise giddy interview session with reporters.
"We want to send a message that we're for real and we're going to compete and hopefully we'll need to be dealt with," he said.
The Lakers (42-18) were good, not great, but it was enough to beat the Mavericks (39-21) and stay in a virtual tie with the Spurs (41-17) atop the West.
Odom scored only six points in 48 minutes, Dampier ripped through the Lakers for 16 points and 17 rebounds, and the Lakers' reserves were nonfactors with only 11 points, but Bryant pushed the team to its 11th victory in the last 12 games.
Or, as Coach Phil Jackson allowed, "Kobe Bryant's probably the reason why we didn't lose."
Bryant was ecstatic afterward, throwing out one-liners and pulling his young daughters toward him while being interviewed.
His opinion of his horrendous early free-throw shooting, which ended quickly when he made 17 consecutive from the line: "If it was golf, I tell you, my clubs would have been in the water."
His take on Sasha Vujacic's three-for-12 effort after a series of stellar shooting performances: " 'The Machine' needs some new batteries. I'll pick up some tomorrow. We'll be fine."
And his thoughts about the Pau Gasol trade: "It was grand larceny."
The Mavericks looked as if they might steal a victory after taking a 66-61 lead near the end of the third quarter.
The Lakers were irritable on the way to scoring only 15 points in the quarter. Odom was angry after being called for a blocking foul instead of picking up a charge on Nowitzki. Bryant was upset after Dampier fouled him hard on a layup attempt.
Then came the fourth.
Bryant's three-pointer put the Lakers up by a point and energized the crowd at the 5:24 mark. Then he pulled up for a 14-footer. Then he began knocking down free throws -- two at a time, rhythmically, methodically, 13 of 13 in the quarter.
He hit two big ones to give the Lakers a 93-90 lead with 6.1 seconds left in the fourth, getting to the line after slipping past Brandon Bass to get a rebound off Odom's missed free throw.
Nowitzki, however, forced overtime by drilling a three-pointer from the top of the arc with two seconds left, arching it over a late-arriving Odom to tie the score at 93-93.
The Lakers considered fouling before the Mavericks could get off a shot but decided against it.
"In a situation like that, with all three-point shooters, you risk the chance of a four-point play or three free throws," Jackson said.
Overtime was more of the same for the Lakers -- more Bryant, another victory.
The Mavericks fell to 4-3 with Jason Kidd (15 points and 11 assists) in their lineup.
"We were right there, but 'right there' in this league doesn't get you anywhere," said Nowitzki, who had 30 points.