Lakers Make Best of Bad Lot

Times Staff Writer

One of these days, perhaps, the Lakers will look up and find that they’re themselves again, of one mind and one game and one guaranteed playoff spot. Perhaps.

In the meantime, they’ll accept their victories where they come, big or small, regardless of the time of season or degree of difficulty. Having won seven of their last nine games, Sunday night by 106-81 at Staples Center against the Miami Heat, the Lakers appear to have come into the momentum they’d sought for 2 1/2 months, though things stiffen from here.

The softest part of their schedule has been as good to them as Coach Phil Jackson could have hoped, in this stretch having worked their way through some of the NBA’s downtrodden franchises by comfortable scores, most of the games at home. In the first four-game winning streak of their season, and the first since March -- not counting the last NBA Finals -- their average margin of victory is 18.5 points. Their record is 17-20, they are within three games of .500 for the first time since they were 3-6, and the distance to the Western Conference’s final playoff spot is 2 1/2 games.


“You have to take into account who we played,” Jackson said. “[But] that’s helped us get momentum. Now that we have it, we have to use it in our favor.”

After taking today off and then practicing and flying Tuesday, the Lakers play at New Orleans on Wednesday and at Houston on Friday, but first ran through the last last-place team they’ll see for at least eight days (when they play the Clippers).

Kobe Bryant scored 36 points, Samaki Walker took 16 rebounds and the Lakers made more than half of their shots again. Shaquille O’Neal had only 15 points and four rebounds in 34 minutes, but had five assists, more than anyone on either team. After scoring 50 points in the first half, the Heat scored 31 in the second, when it made 30.8% of its shots, and lost its sixth consecutive game. The Heat played without leading scorer Eddie Jones, who missed his fifth consecutive game because of a sprained ankle.

Jackson strode into the locker room at halftime, muttered, “A little defense?” and left. So inspired, the Lakers pushed around the Heat from there on, though Jackson was not entirely sure if his team found its defensive conscience or the Heat, the second-worst scoring and shooting team in the league, simply found its level.

Either way, the confetti fell and the people in the stands danced and Bryant offered high fives to the five reserves who finished the game.

“I was in rhythm tonight,” Bryant said. “Kind of put it in cruise control. The points came pretty easy.”


Less than a week after his record 12 three-pointers, Bryant spent most of Sunday at the rim, hanging for layups, rising for dunks, spinning for short jumpers. He made 12 of 21 shots, including eight of 10 in the first half.

Bryant was defended most often by rookie Rasual Butler, and Butler had little help behind him, so Bryant kept Butler on his hip and claimed the baseline.

“I was getting the ball in a position where I’m able to score quickly,” he said. “I got to the basket in one or two dribbles, which didn’t give the defense a chance to react to me.”

Bryant and O’Neal each scored nine points in the decisive third quarter, during which the Heat scored 11 points -- the low in any quarter for a Laker opponent this season. The Heat was scoreless for a 5-minute 28-second period late in the quarter, a span that coincided with Bryant moving to defend Heat rookie Caron Butler. Butler scored 19 points in the first half, two in the third quarter.

“I didn’t see any adjustments,” Caron Butler said, and perhaps that was the problem.

“He is an excellent defensive player, there’s no doubt,” Heat Coach Pat Riley said of Bryant. “And he’s very strong. Contrary to what he may look like as a [shooting guard] ... you could see how he could leverage Caron.

“I’ve always thought Kobe is one of the great defensive players in the league. He just doesn’t get credit for it.”


Afterward, Bryant smiled and noted the Lakers have handled the poor teams as they should, and that’s all they might have done.

“It is significant because of the way we have been playing,” he said.

“We have been beating them pretty well, to the point we can rest the fourth quarter and put ice on our knees.”