Most eyes were front and on the center. Kobe Bryant, as he is prone to do, stole the show.
With Pau Gasol returning to the Lakers’ lineup in a test and trial of his sprained left ankle, Bryant used an economical effort to boost the Lakers to a 104-91 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Bryant made 10 of his 16 shots, good for a game-high 36 points. Fourteen of those points came in the fourth quarter. He also had 13 rebounds and seven assists.
His effort was needed. Gasol’s return was needed. The win was needed.
Time is dwindling with a mere seven games left in the season. The Lakers (51-24) remain 1 1/2 games behind the New Orleans Hornets (52-22) for tops in the Western Conference standings.
They have one game left, Friday against Dallas, on a five-game homestand that has not exactly gone as planned (see: losses to Charlotte and Memphis).
“We’re in something very special right now,” Gasol said. “It’s been hard just being a watcher and not being active out there and helpful. Hopefully, I’ll be able to change that in the next few games.”
The first step was playing. He had sat out nine games since being injured March 14. The Lakers lost four of them and exhibited a free-pass interior defense in his absence.
“There’s going to be soreness,” Gasol said. “There’s going to be pain. You just have to deal with it and get over it.”
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had said he planned to play Gasol less than 25 minutes. Instead, he played nearly 32.
Gasol said he was surprised at his minutes, but, “On the other hand, I would have been happy if I would have played more.”
He made his first shot at 7:30 in the first quarter, a feathery hook shot from eight feet while spinning baseline against Channing Frye.
He said it would take a while to regain his fluidity.
A pretty assist to Vladimir Radmanovic from a flick of his wrists was followed by two missed free throws.
He finished with 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 31 minutes, entering the game how he left: with cheers from the audience.
“Tentative still,” Jackson said of Gasol beforehand. “He hasn’t really thrown himself into it yet. But he’s moving pretty well.”
It seemed, for a while, as though the Trail Blazers would be a problem.
They were undermanned- -- All-Star guard Brandon Roy sat out his third straight game because of a groin strain -- but seemed intent on outshooting the Lakers from afar.
The score was even at halftime, 50-50, with the Trail Blazers making a barrage of three-point shots -- eight for 19 in the first half.
The Lakers pulled away in the second half. They outscored Portland, 23-13, in the third quarter and a Bryant three-pointer at 7:37 in the fourth quarter pushed the lead to 86-68.
The Lakers let Portland creep back to within seven before Bryant closed it out. He made consecutive three-pointers, converting the second into a four-point play after being fouled by Martell Webster.
Portland, a team that averages 17.3 three-point attempts, made 12 of their 27. Travis Outlaw and Webster each scored a team-high 23 points.
The Lakers somewhat toned down their three-point trigger fingers, making eight of their 17. All five starters ended in double figures.
Only once in the games that Gasol missed did the Lakers hold an opponent under 100 points.
Wednesday was enough for the crowd of 18,997 to start clamoring for tacos, awarded when the Lakers win while limiting a visitor below 100.
They were finally fed for the first time since Feb. 28 in a 106-88 win over the Miami Heat.