Lakers back in front

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Times Staff Writer

The Lakers were helpless for a few days in Utah, bringing back two losses and a highly publicized case of back spasms before rediscovering themselves at home.

Kobe Bryant had 26 points and the Lakers secured a tightly wound 111-104 victory Wednesday over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center.

It was tense, it was close, but the Jazz never led. Indeed, a wire-to-wire victory in the most important Lakers game so far this season.


The Lakers hold a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal. Game 6 is Friday at Utah.

Bryant’s lower back was easily the most popular anatomical discussion of the sports world this week.

He came through with a solid effort, making six of 10 shots, 13 of 17 free throws, and adding seven assists and six rebounds.

He wasn’t perfect, his defense sometimes sacrificed because of his lower-back soreness, but he logged 41 minutes three days after being floored twice in Game 4 by back pain.

“I just wanted to pick my spots,” Bryant said. “I knew I wasn’t 100%. Fourth quarter, Lamar [Odom] and Pau [Gasol] picked it up.”

That they did.

Odom had 22 points and 11 rebounds. Gasol, scoreless in the first quarter, had 21 points and eight assists. He also had six rebounds, all offensive, most very important. Both players were critical pieces in a fourth quarter that wasn’t decided until the final minute.


Utah cut the lead to 101-100 on a three-pointer by Deron Williams with 2:17 to play.

Sasha Vujacic missed a three-point attempt (he was one for 11 on the night), but Gasol took the rebound, kept alive the possession, and Odom dunked after a pass from Bryant.

Mehmet Okur’s layup again brought the Jazz within a point with 1:18 to play, but then Gasol backed Okur down in the post and scored on a casual left-handed flip.

On the Lakers’ next trip down, Gasol took a rebound off Vujacic’s miss from the corner and dunked to give the Lakers a 107-102 lead with 20.5 seconds to play.

End of game, end of tension, beginning of a slew of deep breaths.

“We’ve got guys in Lamar and Pau that are capable of helping us along in this series,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

Both coaches have griped about foul calls in the series. Wednesday was Jerry Sloan’s turn.

He wondered aloud about the free-throw disparity -- 42 attempts from the line for the Lakers, 28 for the Jazz -- and observed that Bryant went to the line 17 times, bad back and all.

“That’s a very difficult thing for any team to go against,” the Jazz coach said.

Beforehand, it was difficult to escape coverage of the most-analyzed back spasm of the season.


How would Bryant look? How many points would he score? Would he be 90%, 70%, maybe only 45% healthy? Would he be a decoy?

Jackson referred to it as “Kobe Watch,” giving few in-depth insights before the game other than to say Bryant was buoyant and optimistic at Wednesday morning’s shoot-around.

Odom left no doubt on what he thought, saying he expected Bryant’s “gun to be blazing.”

He was right.

Bryant came out firing early, making a three-pointer 18 seconds into the game and following it up 30 seconds later with a 14-footer.

He seemed fine during contact, walking away without a limp or a frown after being fouled by Matt Harpring on a fastbreak near the midpoint of the second quarter.

Other times, Bryant would make strong moves but finish delicately, spinning around Williams on the baseline to find an open path to the basket that he punctuated with a simple layup instead of a dunk.

Then, on other occasions, he went strong to the basket, converting a three-point play after drawing a foul on a running layup late in the third quarter.


“It feels really, really tight right now,” Bryant said. “I had to take some extra time after the game to loosen it up again.”

His defense wasn’t great on Ronnie Brewer (16 points), but perhaps Jackson knew best beforehand.

“These are the games,” he said, “that sometimes a player will focus on the immediate task at hand and shut out other things and play even better than he does normally because of this one-task mind.”

Bryant was good enough. So were the Lakers.



Game 6: Lakers at Utah

Friday, 7:30 p.m. (Ch. 9, ESPN)