Jazz lets Lakers mellow out


Just what the Lakers needed, a home game against the Utah Jazz.

They were tired and trounced on their undeniably unsuccessful trip, but returned to Staples Center for what looks more like an automatic victory every time, according to recent history.

The Lakers won their 14th consecutive home game against the Jazz, including playoffs, 106-92, putting Utah away with a solid fourth quarter on a day when Kobe Bryant signed a three-year, $84-million contract extension that kept him under contract through 2013-14.

The Lakers celebrated on the court, Lamar Odom scoring a season-high 26 points, Bryant scoring 25 despite a poor shooting effort and Pau Gasol collecting 14 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists.

The Lakers needed the victory, for sure, and did Bryant actually smile during the game? Indeed he did, after a turnover no less, offering Gasol a high five and a grin after failing to get the ball to him on a screen-and-roll.

Bryant, who was grumpy at best on the five-game trip, had a rough shooting night, making only five of 23 attempts, though he made 15 of 18 from the free-throw line.

Even Sasha Vujacic emerged from a week-long purgatory after buying the coaches breakfast in the morning, checking into the game with 3:03 to play, the Lakers ahead, 99-82.

The victory was needed by the present-day Lakers, and Bryant spoke of the future with an eager tone.

“I’m really excited to be here,” said Bryant, who has one more season on his current deal before the extension begins. “It’s very rare to have a player play his entire career in one city, so I’m very excited about it.”

The Jazz pulled within 75-71 early in the fourth quarter, but Odom had three three-point plays from there, two from behind the arc and another the old-fashioned way, scoring on a rebound and making the free throw after getting fouled.

The Lakers will take the victory, gladly.

“You could say that, in capital letters,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

Utah (50-27) came into the game tied for second in the Western Conference, but the Jazz faltered from the beginning, the Lakers taking a 33-16 lead after one quarter thanks to 63.6% shooting.

The Jazz actually led, 4-2, but never again after that.

Before the game, as the franchise tilted uneasily thanks to a 9-6 record in March, General Manager Mitch Kupchak said he was “very concerned” about the way the Lakers had been playing, specifically a 2-3 record on a trip that ended with a 17-point loss in Atlanta.

“You want to be playing your best basketball as you approach the playoffs,” Kupchak said. “But until the playoffs are over, until we see how this season ends, this team and this coaching staff certainly deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

How high was the anxiety?

Jerry Buss stopped by the team’s training facility in El Segundo and watched Thursday’s practice, a rare move for an owner who attends almost every home game but doesn’t hit many practices once training camp ends.

“He wanted to just come down and indicate some support, show that he obviously watches the games, he cares about the games,” Kupchak said. “He’s aware and I’m aware and you [media] guys are aware that we’re not playing our best basketball right now.”

The Lakers don’t have much time to exhale: Sunday brings San Antonio, a possible playoff opponent in the first round.

For now, they’ll take a one-game winning streak against a West team.