Kobe Bryant to the rescue again


Strange guys, these Lakers.

It looked like they were still on the road, maybe trapped in Charlotte, their Eastern Conference house of horrors, but a quick check of the schedule and a quiet crowd verified they were indeed back at Staples Center.

Tuesday should have been a day for an easy victory, a chance to end a three-game skid against the barely .500 Toronto Raptors, but it turned into yet another struggle for the defending NBA champions.

The Lakers prevailed, 109-107, giving their fans something to cheer about, but it wasn’t an impressive night for a team that looked tired and acted aloof ... yet again.

It was getting close enough to a loss that reporters scrambled to look up the last time the Lakers dropped four in a row and found it: April 2007, right before the Lakers got hammered in five games by Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs.

But Kobe Bryant drilled a 17-footer from the right side with 1.9 seconds left, his sixth last-second winner this season, getting separation from Antoine Wright and bailing out the Lakers with a perfect fadeaway touch.

Six game-winners in one season?

“That’s a sound number,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, pausing a moment for effect. “I wish it was 12.”

Bryant finished with 32 points and six assists, and the Lakers (47-18) moved three games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference.

It was a weird game from the start.

The Lakers looked thoroughly unmotivated in front of a lethargic crowd and were lousy defensively in the first half, surrendering 58 points and trailing by eight at the break. The Raptors had more rebounds, 23-20, and of greater interest, more assists, 16-7, in the first half.

The second half brought some NBA rarities, the Lakers getting hit with a double technical after Pau Gasol airballed a layup attempt in the final seconds of the third quarter.

Gasol and assistant coach Frank Hamblen were each called for a technical foul for arguing a non-call on Gasol’s attempt. Jose Calderon made both free throws, giving the Raptors an 86-81 lead as the fourth quarter started.

There was also a case of fan interference, a courtside spectator reaching out to bat a ball away as Calderon chased it, and might have gotten to it, in the game’s last two minutes. The Lakers were given possession of the ball as the fan earnestly apologized to Calderon, even shaking his hand.

Bryant initially got Andrew Bynum (22 points) and Gasol (17 points) involved but went away from that in the second half, Jackson said.

Simply stated, the Lakers haven’t been able to turn the corner yet.

“Looks like that, doesn’t it?” Jackson said.

Jackson wasn’t thrilled with the Lakers’ ball movement coming off the trip and made it a point of emphasis at Monday’s practice and Tuesday’s shoot-around.

“We’re holding the ball too long,” Jackson said. “Ron [Artest] is a little bit indecisive, Kobe’s looking for opportunities, our centers sometimes are kicking the ball out when they’re double-teamed in the post and creating turnovers. Everybody’s a little bit guilty of that aspect of not moving the ball when it’s time to move the ball.”

The Lakers did just enough to win. They can thank Bryant.

In fact, a fan held up a sign: “We came all the way from Ohio to see Kobe. Sorry, LeBron.”

They got what they were hoping to see, Bryant making a game-winner, once again.

Bryant wasn’t exactly jubilant afterward, saying it wasn’t the way he wanted to win the game.

“No,” he said quietly. “Offensively, we score a lot of points. That’s not going to change. We have to stop people and we didn’t do a good job of that.”