Bryant, Lakers own this town, and team

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- These aren’t the Chicago Bulls that Kobe Bryant envisioned.

More and more, it appears these aren’t the Lakers he envisioned, either.

The Lakers took another step toward the Western Conference elite and the Bulls continued to linger near the bottom of the East after a 103-91 Lakers victory Tuesday night at United Center.

Bryant, who was primarily targeting the Bulls when he said last May he wanted to play somewhere else -- even if it meant heading for Pluto -- had only 18 points on seven-for-19 shooting, but the Lakers drubbed the Bulls for the second time in a month.

It wasn’t as overwhelming as their 106-78 win on Nov. 18 -- their largest margin of victory in the teams’ 41-year series history -- but it was equally effective, if not more so because it was the first stop on a four-game trip.

The Lakers have won six of their last seven and are 15-9, good for fourth place in the West. The Bulls are 8-14, tied for 12th in the East.

“We’re playing extremely well,” Bryant said. “When everybody’s contributing and playing well, it makes the game extremely fun.”

Bryant had plenty of help from teammates -- six Lakers scored in double figures -- and generous offers from Bulls fans who wished he was wearing their team colors.

“A couple people offered their house for sale,” Bryant said wryly.

The Lakers’ on-court value has only increased as of late.

Andrew Bynum awoke from a one-point effort in the first half to finish with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Sasha Vujacic continued to shoot with precision, scoring a team-high 19 points and making six of 10 shots, two of three from three-point range. Lamar Odom had 17 points and 16 rebounds.

The three games remaining on the trip all are against teams with losing records -- Cleveland (11-14), Philadelphia (10-14) and New York (7-17).

It would be tough for the Lakers not to get a little eager, but Odom said the key was to remain composed, be it in the grander scheme or in the dwindling moments of tight games.

“Phil [Jackson] is rubbing off on us,” Odom said. “We’ve got guys who have been to the championship round. That experience is rubbing off on us and it feels good when you have that confidence that you’re going to win every game.”

Emotion did manage to seep out in pockets of Tuesday’s victory.

After Jordan Farmar’s three-point shot put the Lakers ahead, 95-83, Bryant met him at halfcourt, bent low and emphatically slapped his hand as the teams went to their benches for a timeout with 4:25 to play.

Bryant then stole the ball from Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, flipped an under-handed pass downcourt to Odom for a dunk and appeared to smile briefly as he pivoted crisply back toward the Bulls’ basket.

Bryant is typically booed when his name is introduced in other cities, although there were actually cheers when his name was called out Tuesday night.

He scored the Lakers’ first basket on a one-handed alley-oop dunk but had only eight more points on two-for-nine shooting the rest of the first half.

Bynum also started slowly before getting a jump-start in the fourth quarter. He beat the Bulls’ interior defense with an up-and-under move and then dunked in a rebound of Farmar’s miss.

Later, he joked that he should have been credited with six blocked shots in the game instead of four.

Vujacic, who had 14 points Sunday against the Clippers, continued to shoot well and also hit three free throws after being fouled by Hinrich while attempting a three-point shot. Vujacic had nine points in the fourth quarter, helping turn an 81-79 game into a blowout with a 16-4 run.

“I’m not on the bench anymore. It’s not easy to make them when you’re sitting,” he said. “Jokes aside . . . [Jackson is] letting me play and I’ve been enjoying it so far.”

The same could be said for the Lakers -- they’re on a roll and enjoying it, all joking aside.