In a season full of the unpredictable and, often, the unwieldy, the Lakers found themselves in yet another unfamiliar position.
They were back at .500.
It took more than two months to get there, but they pried away a 99-98 victory Sunday from the Atlanta Hawks after the buzz of Kobe Bryant’s dunk wore off.
When the game was secured, Bryant stuck out his chest, actor Jeremy Piven high-fived him on the court before a Staples Center security guard intervened, and the Lakers had 30 wins and 30 losses, their first time at even money since Jan. 1.
Champagne corks popped, victory parades were planned and Metta World Peace invited a group of reporters to his house for some late-night sushi. Only the latter actually happened, for typically inexplicable reasons from the jovial World Peace.
Bryant was the key, once again, scoring 34 points on 13-for-27 shooting, nothing bigger than his dunk over
6-foot-9 Josh Smith with 2:17 to play to give the Lakers a 95-94 lead.
He hadn’t elevated like this since ... 2009? 2007? Earlier?
“Vino,” he said, smiling, letting the better-with-age metaphor hang for a moment. “Honestly, I can’t really explain it. Once I turned the corner on [Smith], it was just a matter of if the help was going to get there in time to take a charge.”
There was no help. Only an excited murmur in the arena that lasted several minutes after the initial roar of elation.
So, again, what gives?
“I don’t know. You guys tell me,” Bryant said, gently chiding reporters. “I was in my coffin a few years ago. I’ve got plenty in the tank, but if y’all want to feel free to criticize and say I don’t, go right ahead.”
Maybe Magic Johnson will offer him $1 million to participate in the dunk contest next season. “I’m not doing that. Not a chance,” Bryant said.
So maybe it’ll take $2 million.
At any rate, Dwight Howard was part of the play too, sealing off Hawks center Zaza Pachulia as Bryant took flight. “It was probably about an eight, nine,” Howard said of the dunk, trying to suppress a smile. “He probably surprised himself with that one.”
Howard was more somber when asked if he remembered Bryant dunking on him in 2004, a play that ended with Bryant practically straddling the shoulders of the young Orlando center.
“I was a rookie. It’ll never happen again. He knows that. But we don’t talk about it,” Howard said. “It was something that happened a long time ago. It doesn’t really matter no more.”
And it doesn’t happen at practice?
“No. We’re on the same team. And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t try. He’s getting old.” This time, Howard was smiling.
The Lakers have pulled out of their 17-25 start, with Howard accumulating 11 points and 15 rebounds Sunday while Steve Nash had 15 points and 10 assists.
And yet, the Lakers couldn’t exhale until Steve Blake intercepted Smith’s errant pass after Smith bobbled the ball and was knocked off balance under the basket in the final seconds.
The Lakers needed every Bryant point, even his three-pointer from 25 feet to end the third quarter. He cursed, pounded the left side of his chest and scowled after giving the Lakers a 79-73 lead.
“It was more of a message to my team here, to try to have that will, that hunger to push through it by any means necessary,” Bryant said of his effort.
Al Horford had 24 points for Atlanta (33-25), which hasn’t beaten the Lakers at Staples Center since 2006.
The Lakers’ haven’t been over .500 this season since beating Brooklyn in November to improve to 6-5. They play Tuesday at Oklahoma City.
Better bring the vino.