Kobe Bryant’s closing act helps Lakers avoid bad loss


NEW ORLEANS -- Forget for a minute that it happened against the New Orleans Hornets, the team with the worst home record in the Western Conference.

Disregard for a few seconds how the Lakers found themselves down 25 points — 25 points — to the team paying rent in the West basement for much of the time this season.

The Lakers might have finally found something in their goofiest twist yet, their largest comeback since 2002 with a 108-102 victory Wednesday at New Orleans Arena.

All it took was a 20-0 run to end the game, amid 12 consecutive missed Hornets shots and five New Orleans turnovers in the final six minutes.

Yes, it was against the woeful Hornets, but had there been a happier Lakers locker room all season? Doubtful.

Did it get even more cheerful with many, many eyes watching a locker-room TV for the climax of the Houston-Dallas game? Absolutely.

Somewhere, Utah wasn’t smiling, its lead over the Lakers down to 11/2 games for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. Seventh-place Houston is now only two games ahead of the Lakers (31-31).

In a development that would make the West’s upper crust shift a bit in comfy playoff-bound chairs, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard looked formidable at the same time.

It took 62 games, give or take a false alarm here and there, but Bryant dominated on offense (42 points, 14-for-21 shooting, 12 assists) while Howard had 20 points, 15 rebounds, four blocked shots and three steals.

“We complemented each other extremely well,” Bryant said. “I directed us offensively tonight and he did his thing defensively for us.

“He just said, ‘To hell with it. I’m just going to dominate the game on the glass. I’m going to dominate the game defensively.’”

So of course, Howard must have been prodded by Bryant.

“He brought himself along. I didn’t do anything,” Bryant said quickly. “That’s a conscious decision he made.”

Howard had the blocked shot of the Lakers’ season, if there could be such a thing. Encumbered by five fouls, he stuffed Robin Lopez’s aggressive attempt with 27.1 seconds left and the Lakers up two.

“I thought it was incredible. I saw it coming,” Bryant said. “I knew Lopez was going to challenge him. I knew Dwight was going to go for it. I knew he was going to get it.”

After a timeout, Steve Blake found Bryant streaking for an easy fastbreak dunk when the Hornets forgot to guard him.

Not to be forgotten, Jodie Meeks had 19 points off the bench, including four-for-four shooting from three-point range in the fourth quarter.

The Lakers hadn’t come back from a deficit like this since a 2002 victory over Dallas, a 30-point hole turning into a 105-103 victory. They hadn’t rallied from an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win since a 2003 game against Memphis.

They trailed Charlotte by 20 in the third quarter of a come-from-way-behind victory last month, but this was different.

In the fourth quarter alone, Bryant had 18 points on seven-for-eight shooting and added four assists as the Lakers outscored New Orleans, 33-9. He had 11 assists and one turnover in the second half.

“I was thinking I need to bring my teammates along with me. That’s what I just kept telling myself at halftime,” said Bryant, who played all 24 minutes of the second half.

“I was getting to the rim at the end of the first half and knew I could score any time I wanted to.”

The Lakers’ 63-38 second-quarter deficit, hideous at the time, was long forgotten. Mental toughness forged against a team with a pitiful 21-41 record, not to mention a weak 11-20 home mark?

“We’re certainly much tougher now than we were at the beginning of the season,” Bryant said. “But adversity does that. It can do one of two things. If you have a weaker mind, it’ll break you. But if you decide to let it build you up, make you stronger, then that’s what happens.”

Yet Bryant couldn’t completely puff up the night as a career keepsake. It was only New Orleans, after all.

“If I’ve got to remember this game years from now, my career’s got issues,” he said, laughing.