LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant took off awfully far away from basket, a lot of purple paint still to cover before getting there.
He got there.
And had more after that.
Bryant's latest whopping dunk of the season -- and his most dominant late-game scoring kick -- lifted the Los Angeles Lakers to a 99-98 victory over Atlanta on Sunday night. The Lakers' struggle to return to the .500 mark that spanned two-plus months is over ... for the moment.
Climbing higher than .500 will be a substantial challenge: The Lakers visit Oklahoma City on Tuesday night.
But the Lakers are officially respectable after Bryant's 34 points and thunderous dunk with Atlanta shot-blocking extraordinaire Josh Smith right on his hip. Bryant's path to the hoop on the play with 2:17 left for a 95-94 Lakers lead was cleared by Dwight Howard, who hustled in to seal Zaza Pachulia off after setting the initial pick for Bryant on the perimeter.
Bryant said he knew he could turn the corner on the bigger Smith and Pachulia's help defense couldn't get there, so ...
"I just took off."
The Lakers lost the lead twice thereafter, but Bryant got it back both times, the last time on a difficult drive with nine seconds left.
"There's a reason why he's the best player in the game," Hawks forward Al Horford said about Bryant.
The Lakers held on defense at the end, with Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni specifically praising Metta World Peace.
"We're fighting harder," D'Antoni said. "We're not folding."
As far as Bryant goes, D'Antoni said: "Pretty incredible. I don't know where he's getting his young legs from."
Bryant, 34, trained well and refined his diet despite the Olympics over the summer, and he has been largely injury-free this season. He has been pushing the concept of getting better with age with the new nickname "Vino."
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