LOS ANGELES -- The media dining room at Staples Center erupted in a collective roar early Friday night when those affiliated with the Lakers watched on TV as Chicago's Marco Belinelli sank a clutch three-pointer that wound up beating the Utah Jazz.
The door was opened for the Lakers, gearing up to play Toronto, to pull to a half-game behind Utah for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth by going above the .500 mark at 32-31 for the first time since they were 6-5.
There's Marco Belinelli.
And then there's Kobe Bryant.
Playing through a sore right elbow, Bryant made three remarkable three-point shots down the stretch -- including the most clutch one with 5.5 seconds left in regulation to tie the score -- and the Lakers rallied for a 118-116 overtime victory.
The Lakers were down by five points with 1:42 left in regulation when Bryant hit the first of his late 3-pointers, leaning the wrong way and flat-footed from the right wing. Even though the Lakers' defense couldn't stand up nearly as well as it did in its rally from 25 points down in New Orleans last game, Bryant just scored more.
Dwight Howard fouled Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry on a drive with 8.4 seconds left, and Lowry sank both free throws for a 109-106 Toronto lead. Steve Nash and Bryant did successfully lobby referee Bennie Adams not to call a technical on Howard, who spiked the ball in frustration at his foul call.
Bryant kept it up in overtime, with help from a key Nash 3-point shot. Bryant's dunk with 10.6 seconds left in overtime broke a 115-115 tie and meant after never having any game with at least 40 points and 12 assists, he did it in consecutive games Nos. 1,223 and 1,224.
Bryant finished with 41 points and 12 assists. Howard had 24 points and anchored the defense again.
GASOL START TO RUN
Pau Gasol isn't plotting out a return date yet, but it's probably safe to say he won't be back in the next week for the Lakers.
Gasol reported on his Twitcam video chat Thursday that he ran for the first time in his recovery from the torn plantar fascia in his right foot. Gasol used the Lakers' Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill to run at 65 percent of his body weight and reported that "discomfort was minimal. ... Very encouraging."
The Lakers' plan is for Gasol to ramp up his running gradually, and barring any setbacks, he should be running on the court next week. The plan does not include him beginning basketball activities yet, however, so he is unlikely to return to game action until at least two weeks pass.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni knows he'll have another playing-time challenge on his hands when Gasol comes back, considering D'Antoni has de-emphasized Gasol's role this season. Asked about it Friday, D'Antoni smiled and said: "We don't have to go there yet, do we?"
D'Antoni has said repeatedly that he looks forward to Gasol's return, however, as it will certainly improve the team's depth with Gasol offering an outstanding option as Dwight Howard's backup at center.
Kobe Bryant has had a lot of great games for the Lakers, but even by his standards his output in the victory in New Orleans on Wednesday night was unique.
Bryant had 42 points and 12 assists -- and no Laker had put up at least 40 points and 12 assists since Gail Goodrich in 1971. Jerry West had six such games in the regular season and another in the playoffs.
Bryant tried to balance the scoring and passing roles again Friday night against Toronto -- and succeeded.
He fell off that tightrope more than once. He had eight turnovers in the first three quarters -- although none in a fourth quarter that saw him dominate the ball again.
Toronto wasn't going to relive Bryant's 81-point game, when Raptors coach Sam Mitchell wasn't aggressive enough in double-teaming Bryant to take the ball out of his hands. Current Toronto coach Dwane Casey, one of the top defensive tacticians in the NBA, had the Raptors double-teaming Bryant hard -- even on the perimeter -- when he made any move toward scoring.
Bryant still found cracks to reach the basket at times with his craftiness, though -- helped by D'Antoni's late-game plan to spread the floor with shooters and let Bryant use Dwight Howard's body to get openings.
After Antawn Jamison missed a 3-pointer created by the double-teaming of Bryant, D'Antoni went with the same unit that closed the game in New Orleans so well: Jodie Meeks, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace with Bryant and Howard.
But Bryant shot over Toronto's gathering defenders down the stretch. He finished regulation with 37 points and 12 assists.
Bryant appeared on the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" TV show Thursday and was asked when he's going to retire.
Bryant said it'd be "soon," without specifying. When the crowd groaned, Bryant smiled and said it has been a long time, rounding up to 20 years, and noted how he came into the league with a big Afro and now couldn't grow one if he tried.
Bryant, 34, is in his 17th NBA season, all with the Lakers -- and he said any future seasons will also be with the Lakers. Bryant said he won't go to another club. He is under contract for one more season after this one, and if Bryant plays beyond that there would be finances to figure out given how the Lakers intend to lower their payroll below the luxury-tax plateau at least in the 2014-15 season.
Bryant was wearing some sort of visible protection over his sore right elbow, which he said felt improved in the Lakers' Wednesday victory in New Orleans.
It's been awhile since the Lakers have rested above the .500 mark. How long exactly?
"Uh, OKC?" Dwight Howard asked Friday. "Uh, man, were we ever?"
Actually, the last time the Lakers were better than average was Nov. 20, when they beat the Brooklyn Nets in Coach Mike D'Antoni's debut at Staples Center.
"Yeah, that was a long time ago," Howard conceded. "It's OK. We're playing a lot better, even though our record doesn't show how well we've been playing. We're doing a lot of great things.
"We just have to continue trusting each other and build this chemistry. As long as we do that, the better we will be."
The Lakers showed continued signs of their new-found bonding in their season-saving victory against New Orleans on Wednesday, coming back from 25 points down to once again even their season record at 31-31.
"Games like that are like playoff games, games that when everything is not going your way, you have to find a way to win," Howard said. "We stuck together. Offensively, we found a couple of plays that were working -- the two-man game with me and Kobe (Bryant) -- and that got everyone else open. Jodie (Meeks) hit some tough shots, then we ran back and played some great defense."
The Lakers have another shot at inching above the .500 mark and moving up in the standings with a victory against Toronto on Friday. The Lakers were 11/2 games behind No. 8 Utah in the Western Conference standing heading into Friday's game.
"We've been above .500 before and I thought we did things good," D'Antoni said. "Then there was four or five games where we reverted back to where you could see the spirit and energy weren't there.
"I think we've sustained it now for 20 games; we've played well. ... A little bit of that, a little bit of this and I think we're in a good spot. We should be able to keep going forward. It should be a sprint the last 20 games."
Steve Nash took a more bleak view of their on-again, off-again record.
"We have to win three out of four games the rest of the way. There are 20 games left and if we win three out of four, it would keep us above .500," Nash said. "If we hover around .500, we won't get anywhere.
METTA THE LEADER
Few would ever expect Metta World Peace to step up and lead. Yet, the oft-times often-embattled Lakers forward is sharing with Howard the leadership skills he learned from a former Laker.
"He's not yet a vocal leader because he hasn't been in that situation enough to lead by example, so I have to really step up and lead more vocally and by example and I try to teach Dwight a little bit about what it takes to lead," World Peace said in an interview Thursday on KSPN/710.
"Some guys look at my stats and they don't see extra defensive player of the years and extra All-Stars because I've been in trouble my whole career. So sometimes I lead by example and make big shots and gain these guys' respect. Everybody leads in different ways. We have a lot of different leaders."
World Peace said Derek Fisher taught him about being a leader.
"I didn't know Metta (before I got here)," D'Antoni said. "But just watching him and appreciating the things he does, I've found out he's a great teammate, and good to have on the team."
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