NEW ORLEANS – In season where they dug so much to climb back into playoff contention, it seemed appropriate the Lakers operated in the same fashion in a game that could largely dictate those fortunes.
The Lakers’ 108-102 victory Wednesday over the New Orleans Hornets at New Orleans Arena didn’t just mark a game where they overcame a 25-point deficit against a sub. 500 opponent. This didn’t just mark the first time the Lakers overcame such a large gap since overcoming a 30-point deficit against the Dallas Mavericks in 2002. The Lakers’ latest win gave them renewed confidence they can overcome any obstacle.
“Games like this really strengthen the bond between us players,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “That’s really what the playoffs are all about. You have adversity. Its’ about who’s going to stick together and who’s not going to break.”
It helps that the win improves the bottom line results, too.
With the Utah Jazz losing Tuesday to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Lakers (31-31) trail Utah (32-29) by only 1 ½ games for the eighth playoff spot. The Lakers sat in their locker room afterwards eagerly watching the final minutes of the Houston Rockets’ loss Tursday to the Dallas Mavericks.
“Come on Dallas!,” Lakers forward Metta World Peace yelled from his stall. “Do what you got to do!”
With Houston’s loss, the Lakers are only two games behind the Rockets (33-29) for the seventh seed.
Yet, the circumstances easily could’ve prompted the Lakers to respond with this win in a sultry mood. They acted that way three weeks ago after overcoming a 20-point deficit against the Charltotte Bobcats, the NBA’s worst team.
But this one seemed different even if the Lakers conceded 67 first-half points to New Orleans (21-41), which ranks 23rd in total offense.
Bryant took over the offense by scoring 18 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter. Dwight Howard overcame early foul trouble by taking a large defensive role, including blocking Robin Lopez’s layup attempt with 27 seconds remaining. Reserve guard Jodie Meeks posted 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter by making four of five three-point attempts.
“Dwight played big. When he’s like that and Kobe’s like this, that’s kind of what everybody envisioned it would be,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We hope we can build on this.”
The roles worked out perfectly.
Bryant’s scoring streak gave credence to his recent nickname, “Vino,” as if it hasn’t already. The Lakers 20-0 run to close out the game featured Bryant hitting a variety of shots. He drove to the basket. Bryant made a fadeaway jumper. After Meeks stole a loose ball, Bryant finished with a fast-break dunk that gave the Lakers a 106-102 lead with 23.6 seconds remaining, prompting him to clench his jaw and bump chests with Meeks.
“I believed we were going to win it the whole time,” Bryant said. “The most important thing for me was to pull my teammates along with me.”
That mostly entailed Howard dominating on defense despite the lingering pain stemmed from aggravating the torn labrum in his right shoulder in the Lakers’ loss Tuesday to Oklahoma City. Howard’s block on Lopez prompted Pau Gasol repeatedly to bump chests with him on the sideline on ensuing timeouts.
“I tried to play through it, but I was in a lot of pain,” Howard said. “I tried to block it out as much as possible.”
The strategy worked, ensuring the Lakers playoff hopes still remain alive.
“It was a big win tonight,” D’Antoni said, “and it will be a nice ride back home.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org