NEW ORLEANS — Just when they began showing evidence their postseason fortunes went beyond optimism and storied history, the Lakers suddenly looked like the team that initially put themselves in this situation.
They trailed New Orleans by as many as 25 points. Dwight Howard once again fell into foul trouble. It appeared Kobe Bryant would remain alone in the fight.
But then everything suddenly aligned, resulting in the Lakers’ 108-102 victory Wednesday over the New Orleans Hornets.
Bryant took over the offense by scoring 18 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter. 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 4 of 5 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.”
With the Utah Jazz losing Wednesday to Cleveland, the Lakers (31-32) trail Utah (32-29) by only 1 games for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets’ loss to Dallas reduced their lead over the Lakers by only two games for the seventh seed.
But the Lakers wouldn’t have been in this position if not for Bryant and Howard becoming the one-two punch that everyone envisioned happening all season.
That started with Bryant maintaining a large scoring role while also doling out 12 assists.
“I knew I could score anytime I wanted to,” Bryant said. “But I said to myself, I have to bring it along with me and bring the game upon them. I hope that turns the tide.”
It ended with Howard anchoring the defense after spending most of the season frustrated with 11-month old back surgery, a torn labrum in his right shoulder, a relatively diminished role and larger media scrutiny.
“I was really upset on how things happened in the first half,” said Howard, who also posted 20 points and 15 rebounds. “I wanted to come out and play better.”
That he did.
Howard ran multiple pick-and-rolls with Bryant and Steve Nash. Howard communicated frequently with Bryant on how the two could execute such sets in their spacing. After Howard made the signature block on Lopez, Pau Gasol repeatedly bumped chests with his teammate during the ensuing timeouts with him on the sideline.
“It was incredible,” Bryant said. “I saw it coming.”
Howard admitted he didn’t.
“I heard the whistle blow,” he said. “I thought there was going to be another foul. I was surprised.”
Yet, what seemed more surprising is that the Bryant-Howard dynamic didn’t work earlier. In fact, the Lakers last played here two months ago in a game that featured Bryant and Howard openly arguing with each other over a myriad of issues. Howard took issue with Bryant’s failed defensive rotations and failure to pass him the ball consistently. Bryant faulted Howard’s inconsistent aggressiveness and failure to overcome his frustrations.
“Dwight, the game wasn’t going his way offensively. He was getting fouled and not getting calls,” Bryant said. “He was in one of those games for him. And he just said, to hell with it. I’m just going to dominate the game on the glass and dominate the game defensively.”
How much did Bryant push him along?
“He brought himself along,” Bryant said. “I didn’t do anything. It was a conscious decision he made that I’m going to dominate the game on this end of the floor. There’s nothing anybody is going to do about it. That’s a choice he made.”
It proved difficult, though.
Howard had still been nursing pain from another aggravation in his right shoulder during the Lakers’ loss Tuesday against Oklahoma City.
“Every time I went to block a shot, I could feel it,” Howard said. “I just tried to play through it. It is in a lot of pain. I was triyng to block it out as much as possible.”
Bryant had his issues too.
He admitted fatigue later in the game, but found moments to recover during dead-ball situations and free throws. Bryant acknowledged the funny bone injury in his right elbow still lingered, but it improved enough to make improvements so he could bend the elbow, complete a full follow through and use his arm to disrupt the passing lanes.
“We’re certainly much tougher now than we were at the beginning of the season,” Bryant said. “Adversity does that. It can do one or two things. It can break you. If you have a weaker mind, it will break you. But if you decide to let it build you up and make you tsonger. Then that’s what happens.”
Howard knows that all too well.
“It’s been a frustrating year for Dwight,” said Nash. “He’s not 100 percent and not living up to expectations because of it. That’s just frustrating and I think it eats at him. I think in the games he can get frustrated and get his head down and worry about previous plays. We try to fill hm with confidence because he can have a huge impact on the game if he stays with it.”
Howard fulfilled that job description, giving further hope that he and Bryant will forge a stronger bond moving forward.
“This game brought us closer together as a team,” Howard said. “That’s what it takes for the playoffs and when wer’e in the playoffs, fighting through games like this and it shows our character. We started on a bad note tonight, but instead of giving up we kept fighting until the end.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org