LOS ANGELES (AP)—With six games left in the season and the Lakers already in the playoffs, Phil Jackson still won’t take his foot off the gas.
Gasol and Bryant both played 38-plus minutes for the Lakers, who reached 60 wins for the 11th time in franchise history but the first since they went 67-15 in 1999-2000.
Los Angeles pulled within a game of Cleveland for the NBA’s best record, and Jackson definitely wants the Lakers to have the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
“We have to make an attempt for it. I wouldn’t feel good about it, even with these players, if we didn’t. We really don’t have to threaten our well-being by doing it, I don’t think,” the Lakers coach said.
So winning against possible postseason opponents also makes a statement?
“I think it certainly does drive home a message. It’s not the end, obviously, the games have to be played, but teams have that in the back of their mind, ‘Here it goes again, we’re going to lose again.’ That’s an issue I think that’s important, to always have that kind of dominance.”
The Lakers did, but they had to push and shove for it against Houston.
“They’re a tough team and we’ve had our problems with them in the past and during the regular season,” Bryant said. “I wanted to send a message to my teammates and to the referees that we’re here to play, we’re not going to be out here just kind of going through the motions.
“If a guy’s going to grab my shirt, I’m going to let you know about it. It’s important to come out with a sense of urgency right from the top. We’re fighting for a bigger prize. It’s going to get chippy.”
Ron Artest had 21 points for the Rockets, who slid into fifth in the Western Conference, a half-game behind Portland.
Bryant hit consecutive 3-pointers with less than five minutes remaining to give the Lakers an 11-point lead and Gasol made four free throws down the stretch.
The Rockets had a 13-4 run that stretched from the third into the fourth, but then went without a field goal for nearly five minutes until Scola hit a jumper with 5:25 remaining.
“That is why they are a finals team. In the fourth quarter they take control,” Houston coach Rick Adelman said. “That is something that we knew going in because it happened the last three games and it kind of happened tonight, too.”
So why did it happen?
“From the first minutes of the game up until the last minutes we didn’t run our plays,” Yao said. “We keep saying that from the first games of the season till now and we have two weeks left until the playoffs. We’ll see if we execute.”
Shane Battier, who finished with 14 points, brought the Rockets within five with 4:41 to play, but that’s when Bryant started hitting 3s.
By SOLANGE REYNER