SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—This fourth-quarter performance left the Los Angeles Lakers in a joking mood instead of a steamed one.
One game after nearly blowing a big lead to a lowly opponent, the Lakers had no problems closing out the NBA-worst Sacramento Kings in a 122-104 victory Tuesday night that moved them within a half-game of Cleveland for the best record in the NBA.
The fourth quarter was so relaxed that starters Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Trevor Ariza didn’t have to play at all. The only memorable play wasSasha Vujacic’s emphatic dunk over Cedric Simmons and Francisco Garcia in the closing minutes.
“I’ve seen it all. Sasha dunked on somebody. I’m ready to retire now,” Bryant said. “We played better, closed the game out. The stars didn’t have to get off the bench to go back in. The reserves did a great job.”
That was a far cry from Sunday’s 88-85 victory over Clippers in which the Lakers blew most of a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter. That left coach Phil Jackson so angry he didn’t take questions from reporters after the game.
He was in a much better mood this night after watching his team survive a torrid shooting start by the Kings and an early 12-point deficit to avenge a surprising loss earlier this season to the Kings at Arco Arena.
He was even able to joke about Vujacic’s dunk, as well as the ill-timed turnover the next trip down the court.
“I told him the dunk was great but the behind the back pass on the next play made me reach for a substitute,” Jackson said.
Pau Gasol led the way for Los Angeles with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Bryant added 22 points, Lamar Odom had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Ariza scored 14. The Lakers have won four straight since losing back-to-back games in Charlotte and Atlanta.
Losing again to Sacramento could have seriously damaged the Lakers’ hopes for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Los Angeles (62-16) still needs the Cavaliers (62-15) to lose at least once down the stretch to win the race. The Lakers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the season series against Cleveland.
“We finished a lot better,” Gasol said. “We didn’t allow them to cut the lead or make a run like what happened the other night at home.”
Spencer Hawes had 21 points and 15 rebounds, Jason Thompson added 18 points and 11 boards, and Garcia scored 19 for the Kings (16-61), who lost their fifth straight game and have already set a franchise record for most losses in a season.
“That’s one of the best teams in the league—they have a lot to play for,” Kings interim coach Kenny Natt said. “We played hard for the majority of the game, but we had our bad defensive stretches which really put us away.”
What once was a heated rivalry between the two California teams has cooled off in recent years as the Kings have fallen from a perennial contender to a lottery regular. There were many Lakers fans in attendance, chanting “M-V-P!” for Bryant throughout the game and booing a “Beat L.A.!” cheer from the Kings contingent.
“It’s changed a lot,” Bryant said. “There’s nothing but Lakers fans here now. It’s basically a home game for us. It really was. Things have changed quite a bit.”
The Kings made 11 of their first 15 shots to open a 29-17 lead less than seven minutes into the game. The lead proved to be short-lived, as the shots stopped falling for the Kings and the Lakers exploited Sacramento’s zone defense.
Los Angeles used runs of 10-0 with Bryant on the bench and then 12-0 with its star back in the game to open up a double-digit lead. Shannon Brown’s steal and layup in the closing seconds capped the 40-point quarter and gave the Lakers a 71-55 lead at the half.
The Kings never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
“It seemed like it came pretty quick,” Hawes said. “Once they got going, it just seemed like they hit a couple of shots and they sealed it right there.”
By JOSH DUBOW