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Big ticket: Kobe, Lakers get back to .500

LOS ANGELES — “We won the game, and that’s all that matters.”


So said Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard after a nail-biting 99-98 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday at Staples Center.


Through 60 games of one of the most unpredictable seasons in Lakers history, Howard’s words couldn’t be truer. The Lakers clawed back to .500 for the first time in 2013 on Sunday, but very much remain a team fighting for respectability — and its playoff life — every single time it takes the floor.


“Some games are pretty and some games are ugly. But at the end of the day, we still (won),” Howard emphasized.


But it certainly wasn’t easy and it was definitely ugly at times.


The Lakers gave up a 16-point third quarter lead at home and actually trailed the Hawks by a point after an Al Horford dunk with 26.7 seconds remaining. However, some well-timed offense from Kobe Bryant and a successful last-second defensive stand by Howard and Steve Blake held off the Hawks and gave the Lakers a .500 record at 30-30.


Bryant — who scored a game-high 34 points — was magnificent all night long, including flying around and over Josh Smith for a rim-rattling dunk in the fourth quarter. He followed that up with the game-winning basket a few minutes later, getting past Smith again and laying the ball high off the backboard for LA’s — and the game’s — final points.


Bryant’s return to his youthful form was a matter of necessity.


“They thought they could stop me by using height to slow me down, maybe alter my shot,” Bryant said, ”which is why they had Josh on me. Then it became absolutely my responsibility to start cutting (to the basket). Otherwise, if we don’t, it gives them license to stay home on the shooters. So, I had to get to the basket and do what I do. I was able to get to the rim.”


And above it, to the side of it and just about anywhere else he wanted to go in the fourth quarter, when he scored 11 of his points to help the Lakers to their 13th win in their last 18 games.


They now head for Oklahoma City to take on the Western Conference’s second-best team Tuesday.


The Thunder welcome the Lakers to OKC with a 43-16 record, 13-1/2 games better than ninth-place Los Angeles, which will be looking to go over the break-even mark for just the second time this season. The only other time the Lakers were above .500 was at 6-5, more than three months ago, and Howard says he and his teammates are ready for the challenge of a younger, faster Thunder squad.


“Every game is huge,” he said. “I think we’re playing a lot better, and we’ve just got to continue to play this way, to play together and play hard.”


THREE THOUGHTS


1.  It’s hard to believe that Bryant is getting better as the season goes on, but it’s true. And it’s remarkable to watch. Just a couple of years ago, this was a man whose knees were so damaged that he was actually considering retirement at age 32. After undergoing Orthokine — a medical procedure to inject platelet-rich plasma into his knees — in 2011, Bryant has found second life in his career. He’s now 34 and competing in his 17th NBA season, yet he can still jump over a 6-foot-9 forward and throw it down. He can also burst through the defense, go around everyone and using a feathery touch hit a game-winning layup high off the backboard. He did both Sunday night against the Hawks and has been the key factor in the Lakers’ resurgence.


2. When talk turns to this season’s NBA MVP, the names brought up quickest are those of Miami’s LeBron James, OKC’s Kevin Durant and New York’s Carmelo Anthony. All are having phenomenal seasons and would be deserving winners. But if the Lakers make the playoffs, it would be an injustice if Bryant didn’t win it.  He has done everything he could to keep the team from collapsing through coaching changes, injuries, bad basketball and reported locker room disagreements. He has taken on different roles for the Lakers all season long — not just for a game or two. Early on he was leading the league in scoring, then became the de facto point guard when it made the team better. He’s also been the defensive stopper, definitely a team leader, and sometimes all of the above roles in the same game. Said head coach Mike D’Antoni: “I don’t even want to think about where we’d be without Kobe doing what he’s done for us.” Actually, coach, you wouldn’t have to think about it — your season would already be over. And is there any better definition of an MVP?


3. When the Lakers get to Oklahoma City, they’ll play against former teammate Derek Fisher. The Thunder signed Fisher for the second season in a row, officially making him the Roger Clemens of the NBA. Clemens usually didn’t want to play an entire season as he got older, and in the final two, after leading the NL in ERA in 2005, pitched a combined 37 games between the Yankees and Astros in 2006 and 2007. Fish is looking for his 6th NBA championship, which would give him one more than his close friend Bryant. Both have won five rings as Lakers.