However, as happened so many times when they were teammates, Kobe Bryant made sure the spotlight ended up on him.
The Laker guard played 47 minutes and put together his 19th career triple-double — 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists — to lead his team to a crucial 101-81 win over the Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers (39-36) moved back into the playoff picture with the victory, tying the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final Western Conference postseason berth.
Conversely, the Mavs (36-38) may have seen their playoff chances evaporate, falling 2½ games behind the Lakers and Jazz with just eight games remaining on their schedule.
The Lakers also got excellent performances from center Dwight Howard who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and made seven free throws in the fourth quarter, while Earl Clark bludgeoned the Mavericks with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Pau Gasol chipped in with 14 points and 10 rebounds while playing tough defense on Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki, who had a miserable evening, shooting just 4-of-13 for a total of 11 points.
Center Chris Kaman led Dallas — which had won four of five entering Tuesday night’s game —with 14 points and six rebounds.
The Lakers were without the injured Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, but Bryant credited Clark for a great performance in a clutch situation.
“He’s been doing the job for us all year when he was called upon,” Bryant said. “He hit a little rough patch there where he was hurt and it affected his game a little bit, but we believe he’s a fantastic player, who can have nights like this more often than not.”
With seven games left, including Friday night’s home game against the tough Memphis Grizzlies Friday night, there’s a sense of desperation around the Lakers team right now.
Making the playoffs, which seemed like a lock 10 days ago, certainly isn’t now, and the team is talking about winning the rest of their games to leave no doubt they belong.
“We’re definitely desperate, and the players know it,” said Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni. If D’Antoni was listening during O’Neal’s jersey retirement at halftime, he heard the crowd screaming “We want Phil” chants long and loud, so he knows a thing or two about being under pressure and desperate.
So does Bryant, who has seen just about every situation possible when it comes to the NBA.
“It’s just a matter of us winning,” he said. “Nothing complicated. We’re just going to go out and try to win the next seven and see what kind of damage we can do in the playoffs.”
For Dallas, though, the ultimate damage may already be done.
“It is a game we needed,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “Everyone is frustrated. I mean, Dirk understands what this stage is about but we have some inexperienced guys that haven’t been here, so this is a valuable learning experience for them, but it has a price.”
One that the Lakers don’t want to join them in paying.