Lakers start strong after All-Star break

Pau Gasol understands why many people outside the Lakers’ locker room panicked when Los Angeles stumbled into the All-Star break with a loss to miserable Cleveland.

The big man thinks everybody should just calm down. He hopes the Lakers’ sharp return against Atlanta reminds the worriers what the two-time defending champions still can do when they’re paying attention.

All-Star game MVP Kobe Bryant scored 20 points, Gasol added 14 points and 10 rebounds, and the Lakers easily ended their three-game skid with a 104-80 victory over the struggling Hawks on Tuesday night.

Gasol and Bryant echoed the same theme after their ninth wire-to-wire win of the season: The Lakers might be profoundly inconsistent, but few teams are tougher when they’re focused.

"We know we’re an elite team," Gasol said. "We know we can be dominating. It just hasn’t happened consistently enough. We’re glad it happened tonight, but we’ve got to do it again and again."

Shannon Brown scored 15 points as the NBA champs got right back into form after stumbling into their hometown All-Star weekend with increasingly embarrassing road losses to Orlando, Charlotte and those league-worst Cavaliers. The Lakers played the past seven games on the road while the Grammys and the All-Stars occupied their building.

It was all forgotten against Atlanta, a solid playoff contender that didn’t appear quite ready for the break to end. The Lakers jumped to a 22-point lead in the first half of their first home game since Feb. 3, leading by 29 before coasting home.

"We came out and played hard, did all the right things," Bryant said. "I just felt like our execution defensively was really sharp tonight."

Joe Johnson scored 14 points and fellow All-Star Al Horford had 13 for the Hawks, who opened a five-game road trip with their fourth loss in five games.

Atlanta made less than 37 percent of its shots, missing 14 of 15 3-pointers. Hawks coach Larry Drew sat his five starters for the entire fourth quarter of Atlanta’s fifth straight loss to the Lakers at Staples Center.

"I thought our guys took the path of least resistance the whole game," Drew said. "On offense, we settled, and defensively, we didn’t play with physicality. I just thought we settled, which is starting to be a pattern with us."

Two days after taking every available shot while leading the All-Star game with 37 points on the way to his record-tying fourth MVP award, Bryant took just 11 shots – and he didn’t need to do much more against the discombobulated Hawks.

The larger Lakers dominated Atlanta on the boards 54-32, with Andrew Bynum racking up 15 rebounds and three blocked shots. A 26-point lead heading into the fourth quarter allowed coach Phil Jackson to give plenty of rest to his regulars before Wednesday’s trip to Portland.

"We have a long flight," Jackson said. "We know what it’s like, and the rest period is pretty short, so it’s nice to have that game."

Atlanta’s two All-Stars were fairly sharp, but their teammates were 18 for 59. The Hawks play five games in seven days on their trip, including Wednesday night in Phoenix.

"I’m trying to figure it out," Horford said. "We had a great practice yesterday, so it was frustrating being out there. But you have to give them credit. They came out and did their thing. They took over, man. They really dominated at both ends. We really have some soul-searching to do as a team, and it’s discouraging."

The Lakers built a 15-point lead in the first quarter with 67 percent shooting, easily finding open shots and thoroughly outrebounding the smaller, quicker Hawks. Atlanta fell apart offensively in the second quarter, going nearly 5 minutes without scoring and nearly 6 1/2 minutes between field goals while the Lakers scored 14 straight points on the way to a 54-33 halftime lead.

"We’ve had some good stretches, and some really bad stretches as well," Gasol said. "We knew the energy was going to be there, especially after the way we ended that road trip. It was just about executing with energy, and we did that."

Before the game, Bryant and Derek Fisher presented Atlanta reserve Josh Powell with his championship ring from last season’s NBA title run with Los Angeles. Powell didn’t contribute much to the Lakers last season, but Jackson praised his practice intensity.

Notes: Drew played two seasons with the Lakers from 1989-91, spent several years as a Lakers assistant coach and lives in Los Angeles in the offseason. He remembers panic when the Lakers went on any kind of losing streak, just as the current team faces, but says most of the pressure came from within the club – particularly Magic Johnson. … The Hawks were the only team Los Angeles hadn’t already played this season. The clubs meet again in Atlanta on March 8. … Fans near courtside included Jack Black, Matthew Perry, USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, and Jim Buss, the son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss.