Lakers avoid nosedive with win over Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — The Los Angeles Lakers salvaged the final contest of a three-game road trip and extended their winning streak to a whopping 18 games over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night — thanks in part to Kevin Love, or a lack of him.

Love was a late scratch from the starting lineup and ultimately the game thanks to back spasms, leaving the streaking Wolves without their lone All Star and providing the Lakers with some much-needed good fortune. Los Angeles took advantage, erasing a 14-point first-half deficit and clawing out a 105-102 victory to avoid an 0-fer road trip and its first four-game road losing streak since 2009-10.

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 34 points, becoming the fifth player in NBA history to reach 29,000 points in the process, as the Lakers won for just the seventh time on the road this season.

“Any time you lose two in a row you want to bounce back and win,” Bryant said. “It was a tough couple games, but we wound up not losing any ground standings-wise. It was two embarrassing losses (to Detroit and Washington), but it could’ve been worse. We could’ve lost to Cleveland at home like (Oklahoma City) did.”

Bryant hit 11 of 26 shots after going 17-for-57 the first two games of the road trip. His shot selection was criticized by Lakers coach Mike Brown following Wednesday’s loss, so Bryant had some fun with reporters after being asked about reaching the milestone.

“A lot of great shot selection,” Bryant said.

Andrew Bynum added 26 points on 11-for-15 shooting as Los Angeles kept a tight Western Conference playoff race from becoming downright claustrophobic.

Minnesota entered Friday as one of the hottest teams in the league, tied for eighth in the west and with a chance to pull just a game behind the Lakers in the win column — where third through ninth place all entered play with 21, 22 or 23 victories.

And even without Love on the floor for the second time in 10 days in two games against the Lakers, the Wolves kept Friday’s game as tight as the standings.

Center Nikola Pekovic returned from a two-game absence due to an ankle injury to score 25 points and grab 13 rebounds, while rookie Derrick Williams filled in admirably for Love in the starting lineup with 22 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. Minnesota took a one-point lead on Pekovic’s tip-in with 28.6 seconds remaining, but Bryant went 4-for-4 from the line down the stretch and Luke Ridnour missed a running 3-pointer off the front iron at the buzzer to give Los Angeles the victory.

“We let them get rolling in the third quarter,” Wolves forward Michael Beasley said after contributing 15 points off the bench. “A team like that, once they get everything moving around it’s pretty hard to stop them. I feel like we held our own. We gave ourselves a chance to win it, just didn’t get the call we wanted.”

The call in question was a blocking violation whistled on Minnesota rookie point guard Ricky Rubio with 16.4 seconds remaining and the Wolves up by a point. Rubio fouled Bryant leading to his first two free throws, a collision that left Rubio on the floor in pain and later unable to put any weight on his left leg. The 21-year-old, who finished with 15 points, 10 assists and four rebounds, will be re-evaluated on Saturday.

With a win, Minnesota would’ve pulled a half-game ahead of idle Houston for eighth place in the Western Conference and extended its home winning streak to six games — its longest such run since 2004. Instead, the Wolves are a half-game behind the Rockets — but just 3 1/2 games behind the Lakers, who are in a dead heat with the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies for third in the West.

The Lakers, who haven’t lost to the Wolves since 2007, beat a Love-less Minnesota squad by 19 on Feb. 29 in Los Angeles when he was sidelined with the flu. This time, the Wolves put up a much better fight playing without their leading scorer and rebounder.

“They were playing well and almost won,” Lakers small forward Metta World Peace said. “Kevin was the last thing on our mind. Same thing with Memphis (last season) without Rudy Gay. They played better. You never know. This league is not about stars, it’s about team.”

Perhaps — but without late clutch shots and free throws by their own star, the Lakers would’ve been a team on a three-game spiral and headed back to Los Angeles with even more questions. Instead, Bryant delivered and the Lakers boarded their charter flight to Los Angeles contently 2 1/2 games out of second place in the Western Conference.