Gasol carries Lakers past Nets, into top seed in West
On a night that Kobe Bryant tossed up an air ball with his first shot, sprained his right ankle and finished 5-of-19 from the field, the Los Angeles Lakers still showed why they are the top playoff seed in the Western Conference.
Bottom line — there's more to the Lakers than Kobe.
Pau Gasol had a season-high 36 points and 11 rebounds, and the Lakers (58-14) guaranteed the road to the Western Conference championship will run through downtown Los Angeles with a 103-95 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Friday night.
"It's just one more step toward our goal," said Gasol, who was 14 of 19 from the field and three assists shy of a triple-double. "Now we're just looking to the next game. We still have three games left on the road trip."
Derek Fisher added 18 points and Lamar Odom had 12 points and 11 rebounds in Phil Jackson's record-setting 728th game as the Lakers' coach.
"We're not going to pat ourselves on the back," Odom said. "We're on a mission and that was to get back to the playoffs, and do well in the playoffs, hopefully advance to the championship round."
The Lakers will need Bryant to play well to do that.
The former MVP hurt his right ankle late in the first half in a collision with Devin Harris of the Nets on a drive to the basket. Bryant lay on the court for about a minute before limping off to the locker room. He started the second half and scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime as the Lakers won their fifth straight.
"It's sore right now," Bryant said, noting that he jammed the ankle and didn't roll it. "It's burning right now. We have to stay on top of it, get it ready for Sunday."
Vince Carter had 20 for the fading Nets, who lost their third in a row. Harris returned from a shoulder injury that sidelined him 12 days and had 13 points and 14 assists. Brook Lopez added 16 points and 10 rebounds.
The Lakers played an inconsistent game, blowing a couple of big leads.
They built a 14-point lead behind Gasol and Fisher early in the second quarter, only to see the Nets cut the deficit to 51-49 at the half with a late 18-6 spurt.
New Jersey eventually tied it at 57 early in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Carter.
The shot seemed to wake up the Lakers. They scored the next 16 points and 24 of 26 to take an 81-59 lead with less than three minutes left in the quarter.
Bryant, who hit two of his first 10 shots, hit a short bank shot early in the run and then brought the Izod Center crowd to its feet late in the run with three consecutive 3-pointers - a feat that had the fans chanting "M-V-P, M-V-P"'
"When you play good teams, you can't have long stretches where you are not playing well," Carter said.
Still, the Nets cut the deficit to 11 points at the end of the third quarter and got to within three points twice, the last at 93-90 on a 3-pointer by Jarvis Hayes, who finished with 19 points off the bench.
Odom then followed a Bryant miss with an aggressive rebound and Gasol hit a jumper to push the lead to 97-90 with 1:21 to go.
After Lopez and Gasol exchanged baskets, Hayes hit his fourth 3-pointer to get New Jersey within 99-95 with less than a minute to go.
But Gasol, who previous high was 34 points this season, drove for a layup and then hit two free throws after getting his final rebound to close out the game.
"Gasol was great," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "You can make an argument that this guy is the best second-best player on a team in the NBA."
Riley coached 727 games with the Lakers. ... New Jersey outrebounded the Lakers 48-37. ... The Nets had a season-high 22 turnovers with Bryant getting four steals. ... The game was a sellout with 19,990 in attendance. ... Los Angeles is 4-0 on its seven-game road trip. ... Frank not only replaced Yi Jianlian in the Nets starting lineup with rookie Ryan Anderson, he did not play Yi.