A remarkable comeback in their latest contest showed how serious the Los Angeles Lakers appear to be about making a push for the playoffs.
Trying again to move above .500 for the first time since November, the Lakers hope to continue their home success over the Toronto Raptors on Friday night while trying for a season-high fifth straight victory at Staples Center.
Trailing by as many as 25 points, Kobe Bryant scored 13 of his 42 during a 20-0 run over the final 6:22 to help Los Angeles (31-31) win 108-102 at New Orleans on Wednesday. It was the Lakers' 14th win in 20 games and a strong indication that they're poised to leave the previous turmoil of the season in the past and move back into playoff position.
Los Angeles, which was last above .500 at 6-5 on Nov. 20, is 1 1/2 games behind Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"This game brought us closer together as a team," said Dwight Howard, who had 20 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks, including a key rejection of Robin Lopez's attempted game-tying shot in the final 30 seconds.
"This is what it takes when you're playing for the playoffs and then when you're in the playoffs, fighting through games like this and it just shows our character."
Averaging 35.1 points on 56.4 percent shooting in the last seven games, Bryant again was the driving force one night after he scored 30 while playing through an elbow injury in a 122-105 loss at Oklahoma City. He scored 18 in the fourth quarter and had 12 assists Wednesday.
"It's tough games like this that really strengthen the bond between us players and that's really what the playoffs is about," Bryant said. "You have adversity. It's about who's going to stick together and who's not going to break."
Even with star Pau Gasol out with a foot injury, the Lakers are in a better place than they were while losing 10 of 12 in January. That rut included a 108-103 loss at Toronto (24-38) on Jan. 20 that snapped a four-game series winning streak. Bryant scored 26 and Steve Nash added 16 with nine assists but Howard was limited to five points with two boards before being ejected late in the first half for drawing his second technical foul.
Los Angeles has won nine straight over the Raptors at home, where it's averaged 105.4 points and shot 50.1 percent to win eight of nine overall. Toronto is 2-13 all-time at Los Angeles, but its last two defeats there came by a combined seven points.
Toronto snapped a five-game slide by shooting 48.1 percent during a 98-71 win at Phoenix on Wednesday. DeMar DeRozan scored 15 to lead six Toronto players in double figures and help the Raptors win for the second time in eight games.
"We were desperate and tired of losing, being on that five-game losing streak," DeRozan said. "We had to continue to keep stepping on their necks. We tend to give up leads, and (Wednesday) we stayed focused, especially on defense."
Toronto held the Suns to 37.8 percent from the field while allowing its fewest points of the season. The Raptors gave up 247 on 53.4 percent shooting in losing its previous two games at Milwaukee and Golden State.
DeRozan, a southern California native, averages a team-leading 17.7 points but has been held to eight in each of the last two against the Lakers - both at home.