It was the smile of a champion.
"It's good to be No. 1," Bryant said after the Lakers blew all but one point of a 30-point lead before beating the New Orleans Hornets 107-104 Friday night to clinch the Pacific Division championship. "This was the first step. We want to take another one Sunday."
Bryant had 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for the Lakers (55-25), who will enter the playoffs seeded no lower than third in the Western Conference, meaning they'll have homecourt advantage in the first round.
"It's a pleasant surprise," Bryant said of the Lakers' first division title in four years. "It's a testament to our hard work and our unity."
Bryant had a reason to be surprised, considering the Lakers haven't won a playoff series since reaching the NBA Finals in 2004, and weren't expected to be in this position before the season started.
The Lakers (55-25) have a chance to do even more. They trail the conference-leading Hornets by a half-game, and will win the West if they can beat visiting San Antonio on Sunday and Sacramento on Tuesday night and New Orleans (55-24) loses one of its final three games. The Hornets play road games against the Kings and Dallas Mavericks and a home game against the Clippers.
If Los Angeles and New Orleans finish with the same record, the Lakers win the West and home-court advantage at least until the NBA Finals because of a better record against conference opponents. The teams split their four regular-season games.
"I think we will win our last three games, so if that means we'll win the West, I guess so," Hornets star Chris Paul said.
Pau Gasol added 25 points, Derek Fisher scored 15, and Lamar Odom had 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Lakers, who never trailed for the 14th time this season but weren't assured of victory until the final minute.
"We were happy that we didn't get into 50 minutes today, only 48," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
"They were just physical and much more aggressive," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "They were playing with a purpose. We were out there playing a basketball game. And that's the difference."
The Lakers were as close to perfect as could be in taking a 63-33 lead late in the second quarter. Paul and the Hornets suddenly got their game together, outscoring the Lakers 36-10 to move within four points with 3:51 left in the third period.
Bryant scored 10 points during a 17-6 run that extended the Lakers' lead to 92-77 with 9:25 remaining, and the sellout crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center chanted, "MVP, MVP, MVP" during most of the timeout that followed.
But the Hornets bounced back again, outscoring the Lakers 12-1 to draw within four points. Sasha Vujacic made a 3-pointer to give the Lakers a seven-point lead, but back-to-back 3's by Stojakovic trimmed the Lakers' lead to 96-95 with 3:58 remaining.
Ronny Turiaf then made two free throws for his only points of the game, Fisher added a 3-pointer, and Bryant made a foul shot to give the Lakers a seven-point lead with 2:39 left. New Orleans wasn't closer than five again until Pargo made a 3 at the buzzer.
When asked about the possibility of winning the MVP award, Bryant said: "The MVP nowadays is not an individual award, you really have to make your teammates better and elevate your ballclub. I think for me to be nominated in that race is a tremendous honor because that's really been one of the criticisms people have had of me, how well I make my teammates better. From that standpoint, I feel like I have already won."
A basket by Bryant with just under four minutes left in the second quarter extended the Lakers' lead to 30. Paul had only one point before scoring six during a 12-2 run to finish the second quarter, pulling New Orleans within 20.
For the Hornets, that was just the beginning.
Gasol scored 11 points, Bryant and Odom added 10 each, and the Lakers outrebounded the Hornets 14-3 while taking a 39-20 first-quarter lead. The 39 points matched the Lakers' highest-scoring first quarter this season.
- Lakers C Andrew Bynum, sidelined since injuring his left knee Jan. 13, said before the game that he doesn't know when he'll return. "I guess I'll just play when I'm ready," he said. A knee specialist who examined Bynum on Wednesday wouldn't clear him for practice. Bynum said he didn't know when he'd be examined again. The playoffs begin next weekend.
- The Hornets entered having won six of seven road games to raise their road record to 26-12, the NBA's second-best record behind Boston's 29-10 mark.
- Lakers F Trevor Ariza, sidelined since breaking his right foot Jan. 20 in practice, won't be returning any time soon. Ariza had a CT scan Friday that showed the broken bone hasn't healed yet, but is progressing. Ariza was given clearance to increase his treadmill workouts, and coach Phil Jackson said he'll be checked out again in two weeks.
- Each of the previous three games between the teams were one-sided, with the Hornets winning 118-104 in Los Angeles on Nov. 6 behind Stojakovic's franchise-record 10 3-pointers; the Lakers winning 109-80 at New Orleans on Jan. 9, and the Hornets winning 108-98 at home on March 14.