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LAKERS 102, SAN ANTONIO 95

Lakers running away with the West

They clinch the Pacific Division, a playoff spot and increase their lead in the conference to 81/2 games over the Spurs with a 102-95 victory. Bryant and Gasol score 23 points apiece.

March 13, 2009|Mike Bresnahan

SAN ANTONIO — The banner will never be hung at Staples Center, not even the slimmest of chances, making the Lakers' clinching of the Pacific Division a mere sidebar to the bigger event Thursday night.

They entered one of the more feverish NBA milieus and beat back the San Antonio Spurs, more than salvaging a three-game trip against playoff-worthy teams in the Western Conference.

Playing in Texas for the second time in as many nights, the Lakers rolled to an 18-point first-quarter lead and, after some tense fourth-quarter possessions, increased their advantage in the West to 8 1/2 games over the second-place Spurs with a 102-95 victory at the AT&T Center.

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led the way with 23 points each, and the Lakers answered each late Spurs score with one of their own.

And you thought a few days ago that they might go 0-3 on this trip?

It looked as if it could happen when they got crushed in Portland and were told they'd be without Lamar Odom against Houston.

But 24 hours after Bryant pushed them past the Rockets, the Lakers (52-13) took one for the team, as a team.

All five starters scored in double figures, and all five reserves scored either four or six points, a study in symmetry the Lakers gladly accepted. Odom had 12 points and 10 rebounds in his return from a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation against Portland.

"We were really determined to win this game," Bryant said. "We had a really terrible showing in Portland. We were really excited about this back-to-back trip, Houston and San Antonio."

Excited to play, but not exuberant after winning.

Someone apparently delivered "2009 Pacific Division Champions" T-shirts to the visitors' locker room, but they never came close to being worn.

There are bigger things at stake. If winning the division is the best the Lakers do this season, it'll obviously be a long off-season for them.

In fact, many of the players didn't even know they clinched the division, not to mention the automatic playoff berth that comes with it.

"Really? Cool," Bryant said.

So there was going to be a huge celebration on the flight back home after the game?

"Yeah, you know, we're really big on Pacific Division titles around here," Bryant said sarcastically.

For the record, it's the team's 20th Pacific Division title in the 39-year existence of the division itself.

"It's news, but it's not something that we were specifically pointing towards," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

The Lakers were cruising to an easy victory after taking a 35-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.

This being San Antonio, though, it's rarely that simple.

In fact, Tony Parker's three-point shot brought the Spurs to within 95-93 with 2:19 left.

Bryant answered with a three-pointer over rookie George Hill as the shot clock wound down to give the Lakers a 98-93 lead with 1:46 to play. It was all they would need.

Spurs fans began filtering out of the arena when Michael Finley was short on an 11-footer. With so few people left after a timeout, an "M-V-P" chant by Lakers fans rebounded throughout the arena during the game's final seconds.

Back-to-back victories for the Lakers in Texas. If their fans get their wish, it'll be back-to-back seasons of Bryant's name on the MVP trophy. "For me, it's just go out there and do my job and help us win games," Bryant said. "That's all I'm here for, is to help us win. If the MVP comes with that, man, that's great."

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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