Reporting from San Antonio
When was the last time a boring, unimaginative six-game winning streak became a stellar, laudable seven-game winning streak?
The Lakers turned a near-flawless second half into a 92-83 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, extending their two-week run after getting commendable efforts from too many players to avoid a run-on sentence.
Kobe Bryant was proficient on offense, Ron Artest was a game-breaker on defense, and Lamar Odom was strong, sore shoulder and all, at AT&T Center.
The Lakers dismantled the Spurs in the second half, outscoring them, 51-35, giving up 18 points in the third quarter, 17 in the fourth.
Artest had five steals in the second half, the Spurs shot 29.7% after halftime and the Lakers had themselves a quality victory after a slew of ho-hums.
Artest, who also had 16 points and eight rebounds, blew kisses to the surprisingly perceptible throng of Lakers fans, his merriment spilling over into the crowd. There was even a lively "Let's go Lakers" chant in the den of the Spurs near the end of the game.
That loud postgame noise at one end of the arena? Scores of Lakers fans, leaning over and trying to get a piece of Bryant after he did a TV interview on the court.
"It's different," said Bryant, trying to suppress a smile. "Not used to that. Feel good, though."
Bryant, feeling good? The superstar-turned-curmudgeon in recent weeks?
Indeed, there was no way to undercut the Lakers' job as they dissolved a 48-41 halftime deficit.
Bryant finished with 24 points on 11-for-16 shooting and added six assists. Odom had 19 points and 13 rebounds despite his left shoulder flaring up in recent days.
But the most important stat of the night belonged to second-year guard George Hill out of IUPUI ( Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis). Hill had 20 first-half points, breaking apart the Lakers defense at every turn, but scored only one point in the second half.
The Lakers (53-18) can thank significantly better screen-and-roll defense.
It looked as if they had something going in the third quarter when Artest took a rebound, scored on a layup, was fouled and started blowing kisses to nearby Lakers fans.
Then Artest picked Manu Ginobili clean and scored on a layup at the other end. Shannon Brown joined the fun, making three-pointers from the right side on consecutive possessions, the second one giving the Lakers a 66-63 lead with 1:30 left in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was all Lakers.
Bryant made a three-pointer and left his hand in the air. Artest stole the ball, again, from Antonio McDyess and scored on another breakaway layup, giving the Lakers an 82-74 lead.
"He's the one that created the turnovers," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "He did a heck of a job for them."
Spurs fans began streaming for the exits after a bad pass by Ginobili with 2:42 left, the Lakers ahead, 89-79.
Despite winning six in a row, the Lakers weren't happy with their play coming into the game.
They starting doing much more meditating before practices, Coach Phil Jackson hoping to calm them, if not snap them out of their quasi-funk.
Something worked well Wednesday. Expect more deep breathing and ruminating at Thursday's practice in Oklahoma City, the second stop on a five-game trip that just might mean something after all.