Lakers power forward Pau Gasol grabs a rebound before Mavericks power forward… (Mike Stone / Reuters )
Reporting from Dallas
Kobe Bryant didn't do any postgame shooting this time.
There was no need. And it would have been ill-advised.
He was limping after a bad landing in the third quarter, suffering what he would later call the "scariest" sprained ankle of his career. It was hardly symbolic of the Lakers' night against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Lakers' big men continued to dominate after Bryant briefly left in the third quarter, shoving aside the Mavericks in a 96-91 victory Saturday at American Airlines Center.
Andrew Bynum had 22 points and 15 rebounds, flicking away continued resistance from the Mavericks by making nine of 12 shots. Pau Gasol had 18 points and the Lakers pulled within half a game of Dallas in the chase for second place in the Western Conference.
All eyes , though, were on Bryant when he landed off-balance after having a shot blocked by Shawn Marion late in the third quarter.
His left ankle curled in a manner that would make Lakers fans wince. He limped to the bench and then to the locker room. He came back out a few minutes later and reentered the game near the midpoint of the fourth quarter.
He drilled an 18-foot fadeaway with 2:44 to play, the only sign Lakers fans needed that he was healthy. He finished with 16 points on six-for-20 shooting.
It wasn't a great night for him. It didn't matter. He was still upright.
"I thought I was done, like done," he said, striking what would have been an ominous tone for the Lakers' season. "I was just praying that when I stood up, my foot was lined up straight. I thought I dislocated it.
"I had to stop being a chump and just suck it up and go out there and play … Even though it looks horrible, I can still push off on it."
If it didn't deter him from returning against Dallas, it probably wouldn't keep him from playing Monday against Orlando.
"We have Orlando at home and we're not even taking a breath," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
The reserves couldn't be forgotten on a night where Steve Blake had nine points and five assists, maybe his best game with the Lakers.
This trip was supposed to be tricky, treacherous or any of the ugly synonyms that a thesaurus would spit out.
Instead, the Lakers (47-20) reasserted their dominance in three of the four playoff cities they visited, Bynum stepping on just about everybody. Strange to say, but he was sometimes the team's best player on this trip.
Case in point: Dallas cuts a 10-point Lakers lead to five in the fourth quarter, Bynum gets the ball down low and powers through Brendan Haywood for a layup and foul. He missed the free throw (can't have everything) but the point was hammered home, as was an alley-oop dunk a minute later off a pass from Lamar Odom.
Bynum also made two free-throw attempts with 11 seconds left, giving the Lakers a 94-89 lead.
"It looks like he's kind of figuring things out," Bryant said. "I don't know if he's putting something in his cereal in the morning or what."
The kid's not the best player on the Lakers, though.
"Let's not hit the crack pipe yet," Bryant said, smiling. "But he's sensational."
Several hours before the game, Bryant was quietly confident. He scoffed at the way the Lakers looked going into the All-Star break. They're 9-1 since.
"We were playing horrible basketball but I knew that we would be fine. … We know each other very well," he said.
Marion tied his season high with 25 points and Dirk Nowitzki also had 25, but the Mavericks (47-19) lost for the third time in five games. It will be hard for them to fend off the Lakers, who play 11 of their last 15 games at home.
The Lakers looked solid with and without Bryant. Scary thought for the rest of the league.