Lakes guard Kobe Bryant reacts after making a difficult shot against Portland… (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / US Presswire )
It sure seemed as if the game took place in Portland, with the dour weather lingering glumly outdoors and the Trail Blazers sticking it to the Lakers indoors.
But Kobe Bryant had seen enough, his sprained ankle, sore shoulder and stiff neck all to be mentally discarded in the fourth quarter.
He shrugged off an off-target night, a string of poor shooting games and a salivating Trail Blazers team in an 84-80 Lakers victory Sunday at Staples Center.
It's hardly surprising that Bryant's involved in a gritty victory, but this time he added a rare touch, high-fiving a courtside fan and releasing some steam as he yanked hard on his jersey after a 14-foot fade-away meant a five-point lead with 32.9 seconds left.
NBA considered a three-game suspension for Bynum
It was Bryant at his best, on a night when the Lakers needed him. They often looked confused without Andrew Bynum, who served the first part of a two-game suspension for a flagrant foul.
Bryant had 22 points, 10 in the fourth quarter, and he wasn't the only veteran to step up late. Derek Fisher scored on a layup after stealing the ball from Nicolas Batum and also nailed a 17-footer with 10 seconds to play, effectively ending the game.
"He brings the Lakers back time and time again in situations like that," said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, underscoring the near-beginning of Fisher's favorite time of the year.
There was other Lakers news to cover, though none that would lead to parades being planned or helium balloons being released amid applause.
The Lakers clinched a playoff spot with Utah's loss to Houston. They also clinched the Pacific Division title, their 22nd since 1971.
Bryant was ecstatic to hear it.
"No, not really," he said in a monotone voice.
Who would debate him? The Lakers (50-20) don't care about division titles.
They improved to 12-1 since the All-Star break, stayed a game ahead of Dallas for second in the Western Conference and pulled into a virtual tie with Boston and Chicago for the league's second-best record.
It wasn't easy, the Lakers trailing by nine in the third quarter and by six with five minutes to play.
"We survived that game," Jackson said. "That's about all I can say."
The Lakers were lousy from three-point range (three for 17) and almost gave Portland hope should the teams meet in the first round of the playoffs.
But Bryant made five of eight in the fourth quarter to finish nine for 20. He was shooting only 35% over his previous four games.
He has a sore neck and shoulder after being accidentally hit in the face Friday against Minnesota. He sprained his left ankle a little more than a week ago. He downplayed it all on Sunday, saying he felt fine.
He didn't look fine in the first three quarters but started trending upward by beating LaMarcus Aldridge on a reverse left-handed layup with 4:19 to play.
Later, his fade-away over Brandon Roy made Jackson take notice.
"Players that are difference-makers in this game are the kind of guys that make that kind of shots," he said.
Lamar Odom reminded Lakers fans of his oft-overlooked importance, getting 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in Bynum's absence.
There was also a stroke of fortune, Matt Barnes nailing a three-pointer as he galloped past halfcourt to bring the Lakers within 66-62 as time expired in the third quarter.
"It's something we mess around with at practice a lot," said Barnes, who called it a "lucky shot."
Maybe the Lakers are lucky and good these days, to steal the old saying. They're tough to beat, with or without Bynum.