Something about the Charlotte Bobcats usually brings out the Lakers' unseemly side.
Maybe it's hard to get up for one of the worst franchises in the NBA or perhaps the Lakers just feel sorry for them. The Bobcats were one of only two teams that the Lakers had a losing record against before Tuesday.
Of course, the Lakers aren't exactly juggernauts themselves these days.
But they somehow slogged through a 101-100 victory over the Bobcats on Tuesday night at Staples Center in Pau Gasol's return from a two-week absence, avoiding a potentially awful outcome after trailing by as many as 18 points.
"There's some bright sides to it," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said, "there's also some dark sides that we have to work on."
Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant emerged from the shadows in the final minutes, Bryant scoring a pair of critical baskets and Howard blocking a potentially game-winning shot by Kemba Walker with five seconds left that led to a flurry of last-gasp attempts for the Bobcats.
Gerald Henderson barely misfired on a putback before the ball was batted out to Ben Gordon, who missed an off-balance 26-footer at the buzzer.
It was another turn-back-the clock performance for Bryant, who finished with 30 points and seven assists, his seventh consecutive game with at least 30 points.
"I'm just hoping this whole Benjamin Button thing doesn't wear off," Bryant said, alluding to the fictional character who gets younger as time passes.
It was the 12th consecutive loss for Charlotte and the third consecutive triumph for the Lakers during a season that may finally be moving in a preferred direction. The Lakers' winning streak is their longest since the middle of last month and marks only the second time this season they have won three games in a row.
"There's no need to be disappointed," said Howard, who finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds. "This is three games in a row. We just have to keep it going."
Bryant put the Lakers ahead, 99-97, after splitting a pair of defenders for a driving layup. He then extended the lead when he rattled in a 19-foot jumper with 52 seconds left.
A three-point play by former Laker Ramon Sessions pulled the Bobcats to within 101-100 before Bryant missed a jumper and the ball was batted out of bounds, giving the Bobcats one last chance.
The Lakers looked like a lost cause for the first 36 minutes. They were repeatedly beaten in transition and unable to stop Walker's array of jumpers and high-arcing floaters on the way to 28 points.
"Some defense, boys!" one fan yelled early in the third quarter.
And that was before Walker made a three-pointer to extend the Bobcats' lead back to 16.
It would get worse before it got better. There was a cascade of boos midway through the third quarter when a driving layup by Sessions gave the Bobcats a 78-60 lead, triggering a Lakers timeout.
The Lakers eventually put up some resistance, Darius Morris harassing Walker into a shot-clock violation and Metta World Peace stripping the ball from Byron Mullens.
"The last 18 minutes," D'Antoni said, "I think they only scored 22 points and we got a win. We'll move on."
They will play for the time being with World Peace coming off the bench to play power forward. He had 17 points, seven rebounds and four steals against the Bobcats, whose all-time record against the Lakers fell to 8-8. The Boston Celtics are now the only NBA team to have more wins than losses against the Lakers.
Gasol had an impact in a variety of ways even while struggling with his shooting touch. He finishing with 10 points on three-for-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes after missing the previous eight games to let the tendinitis in his knees subside. He was not on the court at the end of the game, with D'Antoni saying his conditioning was a factor.
Gasol said he hoped it wasn't a trend.
"Hopefully it won't happen too often," Gasol said. "I think when the game is on the line I need to be on the court. That's what I get paid to do."