LOS ANGELES (AP) – While the Los Angeles Lakers retired Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey at halftime, Kobe Bryant stayed in the locker room.
Kobe meant no offense to his longtime teammate and former rival. He’s just busy doing everything and playing nearly every minute to keep the Lakers in the playoff race.
Bryant had 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 19th career triple-double, and the Lakers beat the Dallas Mavericks 101-81 Tuesday night in a key game for the two teams struggling to get into the Western Conference playoff picture.
With former coach Phil Jackson in attendance for O’Neal’s jersey retirement, Bryant put on a virtuoso performance while playing more than 47 minutes. Bryant has rested for just 79 seconds in the past two games, but he’s keeping the Lakers afloat during the latest round of injuries and setbacks in their roller-coaster season.
“I wish I could (have seen it), but this is a huge game for us,” Bryant said of the ceremony for O’Neal, his teammate on three championship teams. “I had to stay back here and get ready for the second half. We talked when I came in at halftime. We stopped and chopped it up for a couple of minutes.”
O’Neal liked what he saw from his courtside seat next to his mother. With the win, Los Angeles moved back into an eighth-place tie in the West with the Utah Jazz (39-36), who hold the tiebreaker edge on the Lakers.
Dwight Howard had 24 points and 12 rebounds while hitting seven fourth-quarter free throws for the Lakers (39-36), who had lost four of six before jumping to a big early lead on Dallas and hanging on to it throughout the second half.
Bryant did much of the heavy lifting, but the rest of the Lakers also played well without injured starters Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. Pau Gasol had 14 points and 10 rebounds while guarding Dirk Nowitzki, and Earl Clark contributed 17 points and 12 rebounds while playing a stellar defensive game off the bench.
“We’re desperate, and the players know it,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Dallas (36-38) still has a game in hand on the Lakers and Jazz, but the Mavs’ task just got tougher. Chris Kaman scored 14 points and Nowitzki had just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting for the Mavericks, who had won four of five.
After trailing for most of the night, Dallas was down by just seven points when the Mavs began intentionally fouling Howard. Hack-a-Dwight backfired miserably, with Howard going a respectable 7 for 12 while the Lakers made a decisive 16-1 run, holding the Mavericks to just one field goal in the final 4 1/2 minutes.
“It is a hit. It is a game we needed,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “I think everyone is frustrated. I mean, Dirk understands what this stage is about. We have some inexperienced guys that haven’t been here, so this is a valuable learning experience for them, but it has a price.”
Although the Lakers aren’t at full strength, at least they can get some rest at home. After a road-heavy March schedule, the Lakers must leave Los Angeles just once more in the regular season during their sprint to the playoffs, making a single overnight trip to Portland while playing six of their last eight on their home court.
The Lakers retired O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey at halftime, with Lakers luminaries including Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Jamaal
Wilkes assembling for the ceremony. The Staples Center crowd loved Shaq, but the fans adored former coach Phil Jackson, who attended what was likely his first game since walking away from the team in 2011.
Jackson was serenaded with multiple chants of “We want Phil!” during his brief remarks to the crowd, echoing the same chants that filled Staples Center late last year when the Lakers flirted with bringing back the 11-time NBA champion coach before unexpectedly hiring D’Antoni to replace Mike Brown.
Jackson watched the first three quarters from courtside next to his fiancee, Jeanie Buss, and the Lakers appeared to be putting on their best performance in front of him. Bryant was particularly brilliant, racking up 17 points, nine assists and six rebounds in the first three quarters.
The Lakers made an 18-6 run for a 16-point lead late in the first half, with Bryant playing an all-around game. After banking in a tremendously difficult 16-footer while getting fouled, he spun and appeared to look directly at Jackson, whose smile didn’t change.
Los Angeles’ 15-point halftime lead dwindled to five before Clark led another rally, and Bryant kept the Lakers ahead in the fourth quarter before Dallas resorted to purposely fouling Howard.
NOTES: Even during his special night, O’Neal didn’t let up on his season-long motivational criticism of Howard. “He has the potential to be one of the greatest big men ever, but he has to want it,” O’Neal said of Howard, who has reacted coolly to Shaq’s prodding on television. … Nash is hopeful he’ll return Friday after a bit more rest for his injured hip, while World Peace won’t be back any time soon from surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. … Nowitzki got a technical foul for arguing with 4:04 to play while Dallas trailed by seven points.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)