The Los Angeles Lakers are saving their best for when it matters most.
The Lakers look to continue their late-season surge with a ninth straight victory when they host the New Orleans Hornets.
Playing his ninth game since missing nearly three months with a torn knee ligament—the first serious injury of his 19-year NBA career—Malone shot 5-of-10 and went 9-of-12 from the foul line in 34 minutes.
Malone, displaying his usual toughness, remained on the floor despite banging the knee he injured in December and getting elbowed in his shooting hand. X-rays taken on the hand were negative, but Malone wasn’t convinced he was OK.
“My knee was negative, too,” he said. “We’ll wait and see tomorrow.”
Bryant, averaging 35 points over the last three games, scored 10 points in the final two minutes to help the Lakers pull away after the Jazz went on a 26-8 run.
Los Angeles, an NBA-best 19-4 since the All-Star break, has reached 50 wins for the eighth straight season—not counting the shortened 1998-99 campaign— and trails the West-leading Sacramento Kings by two games with nine remaining.
The Lakers have won eight straight at home and are 30-5 at Staples Center, where they play six of their final nine. They are 5-0 on a seven-game homestand that closes against Houston on Thursday.
The Hornets, who haven’t won on the road since Feb. 17 at Indiana, will be opening a five-game road trip after losing for the fourth time in the last five games overall, 99-94 to Phoenix on Friday.
Davis, scoring 23.6 points per game, is expected to miss the entire road trip with an ankle injury and Jamal Mashburn, averaging 20.8, is also sidelined after aggravating a knee injury on March 7.
“We’ve just got to believe,” Armstrong said. “I believe in these guys. I believe in this team and I believe in our effort.”
The Hornets, 13-21 away from home, play seven of their last nine games on the road. They also face the Jazz, Portland, Seattle and Sacramento on the trip.
STANDINGS (through March 28): Hornets - 3rd place, 17 GB, Central Division. Lakers - 2nd place, 2 GB, Pacific Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Hornets - Davis, 23.0 ppg and 7.6 apg; Magloire, 10.1 rpg. Lakers - Bryant, 23.6 ppg; O’Neal, 11.6 rpg; Payton, 5.6 apg.
SEASON SERIES: Hornets, 1-0.
LAST MEETING: Nov. 7; Hornets, 114-95. At New Orleans, Davis had 23 points, 12 assists and four steals as the Hornets handed the Lakers their first loss of the season after a 5-0 start.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Hornets - 13-21 on the road; Lakers - 30-5 at home.