LOS ANGELES (TICKER) —One gets the feeling these days that Kobe Bryant could face 10 defenders and still score 40 points.
Bryant again scored 40 points and Shaquille O’Neal added 24 - including several key free throws down the stretch - and 12 rebounds in his first action in a week as the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 92-84.
With its 10th victory in 12 games, Los Angeles moved one game ahead of Houston into sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference and one-half game behind seventh-place Phoenix.
Bryant shot 15-of-32 from the field and 7-of-9 from the line to extend his franchise-record streak of 40-point games to eight. It was also his 12th consecutive game with at least 35 points, the fourth-longest streak in NBA history. Wilt Chamberlain owns the top three streaks.
“I just bounce from game to game,” Bryant said. “I prepared for this game and now I’m going to prepare for Seattle (on Sunday). I just go from there.”
“Everyone had their hands in Kobe’s face,” said Portland’s Bonzi Wells, who guarded Bryant for part of the game. “My momma had a hand in his face and he still hit it. Kobe is playing at an unbelievable level and hitting shots. I feel like I am an all-right defender and Ruben (Patterson) is an all-right defender, and he still made us feel like we were no defenders.”
But it was O’Neal who came up big in the final minutes.
The Lakers were clinging to an 82-81 lead when Rick Fox put back a missed 3-pointer by Bryant with 2:41 left. O’Neal made 4-of-4 free throws and threw down a powerful dunk as Los Angeles extended its lead to 90-81 with 52 seconds left.
“I feel good,” O’Neal said. “Coach was gracious enough to give me a couple of days off, so I’m trying to get on track.”
O’Neal missed the Lakers’ previous three games with a sore left knee and sore right big toe.
“I was happy to see him make free throws down the stretch,” said Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson, whose team made 23 free throws to Portland’s 12. “That was really the key to us winning the game. It was the free-throw line that won the game for us.”
O’Neal shot just 8-of-15 from the line but made his last five attempts.
“Having that threat in the middle forces the opposition to have to collapse,” Bryant said of the 7-foot, 340-pound O’Neal. “They have to respect his presence. And he helped us out a lot defensively because they can’t just penetrate and have easy opportunities at the basket.”
Bryant nailed a double-pump jumper with nine seconds remaining to reach the 40-point plateau and prompt a raucous response from the Staples Center crowd.
“There were a few poor shots tonight,” Jackson said of Bryant. “You have to know that’s going to happen when you’ve had a hot hand like he has. … There were six or seven (forced shots) that were in his range that was questionable, and we talked a little about that after the game. But I was happy when he got his 40th point.”
Wells scored 25 points to pace Portland but missed 3-of-4 free throws in the final 3:03. Rasheed Wallace added 23 points but airballed a rushed 3-point attempt with his team down by five and 1:32 remaining.
“I am not happy about the game,” Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks said. “I feel like our offense beat us. I feel like we took a lot of quick shots and a lot of threes, and that was part of the reason we put ourselves in the hole. I thought our defense was pretty good.”
“We didn’t take smart shots,” added Scottie Pippen, who scored 14 points. “We got caught in the frenzy. We just took some bad shots and as a result they got on a roll. We just have to be a little smarter and make better decisions.”
Both teams shot 43 percent (33-of-77), but Los Angeles outrebounded Portland, 42-35.
The Blazers had a three-game winning streak snapped with their third loss in 10 contests.
“We are just trying to get better night in and night out,” Cheeks said. “Tonight we were good for 3 1/2 quarters, but our offense failed.”