LOS ANGELES (AP)—March has turned into April, and that means the NBA playoffs are less than three weeks away.
Despite all their ups and downs this season, the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers believe they’ll be ready.
“It’s really been tough to stay focused on each moment, knowing that the goal is close but it’s not here yet,” Derek Fisher said.
Shaquille O’Neal had 34 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots, and Kobe Bryant added 29 points as the Lakers rebounded from an ugly 119-98 loss at Seattle the night before to win for the eighth time in 11 games.
The Lakers (43-31) are in seventh place in the Western Conference with eight games remaining, but could get as high as fourth. They trail Utah by a half-game, Minnesota by 2 1/2 and Portland by three.
“Eight games,” O’Neal said firmly when asked how far away the Lakers were from being ready for the postseason. “I think the guys are going to start focusing more. We know what it takes.”
O’Neal shot 15-of-22, making him 26-of-34 in the last two games. He was 11-of-12 in scoring 34 points in the loss at Seattle.
“We just did what we were supposed to do tonight with a team like that after the bad loss yesterday,” O’Neal said. “I think we moved the ball a little bit better and we played with a little more effort.”
Bryant also had six steals to tie a career high along with five rebounds and eight assists.
“We’re taking it game-to-game,” he said. “We know what we’re capable of doing and we know what our track record in the playoffs is. So we want to utilize our experience as much as possible, build as much rhythm and momentum as we possibly can going into the playoffs.”
As a team, the Lakers had 12 steals—three off their season-high—and that impressed coach Phil Jackson.
“I thought we were very quick tonight, active hands and steals,” he said.
Wright believes the Lakers will be ready when necessary.
“They have a really good team,” he said. “I don’t know why they keep playing with everybody, playing around. When they come to play, they can beat anybody. I guess they’re just saving it for the playoffs.”
Memphis’ Mike Miller, who’s averaging 16.1 points, was limited to nine minutes by back spasms.
The Lakers put the game away by scoring six straight points for an 85-70 lead with 9:04 remaining. The Grizzlies never got closer than 10 points after that.
The Lakers led 54-40 at halftime, and it was 64-50 when the Grizzlies went on a 16-8 run to draw within six points with 2 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
But Bryant made a basket and set up Devean George for a 3-pointer as the period ended, putting the Lakers on top 79-68.
“We missed so many shots tonight that were wide-open shots,” Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown said. “Once we got it back to six, we had our opportunities, but then they made two straight three-point plays.”
The Lakers’ strategy was obvious early—get the ball inside to O’Neal. And that made sense, considering Wright, the Grizzlies’ center, is a good 100 pounds lighter.
O’Neal scored 11 points in the first quarter and Wright had two early fouls, but Person kept the Grizzlies in the game by scoring 11 in the opening 8 1/2 minutes to equal his season average.
The Lakers went ahead for good by outscoring the Grizzlies 16-5 to finishthe opening period with a 30-20 lead.
The Lakers have won 11 straight home games. … The Lakers have a 28-2 record against the Grizzlies in the eight-season history of that franchise and have won all 16 games between the teams in Los Angeles. … The Grizzlies, formed as an expansion franchise in Vancouver in 1995, seemed a good bet to achieve their first winning month ever when they won seven of their first 10 games in March. But they lost six of their last seven including the final four to finish the month with an 8-9 record. … Slava Medvedenko made his eighth start of the season for the Lakers and scored 11 points, He held Gasolscoreless until being replaced with 47 seconds left in the opening period.