After the ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds, Bryant smiled at Gasol, who smiled back. It was one of their few mistakes in a dominating first half Monday night that provided a glimpse of what the Los Angeles Lakers were hoping for when they acquired Gasol from Memphis.
With Bryant hitting from the outside and scoring 31 points and Gasol clogging the middle to score 26, the Lakers continued their impressive road trip with a 106-97 win over the reeling Charlotte Bobcats.
“Adding Pau to the mix, we have something that has to be dealt with,” said Bryant after the Lakers improved to 4-1 since the trade for their new big man.
It wasn’t an entirely pretty performance for the Lakers, who improved to 6-2 on their nine-game trip. They allowed the Bobcats to cut a 13-point deficit to 89-86 midway through the fourth quarter.
Then Bryant went to work. His jumper with 4:30 left made it 96-90. His no-look pass to Lamar Odom for a dunk made it 100-93, and Bryant put the Lakers ahead by 11 with two free throws with 1:07 left.
Bryant had his third straight game of 30 or more points, but Bryant is clearly warming up to his new option down low.
Gasol had his second-highest scoring game since joining Los Angeles, hitting nine of 11 shots and eight of 12 free throws despite a cold that had Gasol coughing in the locker room after the game.
“Yesterday, he didn’t have a good game,” coach Phil Jackson said of Gasol’s 12-point performance in a win at Miami. “Today was the mark of a good player to come back and double your effort and have a good game. He’s not feeling the greatest now either, so that’s a good game for him.”
The Bobcats played without leading scorer Gerald Wallace for the fourth time in five games. Wallace, hobbled by a strained right foot, was replaced a night earlier in Detroit by rookie Jared Dudley in the starting lineup.
But coach Sam Vincent changed his mind Monday, putting Dudley back on the bench, moving Felton to shooting guard and starting Jeff McInnis at point guard. Felton turned into Charlotte’s go-to scorer with Jason Richardson held to 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
Felton was two points shy of his career high, hitting 11 of 20 shots, and added eight assists.
“Just getting back to my old self, attacking the basket and trying to get guys involved at the same time,” Felton said.
But the Bobcats had to make up too much ground after a dominating start by the Lakers.
Bryant hit his first five shots, three of them 3-pointers, and Gasol was 6-for-6 including two dunks as the Lakers looked early like the versatile inside-out team with Gasol.
When Bryant finally missed—a desperation 3 with the shot clock winding down—Gasol grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit both free throws to give the Lakers a 49-40 lead.
“I was a little more aggressive and a little more determined when I got the ball early in the game,” Gasol said.
Bryant and Gasol were a combined 12-of-14 from the field and 9-of-9 from the foul line as Los Angeles led 55-44 at halftime. The Bobcats weren’t getting completely blown out thanks to Felton’s 18 points and the Lakers’ 10 turnovers.
“I thought the guys from the beginning of the game played hard,” said Vincent, who has questioned his team’s effort twice in the past month. “Mistakes were made, but I thought the intensity was there.”
The effort allowed the Bobcats to stick around as the Lakers struggled for a second straight day to put away one of the East’s downtrodden clubs. After allowing the Heat to come back in the fourth quarter Sunday before finally them off, the Lakers saw a 13-point lead with just over 10 minutes left cut to three on Charlotte’s 15-5 run.
But the Lakers had enough to move within a win at Minnesota Wednesday from a 7-2 trip.
“I just told them we have one more game before we can say anything about this trip,” Jackson said. “We’ve fortunately gotten a few under our belt.”
Vincent hinted Wallace may also sit out Wednesday against Atlanta. It’s Charlotte’s final game before the All-Star break, which would give Wallace more than a week to recover. “It makes no sense for us to rush Gerald,” Vincent said. … The Lakers signed C D.J. Mbenga for the rest of the season after his second 10-day contract expired. Mbenga was brought in when C Andrew Bynum was sidelined with his left knee injury last month. … The game had nowhere near the drama of last year’s visit by the Lakers, won by the Bobcats in triple-overtime despite Bryant’s 58 points.