LOS ANGELES (AP)—The Los Angeles Lakers have completed phase one: making the playoffs. The next step is to get the best seed possible in the Western Conference standings during the final six games of the regular schedule.
Lamar Odom scored a season-high 31 points against a subpar Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant added 25 points and 10 rebounds, and the Pacific Division-leading Lakers put a crimp in the Dallas Mavericks’ postseason push with a 112-108 victory on Friday night.
“It feels good to clinch,” Bryant said. “Obviously, there’s plenty of work to be done. But that’s the first step. It was similar to a playoff game. They’re playing for their playoff lives. That means a lot of intensity, and lot of desperation, and we were able to respond to it.”
The Lakers have qualified for the playoffs in 55 of their 60 seasons as a franchise, winning 14 NBA championships and 27 division titles—hoping for a 28th with a magic number of five.
Phil Jackson has made the playoffs in all 17 seasons as an NBA head coach— eight with the Lakers and nine with the Chicago Bulls. Jackson, whose nine NBA titles are tied with fellow Hall of Famer Red Auerbach, also holds the all-time mark for postseason victories with 179.
Just 7 1/2 games separate nine teams battling for the eight spots in the West. Los Angeles is tied for second with San Antonio, 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans. Dallas is seventh, a half-game ahead of Denver and a full game ahead of ninth-place Golden State.
“Every game is a playoff game and you can’t afford to have any slip-ups,” Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. “We can’t afford to not execute. Our pick-and-roll defense was going pretty good the whole game, but it broke down a little bit at the end. We just have to figure out a way to not have those breakdowns, especially at key times.”
Pau Gasol had 25 points and seven assists for Los Angeles, and Odom grabbed 10 rebounds. It was the sixth time this season that the Lakers have had three players with 20 or more points—all victories.
Gasol and Nowitzki, the reigning MVP, both were playing their second game since returning from ankle injuries. Nowitzki was 13-for-19 from the field and Gasol was 11-for-20.
“I’m not 100 percent, but I’m just enjoying playing again,” Gasol said. “Tonight I felt a little more comfortable and stronger, and I was able to do more.”
Nowitzki led the Mavs with 27 points, Jason Terry scored 25 and Josh Howard added 23. Jason Kidd had 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. This was the Mavericks’ 10th loss that was decided by four points or less.
“Lamar had a remarkable game,” Jackson said. “It was a tough cover for Nowitzki, coming back from that ankle injury, and Lamar exploited it.”
Odom made 12 of his 14 shots, coming within three points of his career high.
“Phil just told me to take the ball to the hole as much as possible. He was making fun of my jump shot,” Odom said. “I was just trying to be as aggressive as possible and trying to make as many plays as I could.”
The Lakers won three of the four meetings with Dallas, reversing last year’s results when the Mavs won the season series for the first time since 1986-87 and only the second time overall.
Odom’s layup with 2:21 remaining gave the Lakers a 103-102 lead, their first since the final 3 minutes of the first quarter. They ended the game with a 9-2 spurt that included a three-point play by Gasol and two free throws each by Bryant and Sasha Vujacic in the final 18 seconds.
Nowitzki, who was a last-minute replacement for Bryant in this year’s All-Star 3-point shooting contest due to Bryant’s dislocated right pinkie, did not attempt a shot from behind the arc until he connected with 8:51 left in the game to give Dallas a 94-89 lead. He did not go to the free throw line the entire night.
“We were right there. We just didn’t have enough down the stretch,” Nowitzki said. “We made some errors and didn’t really execute the plays the way we wanted. What really hurt us was their run in the fourth without Kobe. That’s the time when you have to have a lead when Kobe comes back in the game.”
The Lakers’ entire bench had produced just two points until Vujacic was fouled by Terry on a 3-point basket and made the ensuing free throw for a four-point play that sliced Dallas’ lead to 86-80 with 1:21 left in the third.
Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza, two Lakers still on the mend, won’t play in any of the final six regular-season games. Bynum, sidelined for the last 40 games by an injured left knee, will accompany the team on its two-game road swing so that his progress can be monitored during practice. … Ariza has missed 38 games with a broken right foot, and doctors have asked the coaching staff not to have him run yet. He’ll have another diagnostic test to see if the fracture is completely gone before he is given clearance.