LOS ANGELES (AP)—After a month of playing short-handed, the Los Angeles Lakers are back to full strength. If Sunday is an accurate indication, that means trouble for every other NBA team.
Kobe Bryant scored 22 points before sitting out the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol added 16 points, five rebounds and four assists, and the Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs 99-85 in a matchup of the Western Conference’s best teams that turned out to be a mismatch.
The win was the fourth straight and 14th in 17 games for the Lakers (35-8), whose .814 winning percentage is the best in the NBA although the defending champion Boston Celtics (37-9) lead them by a half-game in the overall standings by virtue of their 124-100 victory over Dallas earlier Sunday.
Backup point guard Jordan Farmar returned after missing 18 games because of an injured left knee, and scored 14 points. Luke Walton played in his third game after missing nine with an injured foot, and Lamar Odom (knee) and Sasha Vujacic (back spasms) were also sidelined for brief periods.
“We missed him a lot. He makes our second unit go, he’s the motor,” Bryant said of Farmar, who shot 5-of-7 including 2-of-3 from 3-point range. “Now that he’s back, everybody falls into their natural positions and we are back clicking on all cylinders.”
“A lot. Big,” coach Phil Jackson replied when asked how important Farmar’s return was to the Lakers. “It helps us a lot. Jordan obviously has attributes— the speed and the quickness. Those are things that we missed, that tempo change in our game.”
Farmar wasn’t expected to play until Tuesday night against Charlotte or during the Lakers’ upcoming five-game road trip that begins Friday night in Minnesota.
“I’ve been feeling better for about a week now,” he said. “I still had to go through a process to make sure I was OK. No pain, no swelling—it felt normal. I have been watching these guys play and I expect to be playing like this all the time. That’s how I am; I work hard and I’m disappointed when it doesn’t happen.”
Jackson said before the game that Farmar was on the active list, but he wasn’t sure he’d play the third-year pro.
“I was in his ear the whole time on the bench,” Farmar said with a smile. “He would have had to deal with that the whole game.”
Farmar entered the game late in the first quarter and played almost seven minutes in his first action since Dec. 19. He returned late in the third period and played another 10 1/2 minutes.
“We didn’t play very smart in the first half, gave them 15 minutes of bonus and ended up being down six,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That was the tale of the first half: just too many mental mistakes, foul-wise. In the second half, we spotted them two quick 3s with bad rotations and never caught up after that. The game was over at that point.”
Bryant and Derek Fisher made 3-pointers and Bynum added two free throws to begin the third quarter, giving the Lakers a 59-45 lead, and a three-point play by Gasol made it 68-53. It was 79-66 entering the final period.
The Lakers outscored San Antonio 10-2 to start the fourth quarter for an 89-68 lead, and the Spurs didn’t pose a serious threat after that.
“We ended the half poorly and they got that six-point lead,” Duncan said. “Then they came out in the second half and hit two quick 3s, and it seemed to go downhill from there. I thought the effort was OK, defensively. But we had a couple of lapses that turned right into points and gave them a lead that we couldn’t get back from.”
Jackson taped an interview Friday with Magic Johnson, a part-owner of the team, that was shown at halftime on TV. Before the game, the 63-year-old coach cleared up confusion stemming from the interview that next season would be his final one, saying: “Everything’s the same as it always was.” Jackson has often said he’s going year-to-year without a definitive retirement plan. … The Lakers and Spurs have combined to win seven of the past 10 NBA championships. “We’ve had a long rivalry with these guys,” Popovich said. “We’ve beaten them up at times, they’ve beaten us up at times.” … The Lakers have played an NBA-high 26 home games and a league-low 17 road games. After entertaining Charlotte on Tuesday night, they’ll play 23 of 31 games on the road. … The Spurs have played 24 home games and 19 road games. This game marked the beginning of a stretch where they play 11 of 12 on the road.