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Lakers top Kings with Bryant's return looming

The SportsXchange

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Guard Wesley Johnson found Los Angeles Lakers backcourt teammate Jodie Meeks wide open in the corner, spotted up behind the 3-point line and got him the basketball. Meeks lofted one to the rim, and Johnson didn't even watch.

"I just started headed back to the other end of the court," Johnson said. "Jodie got into a little groove there, so I knew."

Meeks' 3-pointer with 1:08 left proved Johnson right, hitting nothing but net and capping a 19-point night that helped lift the Lakers past the Sacramento Kings 106-100 at Sleep Train Arena on Friday. It also symbolized the way the Lakers have played without forward Kobe Bryant, their 15-time All-Star who announced he will return Sunday when Los Angeles hosts the Toronto Raptors.

"Our guys have gotten more and more confident, and that's what it takes," Meeks said. "There aren't any superstars here. Well, we'll have our superstar back Sunday, but we're all ready to contribute."

Meeks' 3-pointer gave the Lakers a two-possession lead that they didn't relinquish and came during a 10-0 run over a 2:42 stretch late in the fourth quarter that was fueled by three Lakers steals, two of them by Johnson.

Now they await the return of Bryant, who has not played since tearing the left Achilles tendon on April 12. Los Angeles has started 10-9 in his absence, winning six of its past eight.

"In my opinion, he's the greatest player in the game at his position," said Lakers guard Nick Young, who added 14 points. "He might not be fresh, maybe he'll be a little rusty. But we know he's going to come in and play well."

Forward Pau Gasol also scored 19 points for the Lakers, and his fade-away jumper from the top of the key put Los Angeles ahead to stay at 98-97 with 1:30 to go. Guard Steve Blake, playing point guard in the absence of usual starter Jordan Farmar, had 13 points and 10 assists.

Center DeMarcus Cousins and rookie guard Ben McLemore each scored 20 points to pace the Kings (4-13), who led for much of the game before coming up short in another close one.

Seven of the Kings' past eight games have been decided by seven points or fewer and their past five home games have been determined by no more than six points. Sacramento lost four of those five and a season-high six straight.

"When you look at the last five or six losses, it gets to be the same old thing sometimes," Kings coach Michael Malone said. "It's great to see guys in the big league, but more importantly, we, as a team, have to close these games out."

For a change, the Kings were ahead for much of the contest. Sacramento, which made furious fourth-quarter charges in three of their previous four defeats, rode guard Isaiah Thomas' 14 points and seven assists in the first half to seize the early advantage.

But Thomas, the NBA's leading fourth-quarter scorer, did not have a point in the second half and dished out only two assists.

"He had some difficult shots in the first quarter that he was able to make," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Our guys went after it harder, and we just tried to bottle him up. He missed a couple."

With Thomas struggling, so did the entire Kings' offense. Sacramento scored just 13 points in the final quarter, matching their season-low for a period.

"We didn't execute," Thomas said. "That's what it's been the whole season."

NOTES: G Kobe Bryant and the Lakers announced that Bryant will return to the team's lineup Sunday against the Toronto Raptors. The NBA's fourth-leading all-time scorer hasn't played since tearing his left Achilles tendon against the Golden State Warriors on April 12 last season. ... Kings C DeMarcus Cousins returned to the starting lineup after missing Sacramento's previous game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, just the third time he's sat out with an injury in his four seasons. ... Lakers G Jordan Farmar (left hamstring tear) missed his first game of the season, and rookie C Robert Sacre made his first career start for Los Angeles, replacing C-F Jordan Hill, who came off the bench. ... Kings C Hamady Ndiaye was assigned to Reno of the Developmental League.
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