DALLAS -- Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki put on an old-fashioned shootout Sunday afternoon at American Airlines Center. At times it was easy to forget that this wasn't a battle of two Western Conference powerhouses, but rather a desperation game for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks to get a little closer to playoff contention.
Both teams entered the game chasing eighth-place Houston and in a near-dead heat for ninth place. The Lakers came in with two more wins than Dallas, but with the same number of losses. Los Angeles leaned heavily on Bryant, who scored 38 points one game after notching 40, including a free throw with 4.5 seconds left to seal the Lakers' 103-99 victory.
"It's difficult, it's obviously difficult," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of slowing Bryant, who outscored Nowitzki 14-6 in the decisive fourth quarter. "He hit some very difficult shots. We ran at him a few times [to double-team] and [Steve] Nash hit a 3. It's tough when he's going like that."
Nowitzki, had one of his best games of his abbreviated and mostly disappointing season due to arthroscopic knee surgery prior to the start of the season. He set a season-high with 28 points, but managed just four shot attempts in the final period. He also missed a critical free throw on a 1-and-1 that would have pushed Dallas to within one point with 1:04 to go.
"I've got to make that free throw," Nowitzki said.
Bryant then swished a long jumper over single coverage and Metta World Peace made 1 of 2 free throws for a 102-99 lead with 16.8 seconds to go. Dallas called a timeout and inbounded in the front court. Nowitzki received the pass, but lost control while being hounded by World Peace. The Mavs maintained possession, but O.J. Mayo missed a contested 3-pointer from the corner.
Nowitzki had a tough fourth quarter, getting off just five shot attempts while picking up a technical foul with 5:48 to go after emphatically waving his arm in disgust over a no-call with World Peace defending his shot attempt. Nash made the technical free throw to put the Lakers ahead, 90-88.
Dwight Howard, who struggled with early foul trouble and finished with nine points and 13 rebounds, then made 3 of 4 free throws for a 91-90 lead.
Mayo's forgettable game (eight points on 2 of 9 shooting) got worse when he drew a technical foul after getting whistled on a Bryant drive. It turned into a three-point play and put the Lakers up, 94-90.
Then it was the Bryant show again with the superstar swishing a couple of difficult jumpers and then assisting off a double team on a Nash 3-pointer for a 99-95 lead with 1:42 to go. Nash made 4 of 5 from 3-point range and finished with 20 points.
"I mean they knew I was going and they tried to sag in and crowd me a little bit," Bryant said. "I saw Nash out of the corner of my eye fading for a 3 and I just hit him."
It was one of Bryant's seven assists to go with 12 rebounds. He and Nash each made 4 of 5 shots from beyond the arc.
Another good sign for the Lakers is they won despite Howard's struggles and never seemingly being able to put distance on the scoreboard each time it seemed they were in control. Los Angeles went up 53-47 with less than three minutes left in the first half, but was then outscored 7-1 to go into halftime tied, 54-54.
Likewise, Dallas couldn't sustain momentum either, scoring the first five points of the third quarter, but then quickly falling behind, 67-62. The Mavs trailed 79-75 after three quarters. The loss keeps them in 10th place and four-and-one-half games behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The Lakers moved one game from .500 at 28-29 and are two-and-one-half games behind the Rockets with 25 games left. Dallas has 27 games to play.
"Yeah, you can look at it that way," Mavs forward Shawn Marion said when asked if this was an opportunity lost. "But we still have a ways to go and we're right there. We've got to take the positive stuff from it and just try to get better and learn from it."
Lakers forward Antawn Jamison scored 13 off the bench and Jodie Meeks had 11.
Nowitzki was the Mavs' lone starter to score in double figures. Vince Carter had 15 and Elton Brand finished with 14 and eight rebounds.
Notes: With a second-quarter 3-pointer, Bryant surpassed 31,000 points for his career. He became the youngest of the five players to reach that milestone (34 years, 185 days), surpassing former Lakers great Wilt Chamberlain. ... Mavs owner Mark Cuban said Vince Carter, shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range this season, would be a leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award if the team had a better record. ... Anthony Morrow was active in his first game since joining Dallas after a deadline trade on Thursday, but did not play. ... Mavs center Chris Kaman saw his first action in 11 games since sustaining a concussion during practice. ... The Lakers have won five consecutive games in Dallas (and eight of nine overall), including a 115-89 victory on Nov. 24.