NEW ORLEANS -- All season long, Kobe Bryant has been trying to drag his Los Angeles Lakers out of a bottomless pit created largely by uninspired play, injuries and poor team chemistry.
After Wednesday night's furious fourth-quarter comeback in a 108-102 victory over the New Orleans Hornets, the Lakers, with Bryant and center Dwight Howard doing the heavy lifting, finally seem to have emerged from the hole and are talking -- very quietly -- about the playoffs.
The Lakers scored the game's final 20 points, holding the Hornets scoreless over the final 6 minutes, 46 seconds.
Bryant matched his season high with 42 points, including 18 in a withering 33-9 fourth-quarter rally. In the final period, Bryant made seven of eight shots from the field, including a 3-pointer, and made all three free throws to go with four assists as the Lakers erased a 93-75 deficit.
The Lakers (31-31) are just 1 1/2 games behind the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 20 games left.
"Honestly, I was thinking I needed to bring my teammates with me," said Bryant, who showed no ill effects from a painful nerve injury in his right elbow that limited him in a 122-105 loss at Oklahoma City on Tuesday night.
"That's what I just kept telling myself at halftime -- 'I got to bring them with me'. I was getting to rim at the end of the first half. I knew I could score anytime I wanted to, but I said, 'I got to bring them along with me, force the game upon them and hope that turns the tide."
Bryant did it on the offensive end, and Howard, playing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, smothered the Hornets defensively in the second half. Howard finished with four blocks and 15 rebounds to go with 20 points.
With the Lakers leading 104-102, Howard blocked Robin Lopez's attempt at a point-blank dunk with 25.5 seconds left and then grabbed the rebound. The Lakers' bench quickly called timeout so that the Hornets could not foul Howard, and Los Angeles coach Mike D'Antoni set up a beautiful inbounds play that got Bryant free for an easy layup on a pass from Steve Blake, putting the Lakers up 106-102 with 23.6 seconds left.
"Every time I went up to block a shot or whatever, I could feel it," Howard said of his shoulder. "I just tried to play through it. I was in a lot of pain. I'm just trying to block it out as much as possible. When you're playing with something that's torn, it's not easy, but I'm just happy we got the win, and I'm going to keep playing through it."
Los Angeles was down by 25 points late in the second quarter -- 63-38 -- before Bryant scored nine of the Lakers' final 10 points of the half to trim the deficit to 67-48.
The Lakers, were in a 93-72 hole late in the third quarter. Bryant started the comeback quietly with three free throws in the final 34 seconds of the third quarter, so the Lakers outscored the Hornets 36-9 down the stretch.
In the fourth quarter, Los Angeles guard Jodie Meeks was 4-for-4 from 3-point range, and the Lakers made 12 of 19 field-goal attempts. Meeks finished with 19 points.
Hornets coach Monty Williams was mortified by his team's second consecutive home collapse. New Orleans blew a 17-point, second-half lead to the Orlando Magic on Monday night.
"It's the same song -- we have to keep the ball in front of us," Williams said. "That falls on my shoulders. I've got to figure out ways to teach the guys to guard the ball. I was really disappointed in the fact that we didn't execute down the stretch."
Bryant tied the game 102-102 with a drive in the lane past Lopez. He put the Lakers ahead for good with a fall-away 15-foot jumper with 36.3 seconds left.
The Hornets placed seven players in double figures, led by Eric Gordon with 18. However, they scored only nine points in the fourth quarter.
"I think Dwight really started to smother the pick-and-roll," D'Antoni said. "It was a big win tonight, and it will be a nice ride home."
NOTES: Gordon and Greivis Vasquez combined to miss all 11 shots in the fourth quarter and committed two of the Hornets' five turnovers in the period. ... A sure sign of the Lakers' woes this season was D'Antoni's lighthearted response to a question during a pregame news conference. "Can you tell us about your injuries?" a reporter asked. D'Antoni smiled and said, "I feel good, thank you." Metta World Peace scored 11 points despite an ailing right ankle. ... Looking at the playoff race, D'Antoni said, "The rest of the games are important. Hopefully we can understand the importance, and the level of intensity there has to be."