LOS ANGELES – Dwight Howard scored 16 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, Kobe Bryant chipped in with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Bulls 90-81 Sunday.
The Lakers improved to 33-31, the first time this season they have been two games over .500. They also moved one-half game ahead of the Utah Jazz and into sole possession of the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Lakers led almost throughout, only briefly falling behind by two points in the second quarter, and led by as many as 18 in the third period.
Steve Nash had 16 points for the Lakers.
Nate Robinson led the Bulls with 19 points, and Joakim Noah had 18 points and 17 rebounds.
Bryant was scoreless in the first quarter, but the Lakers maintained a lead behind Howard’s play in the paint. He made 8 of 14 shots from the floor, but was 0 for 5 from the free throw line. His 21 rebounds marked the fourth time this season he’s grabbed at least 20.
After a sluggish first half by both teams, the Lakers came out hot to start the third quarter. Led by 10 points from Nash, Los Angeles went on a 21-7 run to begin the quarter, capped by a 3-pointer by Jodie Meeks that gave the Lakers a 65-47 lead. But the Bulls responded with an 8-0 spurt to narrow their deficit to 65-55.
The Lakers finished the third quarter with a 73-61 lead when Earl Clark took a pass from Bryant and made a jumper at the buzzer.
Bryant took only three shots in the first quarter, going scoreless in the opening 12 minutes. Metta World Peace was cold as well, missing four open 3-pointers, but the Lakers held an early lead thanks to Howard’s efforts down low. Though he missed all three free throws he took in the quarter, Howard was 3 of 3 from the field for six points and grabbed seven rebounds.
The Lakers never trailed in the opening period, leading by as many as six before the Bulls cut the margin to 20-16 heading into the second quarter.
Bryant finally got into the scoring column on a jumper in the lane with 7:15 left until halftime, then quickly hit another outside shot. But the Lakers couldn’t shake the Bulls, who pulled within 34-32 on a layup by Robinson, Howard picking up his third foul on the play.
Howard remained in the game but the Bulls briefly pulled ahead, going up 36-34 on a basket by Carlos Boozer.
The Lakers regained the lead shortly thereafter on a 3-pointer by Meeks, and led 44-40 at the half, but not without a little drama. After World Peace was called for a foul on an illegal screen, denying Bryant a chance to take the final shot of the half, Bryant and World Peace barked at each other as they made their way upcourt. Nash got between the two to calm them down.
Howard led the Lakers with eight points and 11 rebounds, while Bryant finished the half with six points on 3 of 9 shooting. Robinson led the Bulls with 13 points.
Notes: Lakers forward Pau Gasol (foot injury; torn plantar fascia) remains on track to return before the end of the regular season. “Gasol is coming on,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s five weeks on Tuesday, and they said six to eight weeks, so hopefully that’s the case. If there are no setbacks, he should be back.” ... Bulls guard Derrick Rose, recovering from surgery on his left knee in May, is close to returning. But coach Tom Thibodeau said he can’t look ahead to how the team will adjust with Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, back on the floor. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Thibodeau said. “For us right now, the guys that are playing, they have to concentrate on their improvement and our next opponent. Derrick has to concentrate on his rehab.”