Hours after longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss was buried, and a day after a moving memorial service punctuated by eulogies from Bryant and other franchise greats, the team got back to basketball with a much-needed victory at Staples Center.
"It's been a tough week," Howard acknowledged. "But as a team and a city and an organization, we're coming together. And it's great. We need all the support we can get from our fans, and the Buss family needs the support from us. So we're getting there. You could see the effort and emotion that we have on the court."
During his eulogy, Bryant publicly challenged his teammates in the audience to win a championship in Buss' memory -- even though the Lakers are 3 1/2 games behind Houston for the final Western Conference playoff spot with 26 games remaining.
"Kobe said what he had to say. But as a team, we understand how important the second half of the season is for us and what we want to accomplish," Howard said. "We've had a lot of ups and downs this year, and we want to do whatever we can to get this right. Kobe and myself understand that. It starts with me and him, as far as being on the same page. And on defense, it starts with me."
Bryant scored 11 points in the final 5 1/2 minutes as the Lakers won for the seventh time in 10 games.
Antawn Jamison had 16 points off the bench, helping to hand Portland its season-worst seventh straight loss. The Trail Blazers have lost five consecutive road games and 10 of their last 11 away from the Rose Garden, leaving them 11th in the conference standings.
Portland led 82-80 after three quarters, and the lead changed hands 11 times before Steve Nash's layup gave the Lakers a 107-105 lead with 1:44 to play. Bryant fumbled the ball out of bounds on the Lakers' next possession, but the Blazers couldn't capitalize and Bryant closed it out with four free throws in the final 13 seconds.
Bryant finished 9 for 9 from the line and 15 of 23 from the floor, but still called it "somewhat of an off-shooting night."
"I had to be a little bit more assertive -- but at the same time make plays for my team," said Bryant, who committed five turnovers. "I've been having off-shooting nights for the last month. We just need to continue to focus and approach every game like it's a playoff game."
Howard, looking for his sixth rebounding title in seven seasons, came in averaging an NBA-best and career-high 11.8 boards per game. The Lakers are 19-12 when he gets double digits in rebounds, and 11 of those losses have come on nights when he grabbed 14 or more. They wasted 26 boards in a home loss to Denver on Jan. 6, and 20 in a Dec. 11 loss at Cleveland.
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"I think a lot of us are playing a lot harder. I know for myself, I'm in better shape now and I'm able to do more. So that's going to get better," Howard said. "I think I have to really come out every night with the same intensity and the same effort. I have to do a better job of playing hard, and I'm going to try."
J.J. Hickson had 22 points and 11 rebounds for Portland, and Nicolas Batum also scored 22. Two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 15 points in 34 foul-plagued minutes after picking up his fifth personal with 8 minutes remaining.
Damian Lillard added 19 points. All of Portland's starters scored in double figures, while the bench produced just 14.
Hickson, who came in fifth in the NBA with a 56.5 field goal percentage, shot 8 for 10 in the first half and had 16 points -- including a 20-footer with 2.6 seconds on the clock to give the Blazers a 55-53 lead at the break.
"I like the way our team fought," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We've had a rough stretch, but we came out and played aggressively. We pushed the tempo and did a lot of good things out there. I thought we played well enough to win the game, but unfortunately we didn't."
NOTES: The Lakers (27-29) haven't been under .500 this deep into a season since 1993-94, when they were 21-35 after 56 games and finished 33-49. That was the first of only two times that the team didn't make the playoffs during Buss' term as owner, which began in 1979-80. ... The Lakers are 5-13 when Bryant commits five or more turnovers. ... Bryant hit a 3-pointer in the first quarter that snapped his string of 16 consecutive misses from behind the arc. He is only 2 for 39 since Jan. 20, when he misfired on his last two attempts. "I didn't realize I was shooting so poorly from the 3," Bryant said. "It was one of those things where I was facilitating and taking a 3 here and there, a 3 here and there. All of a sudden, it adds up. It just irked me it's not going down." ... Hickson was 11 for 15 from the field, extending his club-record streak to 18 consecutive games of shooting 50 percent or better. ... No Lakers player scored 30 or more points in the team's previous 17 games since Jan. 15, when Bryant and Howard each had 31 in a 104-88 home win against Milwaukee. ... The Blazers haven't lost more than seven straight games in the same season since 2005-06, when they dropped their final eight and 19 of their last 20. They begin a four-game homestand Sunday against the Celtics, who have beaten Portland six straight times and won 13 of the past 14 meetings. ... The Blazers have lost six straight road games against the Lakers, and are 5-20 against them at Staples Center since the arena opened in 1999-00.
Press; By JOE RESNICK]
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