MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kobe Bryant looks just fine at playing small forward.
Bryant had 31 points and seven assists in his first game there filling in for the injured Metta World Peace to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 120-117 victory over Minnesota on Wednesday night, their 22nd straight win over the Timberwolves.
Dwight Howard had 25 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and five steals, and Pau Gasol added 17 points and nine rebounds for the Lakers, who had lost three in a row and were playing their first game without their defensive stopper. World Peace will have surgery on a torn meniscus on Thursday, leaving the Lakers to chase the playoffs without him.
Nikola Pekovic had 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who haven’t beaten the Lakers since March 2007. That was before injured All-Star Kevin Love was even in college.
Down 14 with six minutes to go, the Wolves used “Hack-a-Dwight” to cut back into the lead. Howard went 2 for 8 and Chase Budinger’s putback made the score 114-111 with just over a minute to play.
But Bryant hit a pull-up jumper from 22 feet and his free throw gave the Lakers a three-point lead with 3.4 seconds to go. He missed the second shot, and Ricky Rubio raced back the other way and launched a shot at the buzzer that missed. Replays appeared to show Bryant fouling Rubio, but there was no call.
Rubio stormed off the court and the Lakers walked off a winner. Again.
Lakers fans usually come out to the Target Center in full force, with few of them using the excuse that the franchise started in Minneapolis before moving out west in 1960. But the bandwagon was a little more subdued on Wednesday night as they watched a star-studded team that just has never been able to put it all together this season try to weather another significant injury.
They started the night clinging to the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race, just one game ahead of Utah and Dallas.
The Lakers found out earlier in the day that World Peace needed surgery on his left knee and will be out a minimum of six weeks. For a team barely hanging on to the playoffs in the Western Conference, just about the last thing they could afford to lose — outside of Bryant and Howard, of course — was their best perimeter defender.
The injury pushes Bryant from shooting guard to small forward, a more physically demanding position for his banged-up body, especially on defense. Bryant was harassed by Andrei Kirilenko on the offensive end, and it took him a little time to adjust to the bigger, stronger approach. He turned the ball over three times in the first quarter and missed his first three shots before exploding to the rim for a dunk at the end of the period.
Howard got off to a monster start, neutralizing Pekovic after a big first quarter and controlling the boards. And when he picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter, Bryant made his move. He scored 16 points in a 41-point period for the Lakers, finishing it off with a quick-trigger 3-pointer in Kirilenko’s face that gave Los Angeles a 14-point lead.
Antawn Jamison had 18 points and five rebounds and Steve Nash added 16 points and eight assists for the Lakers.
Budinger had 14 points and nine boards for the Wolves.
NOTES: Bryant is now 35 points from tying Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the career scoring list. … The NBA announced that Warriors F David Lee was retroactively assessed a Flagrant-One foul for the elbow to the mouth that required Howard to get three stitches in his lip. … The Wolves did make a blunder in the “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy. Luke Ridnour fouled Howard intentionally with under two minutes to play, meaning the Lakers got to choose their shooter. Nash made one of two shots.