For a Lakers team that has had its ability to focus at crunch time questioned by its coach and has played more close games than anyone in the NBA, Kobe Bryant is building a case that no player is more valuable to his team.
Behind Bryant's 45 points Monday night at Staples Center, the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers, 96-90, and the strongest "M-V-P" chant to date echoed through the arena for Bryant late in the game.
Bryant's prolific scoring roll went further historic Monday with his fourth consecutive game of 45 or more points: The only players to do that in NBA history are Wilt Chamberlain (most recently in 1964) and Elgin Baylor (1961).
Bryant could have had more had he shot better than 15 of 21 from the foul line. He made 14 of 32 field-goal attempts when he wasn't racking up fouls on Indiana's Ron Artest-less perimeter. Bryant also had 10 rebounds and a team-high five assists.
It was the Lakers' 20th game this season to be decided by six points or fewer when no other NBA team has played more than 15. Since Lakers coach Phil Jackson questioned his team's scattered minds leading to late-game mistakes, Bryant has played the entire second half twice and led the Lakers to narrow victories twice: Saturday night over the Clippers and in this game over Indiana.
The Lakers are now 9-11 in those games decided by six points or fewer and have won three consecutive games since bottoming out with a five-game losing streak.
Jackson's preseason hopes for consistent double-doubles in points and rebounds from power forward Kwame Brown might be around the corner. After posting just his second double-double all season with 10 points and 10 rebounds against the Clippers and Elton Brand, Brown had nine points and nine rebounds Monday night.
Most critically, Brown was the Lakers' best defender against Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal (24 points on 8-of-21 shooting). Brown's quick feet repeatedly surprised O'Neal, who charged into Brown with the Lakers up, 85-83, and 2:36 to play.
"We felt that at the time we traded for him (Brown), we needed a presence inside, someone who could be a stopper," Jackson said.
Bryant had to do a lot of heavy lifting on offense again because Lamar Odom was again an inconsistent scoring force. Odom (17 points on 6-of-14 shooting) put on a late free-throw burst and avoided a fifth consecutive game with single-figure points, excluding the two games Bryant missed while suspended. Odom did sink a big three-pointer with 1:20 left to boost the Lakers' lead to 90-85.
Yet Odom made more than his share of mental mistakes in this game and had three assists, his fewest since December 20. Before the game, Jackson praised Odom for setting up the team offense and setting up Bryant, but said the "next step" will be Odom setting himself up.
"Inside of our offense, he still lacks the ability to know how to get to his strengths," Jackson said.
The sooner that happens, the less strain on Bryant.
"He needs to find a way to involve himself in the game from a scoring end," Jackson said, "so Kobe doesn't have to say, 'I have to pick this team up.' "
In other NBA action: Utah 97, Washington 89; Dallas 104, Boston 102; Chicago 113, Toronto 104.