LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant played relentless defense, spurring his fellow Los Angeles Lakers to do the same. Dwight Howard dominated the paint, scoring easy baskets and blocking shots against the bewildered Bucks.
Over the last two games, the Lakers have resembled the powerhouse everybody envisioned before their tumultuous season began.
They’re about to find out whether they got it together in time to compete with the Miami Heat.
Howard had 31 points and 16 rebounds, Bryant also scored 31 points and the Lakers beat Milwaukee 104-88 Tuesday night for their second straight win after a six-game skid.
Metta World Peace added 12 points as the Lakers prepared for Thursday’s visit from the NBA champion Heat with an impressive effort featuring 30-point games for both Bryant and Howard for the second time in their brief tenure together. After a similar effort against Cleveland two days earlier, the Lakers are cautiously optimistic they’ve solved a few problems.
“It’s been great,” Howard said. “When we play the way we played these last two games, I don’t see anybody beating us. The problem is we have to do it on a consistent basis and not have any lapses during the game. We’re learning, but stuff like that takes time. The biggest thing, we’ve just got to stick together. We can’t let nothing on the outside tear us apart.”
Howard again played with an obvious spark in his second game back from a three-game absence with a torn labrum in his shoulder, blocking four shots and goaltending a couple more when he wasn’t busy overpowering the Bucks on offense. Bryant and Steve Nash, who had 11 assists, focused on getting the ball to Howard close to the rim, and the six-time All-Star center capitalized against Milwaukee’s skinny post players.
“That’s what we try to do,” Bryant said. “A lot of it is predicated defensively on what the opposition does and what they’re willing to give up. We’ve been knocking down some shots and putting me on the same side with (Howard) when Steve runs that screen-and-roll. I’ve knocked down some shots, and it frees him up and makes it a lot easier to get some baskets.”
Monta Ellis scored 17 points for the Bucks, who lost for the second time in five games under interim coach Jim Boylan. Brandon Jennings was held to 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting by Bryant, and Milwaukee’s young star emerged from Staples Center with newfound respect for the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody put that much pressure on a point guard full court for a whole game,” Jennings said. “It was probably the best defense somebody’s ever played on me since I’ve been in the league — just constantly putting pressure on me, touching me, hitting me at all times in the game. He wouldn’t let me just catch the ball easy, and I wasn’t able to get the ball a lot, so it was pretty difficult.”
Los Angeles snapped its longest losing streak in nearly six years with a win over the Cavaliers on Sunday. Pau Gasol missed his fifth straight game Tuesday for the Lakers with a concussion, but the 7-foot Spaniard worked out before the game and will be re-examined before Miami’s visit.
The Lakers took a slim lead into the fourth quarter, but steadily increased it through the final minutes with a 23-7 run. Bryant dipped into his usual array of acrobatic shots while also setting up Howard for points in the paint, and the five-time NBA champion left to a standing ovation with 3:07 left in his 22nd consecutive game with at least 20 points.
“Kobe changed the complexion of the game with his pressure in the backcourt,” Boylan said. “They knocked us off balance early, and we fought back. … We missed a lot of shots, but mainly because of their pressure. They played a really good defensive game.”
Jennings was the Eastern Conference’s player of the week for averaging 24.5 points in the last four games under Boylan’s leadership, but Bryant held him to two points in the first half. Jennings got going with a four-point play early in the third quarter, but never managed consistent production against Bryant and his teammates.
The Lakers’ starters clicked on offense early, building a 12-point lead in the first quarter with dominant play down low from Howard. Ellis kept the Bucks close with a first-half scoring spree against the Lakers’ reserves.
NUGGETS 115, TRAIL BLAZERS 111, OT
DENVER — Wilson Chandler hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 14.9 seconds remaining in overtime and Denver beat Portland for its season-best sixth consecutive victory.
Danilo Gallinari had 25 points, including a key 3-pointer in the extra period. Ty Lawson added 24 points and 12 assists for the Nuggets, who are 2-0 in overtime this season.
Portland, which lost for the first time in six OT games this season, was led by LaMarcus Aldridge’s 28 points. Nicolas Batum had 22 points and J.J. Hickson 19.
PACERS 103, BOBCATS 76
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Roy Hibbert had 18 points and seven rebounds, and Indiana handed Charlotte its 13th straight home loss.
The Pacers bounced back from Sunday’s 11-point defeat to Brooklyn and won for the fifth time in six games.
With team owner Michael Jordan looking on from the bench, the Bobcats lost their fifth in a row. They’ve dropped 24 of 26 since Thanksgiving.
Indiana won this one going away behind some dominant inside play, outrebounding the Bobcats 60-31 and outscoring them 52-22 in the paint.
Paul George had 16 points and 10 rebounds, while David West added 15 points and eight rebounds for the Pacers. George Hill chipped in with 16 points and seven rebounds.
The Central Division leaders (24-15) have not lost consecutive games since Dec. 9.
Gerald Henderson led the Bobcats with 15 points.
NETS 113, RAPTORS 106
NEW YORK — Brook Lopez had 22 points and nine rebounds, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams each scored 21 points, and Brooklyn beat Toronto to extend its season-high winning streak to seven games.
Andray Blatche added 14 points for the Nets, in the midst of their longest winning streak since running off 14 in a row late in the 2005-06 season. A .500 team when they fired Avery Johnson late last month, Brooklyn is 9-1 under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo and has pulled within 1½ games of the New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead.
The Nets dominated the fourth quarter again, pulling away for their sixth straight home victory.
Kyle Lowry scored 21 points for the Raptors, who have dropped two in a row but still have 10 wins in their last 15 games.
HORNETS 111, 76ERS 99
PHILADELPHIA — Greivis Vasquez scored 23 points and Eric Gordon added 19 to help New Orleans beat Philadelphia.
Ryan Anderson had 14 points, Xavier Henry scored 11 and Anthony Davis 10 for the Hornets, who are last in the Western Conference at 12-26 — with matching 6-13 records at home and on the road.
Jrue Holiday led the Sixers with 29 points and 11 assists. Nick Young and Evan Turner added 14 points each while Thaddeus Young scored 12.
Philadelphia hasn’t won consecutive games since a three-game streak from Nov. 25-30.