- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The Los Angeles Lakers are the West’s first team in the playoffs. Kobe Bryant made sure of it.

Bryant scored the last of his 23 points on a 3-pointer with 1:46 left, and the Lakers secured a postseason spot with a 102-95 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night.

The Spurs have been the West’s No. 2 team most of the season, and Los Angeles validated that pecking order. The Lakers also wrapped up the Pacific Division in the final rematch this season of the 2008 Western Conference finals.

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Tony Parker and Michael Finley led San Antonio with 25 points apiece. Drew Gooden made his Spurs debut after being signed a week ago, but played just 3 1/4 minutes, scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds.

Lamar Odom had 12 points and 10 rebounds for Los Angeles in his return from a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in Monday’s loss to Portland.

One night after ending Houston’s 12-game home winning streak, the Lakers wrapped up their road swing by bringing San Antonio’s three-game winning string to a halt.

The loss cut San Antonio’s lead over the Rockets in the Southwest Division to two games, with the Spurs heading to Houston on Saturday. The Rockets play at Charlotte on Friday.

Tim Duncan had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs.

Trevor Ariza, who joined the Lakers’ starting lineup this week, scored 10 points. Derek Fisher also added 10.

If it was a West playoff preview, it didn’t feel that way until the fourth quarter. Los Angeles led by as much as 18 in the first quarter, but San Antonio chipped away, cutting the lead to 95-93 on a 3-pointer from Parker with 2:18 left.

Then Bryant, with rookie George Hill closely guarding him, drained a 3-pointer that quashed any hopes of a Spurs comeback. As Bryant left the court, several dozen fans chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” in what is usually hostile territory for the Lakers.

The close finished belied what looked like a Lakers blowout from the start.

Forcing the usually careful Spurs into several first-half turnovers and the Lakers rolled to a 35-17 lead _ the most points allowed by the Spurs in the first quarter all season.

Bryant had 14 at the half against defenders ranging from 37-year-old Bruce Bowen to the rookie Hill. Finley kept the Spurs as close as he could, hitting a trio of 3-pointers and scoring 17 in the first half.

San Antonio trailed 78-70 to start the fourth period, but the Lakers couldn’t put the Spurs away. Finley’s 3-pointer with 10:30 left cut the lead to 81-78, bringing the sold-out crowd to its feet.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before the game he didn’t know if Gooden would play, then inserted his new big man for a brief spell in the second half. It was just the third appearance since Jan. 19 for Gooden, who has been hobbled by a groin injury since starting the season in Chicago and then being traded to Sacramento last month.

Notes: The Lakers took the season series from the Spurs 2-1. … Coach Phil Jackson said if Odom feels any guilt for getting suspended for leaving the bench against Portland, he shouldn’t. “Those instincts are just sometimes stronger than rationale,” Jackson said. “It’s just a cockamamie rule. It’s a rule has some sense in it, but doesn’t stand up all the time. It just doesn’t.”

(This version CORRECTS Lakers 102, Spurs 95. corrects score.)

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