- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Pau Gasol had a season-high 36 points and 11 rebounds and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the top playoff seed in the Western Conference with a 103-95 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Friday night.

Shaking off some uncharacteristic poor shooting early and a sprained right ankle before halftime, Kobe Bryant scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and added nine assists as the Lakers (58-14) won their fifth straight.

Derek Fisher added 18 points and Lamar Odom had 12 points and 11 rebounds in Phil Jackson’s record-setting 728th game as the Lakers’ coach.

Vince Carter had 20 for the fading Nets, who lost their third in a row. All-Star guard Devin Harris returned from a shoulder injury that sidelined him 12 days and had 13 points and 14 assists. Brook Lopez added 16 points and 10 rebounds.

The Lakers had some scary moments in a game in which they nearly blew a 22-point third-quarter lead, but none was scarier than the sight of Bryant falling to the court late in the first half after colliding with Harris on a drive to the basket.

The former MVP lay on the court for about a minute before limping off to the locker room with a sprained ankle. He started the second half and finished 5-of-19 from the field.

The Lakers played a very inconsistent game, looking unbelievably focused at times and then letting up when they had the Nets on the verge of being blown out.

They built a 14-point lead behind Gasol and Fisher early in the second quarter, only to see the Nets cut the deficit to 51-49 at the half with a late 18-6 spurt.

New Jersey eventually tied it at 57 early in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Carter.

The shot seemed to wake up the Lakers. They scored the next 16 points and 24 of 26 to take an 81-59 lead with less than three minutes left in the quarter.

Bryant, who hit two of his first 10 shots, hit a short bank shot early in the run and then brought the Izod Center crowd to its feet late in the run with three consecutive 3-pointers _ a feat that had the fans chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P’

However, the Nets cut the deficit to 11 points at the end of the third quarter and got to within three points twice, the last on a 3-pointer by Jarvis Hayes, who finished with 19 points off the bench.

Odom then followed a Bryant miss with an aggressive rebound and Gasol hit a jumper to push the lead to 97-90 with 1:21 to go.

After Lopez and Gasol exchanged baskets, Hayes hit his fourth 3-pointer to get New Jersey within 99-95 with less than a minute to go.

But Gasol, who previous high was 34 points this season, drove for a layup and then hit two free throws after getting his final rebound to close out the game.

Notes:@ Riley coached 727 games with the Lakers. … New Jersey outrebounded the Lakers 48-37. … The Nets had a season-high 22 turnovers with Bryant getting four steals. … Gasol was three assists shy of a triple-double. … The game was a sellout with 19,990 in attendance. … Los Angeles is 4-0 on its seven-game road trip.

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