- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

ATLANTA (AP) - Kobe Bryant wasn’t feeling well. It showed.

Mike Bibby scored 21 points _ including an improbable 3 off the top of the backboard _ and the Atlanta Hawks took advantage of a tough game for Bryant, beating Los Angeles 86-76 Sunday to knock the Lakers another game behind Cleveland in the race for the NBA’s best overall record.

The Hawks led nearly the entire way, bouncing back from consecutive home losses to two other elite teams, San Antonio and defending champion Boston.

The Lakers had won five straight, locking up the top seed in the Western Conference, but an ailing Bryant had just 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Cleveland extended its lead for the best record to two games with a 102-74 win over Dallas.

Bryant, who missed a morning meal and film session because he wasn’t feeling well, had his second straight off game. Coming off a 14-point performance at New Jersey, he picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out most of the first quarter.



He might have been better off just staying there, but no one stepped up to fill the void. Pau Gasol was the only other Los Angeles player in double figures, leading with 21 points, as the Lakers made just 35 percent (28 of 80) from the field.

With Atlanta struggling to make anything, the Lakers pulled to 76-68 approaching the midway point of the final period. But Bibby locked it up for the Hawks with two huge 3-pointers.

His second took the last bit of life out of Lakers, bouncing high off the rim, hitting the top of the backboard and dropping through the hoop to make it 82-70 with 5 1/2 minutes remaining.

Having already clinched the top spot out West, the Lakers suffered a setback in their bid for the best overall record _ and guaranteed home-court advantage should they make it all the way to the finals. They also lost for the first time on a seven-game road trip, which has two games left.

With Bryant on the bench through most of the first, the Lakers struggled to 5-of-23 shooting. Los Angeles led 8-4 when their star picked up his second foul, trying to draw a charge in the backcourt just 4 minutes into the game.

Atlanta outscored the Lakers 16-5 the rest of the period for a 20-13 lead _ Los Angeles’ lowest-scoring opening quarter of the season and less than half of their 27.3-point average in the first.

Bryant returned for most of the second period, sparking the Lakers with his shooting and passing. He scored seven points, even though the Hawks tried to shadow him with little-used defensive specialist Mario West and frequent double teams.

West jawed a bit after a defensive stop on Bryant, which only seemed to fire him up. Isolated on West, he switched directions four times near the top of the key before sinking a 19-foot jumper. When the Hawks tried to double, Bryant found the open man. Gasol and Trevor Ariza both dunked off passes from Bryant.

The Hawks, who had a 29-18 lead midway through the second, settled for a 40-39 advantage at the break. But Atlanta pulled away late in the third.

Maurice Evans hit a 3-pointer, and the Hawks turned it into a four-point play when Zaza Pachulia was elbowed in the side by Jordan Farmer while positioning for a possible rebound. Pachulia got up slowly but made the free throw.

Flip Murray missed a trey but Pachulia made a great tip in traffic for the basket, running back up the court with both hands in the air.

Then Johnson stole the ball from Bryant and passed ahead to Evans, who went in for a thunderous dunk that gave Atlanta a 72-56 lead. Bryant scored off a baseline scoop with 0.2 seconds, but the Lakers went to the fourth down by 14.

Pachulia had 11 points and 13 rebounds, leading a strong effort by the thin Hawks bench. The reserves combined for 29 points and 15 rebounds.

Notes:@ The Lakers’ lowest-scoring first quarter before Sunday was a 16-point effort against Portland on March 9. Their worst offensive output in any period was an 11-point fourth against Atlanta on Feb. 17, when Los Angeles put it on cruise control in a 96-83 victory. … The little-used West scored 4 points. … Atlanta’s Josh Smith, a former NBA dunk champion, missed a breakaway slam and went to the bench with an embarrassed grin.

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