Kobe Bryant is pushing Los Angeles to strive for a lofty goal, but the Lakers also have a more modest one of getting to the .500 mark.
They can move a step closer Sunday by continuing their recent success over the surging Dallas Mavericks, whose owner Mark Cuban might have added a little spice to the rivalry.
While giving a eulogy for late owner Jerry Buss on Thursday, Bryant challenged his teammates to honor his memory by continuing to improve, saying the Lakers were "playing for something bigger than ourselves, bigger than a single season."
Los Angeles (27-29) is below .500 this late in the season for the first time since 1993-94, one of five times the franchise didn't reach the playoffs since its founding in Minneapolis in 1948-49. The Lakers are just outside of position for another postseason berth in the Western Conference but have helped their chances by winning 10 of 14.
Bryant, who recently guaranteed that his team would make the playoffs, scored 11 of his 40 points in the final 5 1/2 minutes Friday to help the Lakers pull away in a 111-107 victory over visiting Portland.
"Kobe said what he had to say. But as a team, we understand how important the second half of the season is for us and what we want to accomplish," said center Dwight Howard, who had 19 points and 16 rebounds. "We've had a lot of ups and downs this year, and we want to do whatever we can to get this right.
"Kobe and myself understand that. It starts with me and him, as far as being on the same page. And on defense, it starts with me."
The Lakers will try to keep rolling by earning their eighth win in the last nine regular-season matchups with the Mavericks (25-29). Los Angeles cruised to its fourth straight win in Dallas on Nov. 24, as Antawn Jamison had 19 points and a season-high 15 rebounds in a 115-89 rout.
Dallas, one spot behind Los Angeles in the West, defeated New Orleans 104-100 on Friday for its fifth win in six games. Vince Carter made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 6.5 seconds left and finished with 22 points while Dirk Nowitzki had a team-best 25, one shy of matching his best performance since returning from knee surgery.
"We're playing for a lot of marbles, of course, just trying to get ourselves back into the (playoff) race," Carter said. "It was a must-win game just like every game we're going to play from here on out. We're trying to approach every game with a playoff mentality."
Having a playoff mentality might not be difficult with the Lakers visiting, and Cuban could have helped stoke the intensity by suggesting recently on a Dallas radio show that Los Angeles should use the amnesty clause on Bryant's contract, which has one year and $30.5 million remaining.
"We're aware of Mark Cuban's comments and fell they are inappropriate," team spokesman John Black said in a statement.
Having Nowitzki available might help the Mavericks beat the Lakers for only the second time since sweeping them out of the 2011 playoffs en route to their only NBA title. He's averaging 24.9 points in his last 10 games against Los Angeles, including the postseason.
Bryant is shooting 65.1 percent (28 of 43) in his last three games against the Mavericks, and Pau Gasol is averaging 21.3 points while shooting 68.3 percent (28 of 41) in his past three visits to Dallas.
Howard had his streak of eight consecutive double-doubles against the Mavericks snapped in November and will next try to prevent Dallas from matching its season-high four-game win streak from Jan. 10-16.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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