LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant was asked what it felt like to be a "playoff team," his Lakers having just moved into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference after a 90-81 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.
Bryant, who had 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, let out a less-than-enthusiastic "yippee."
The win improved the Lakers to 33-31, the first time they've been two games over .500 all season. They are one-half game ahead of Utah for the final playoff spot. And while the Lakers may feel a sense of accomplishment in reaching playoff position after such a poor start to the season, Bryant is quick to note there is plenty still left to do.
"We're very focused," Bryant said. "We know what we have to do and what lies ahead. Everybody's locked in."
That would include Lakers center Dwight Howard, who is playing more like the player the Lakers hoped they were getting when he was acquired in a trade with Orlando. Howard scored 16 points on 8 of 14 shooting, blocked four shots and grabbed 21 rebounds, the fourth time this season he's had 20 or more rebounds.
"I think I am getting a little bit better," said Howard, who was 0 for 5 from the free throw line. "I'm just going to keep working on my conditioning, get my timing back and just keep going hard."
The Lakers, who have won eight of 10 since the All-Star break, led by four points at halftime. But point guard Steve Nash keyed a 21-7 third-quarter spurt that put the Lakers up by as many as 18 points. Nash scored 10 of his 16 points in the third quarter.
"We have to try to climb higher," Nash said. "This team is far from a finished product, so we have to improve every night. Get tighter on both ends of the floor. The more we play together the better we should be and the more we should learn how to play together.
"What is the point of getting to the playoffs if you hold tight and this is a finished product? We need to try to improve while we solidify a playoff spot and be a better team, and hopefully a tougher team to compete with in the playoffs."
The Lakers led almost throughout, only briefly falling behind by two points in the second quarter.
Metta World Peace (12 points), Earl Clark (11 points) and Jodie Meeks (10 points) all scored in double figures for the Lakers.
Nate Robinson led the Bulls with 19 points, Joakim Noah had 18 points and 17 rebounds and Carlos Boozer had 12 points and 10 rebounds for Chicago.
Bryant was scoreless in the first quarter and had just six points at halftime, but the Lakers maintained a lead behind Howard's play in the paint.
"I thought Howard in particular in the first half set the tone," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He just dominated the paint with shot-blocking, rebounding, physicality. That set the tone for the game and they dominated us on the boards from the start. Kobe came out as a playmaker so they played well."
The Lakers finished the third quarter with a 73-61 lead when Clark took a pass from Bryant and made a jumper at the buzzer. The Bulls got within eight points on a basket by Boozer with 8:02 left, but got no closer the rest of the way.
Bryant missed all three shots in the first quarter, going scoreless in the opening 12 minutes. World Peace was cold as well, missing four open 3-pointers, but the Lakers held an early lead thanks to Howard's efforts down low. Howard was 3 of 3 from the field for six points and grabbed seven rebounds.
"Dwight is just feeling better," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "You can see it all over the place. His back is better, he's in rhythm, whatever it is he's a monster defensively."
Bryant finally got into the scoring column on a jumper in the lane with 7:15 left until halftime, then quickly hit another outside shot less than a minute later. But the Lakers couldn't shake the Bulls, who pulled to within 34-32 on a layup by Robinson, Howard picking up his third foul on the play.
Howard remained in the game but the Bulls briefly pulled ahead, going up 36-34 on a basket by Carlos Boozer.
The Lakers regained the lead shortly thereafter on a 3-pointer by Jodie Meeks, and led 44-40 at the half, but not without a little drama. After World Peace was called for a foul on an illegal screen, denying Bryant a chance to take the final shot of the half, Bryant and World Peace barked at each other as they made their way up the court. Nash got between the two to calm them down.
NOTES: Lakers forward Pau Gasol (foot injury; torn plantar fascia) remains on track to return before the end of the regular season. "Gasol is coming on," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's five weeks on Tuesday, and they said six to eight weeks, so hopefully that's the case. If there are no setbacks, he should be back." ... Bulls guard Derrick Rose, recovering from surgery on his left knee last May, is close to returning. But coach Tom Thibodeau said he can't look ahead to how the team will adjust with Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, back on the floor. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there," Thibodeau said. "For us right now, the guys that are playing, they have to concentrate on their improvement and our next opponent. Derrick has to concentrate on his rehab."