Saturday Practice Report

On a night when Steve Nash struggled to find his shooting touch, finishing just 2 for 11 from the field, Kobe Bryant carried the Lakers out of halftime, scoring 18 of the team’s 27 third-quarter points.

Bryant recorded 29 of his game-high 40 points in the second half alone, converting on 10 of 14 field goals, while also hitting all nine of his free throws in leading the Lakers to a 111-107 victory over Portland.

“I had to be a little bit more assertive,” Bryant said postgame, “but at the same time make plays for my teammates.”

It was the 117th time he’s hit the 40-point mark in his career, and Bryant also finished with his most efficient shooting night on the year when attempting at least 20 field goals.

“We needed him to score,” Nash acknowledged. “We were getting great shots, I was getting great looks, but obviously, I couldn’t knock something down tonight.”

For good measure, Bryant also hit a 3-pointer in the first quarter, just the second triple he’s made in the entire month of February, while also breaking out of a 1 for 34 slump from deep in the prior 15 contests. In his postgame walk off interview on Time Warner Cable SportsNet with’s Mike Trudell, Bryant suggested that shooting slump from three was very much over.

Alas, while Bryant recorded his highest scoring output since Dec. 26 at Denver, the Lakers bench also stepped up with Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks combining for 26 points.

Steve Blake, who returned to the lineup nearly a month ago, missed all three of his field goal attempts, but he made plays for teammates, and his impact was felt the defensive side of the ball. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni elected to go small in the fourth quarter, pairing Nash and Blake in the backcourt, while using the Maryland product to guard Portland’s floor general and Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard.

“I thought Steve Blake turned the game around with his defense,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a pesky little guy. He didn’t play great offensively because he didn’t make a couple shots, but other than that, he turned the game around. That’s what we need from the bench. Somehow, you have to find a way to contribute to a win and they do that.”

Since Blake’s return from abdominal surgery, L.A. is 8-4, while all three bench players have found a rhythm on the court. Jamison is averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 rebounds, Meeks is shooting 40.9 from the 3-point line, while Blake has provided stability both on offense and defense.

“I’m real happy,” D’Antoni said of the bench’s play. “Antawn, Jodie and Steve have been contributing a lot.”

To sustain this type of play on the road, though, will be a test for the Lakers, who currently own a 9-18 record away from STAPLES. They embark on a small two-game road trip through Dallas and Denver, a Sunday-Monday back-to-back. Fourteen of the next 26 games come on the road.

“That’s going to be the crux of what we do,” D’Antoni said post practice on Saturday. “The way we’re going to win is to play better defense than we did last night, although last night wasn’t bad. We weren’t gritty enough. On the road, you have to be gritty. We have to continue to play good defense, keep moving the ball and we’ll get open shots. Our Achilles heel is turnovers and transition defense. That comes from turnovers and not getting back. Those are two things we can control and if we do that, we’ll win.”