By ANTONIO GONZALEZ, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Kobe Bryant passed Wilt Chamberlain for fourth place on the NBA's scoring list, then put on one of the best passing performances of his storied career.
Bryant scored 19 points and tied a season high with 14 assists despite a nagging left foot injury, and the Los Angeles Lakers kept pace for the Western Conference's final playoff spot by outlasting the Sacramento Kings 103-98 on Saturday night.
"My foot's (messed) up, but other than that, I feel great," he said, chuckling.
Bryant added nine rebounds and facilitated the Lakers' offense for 47 minutes, 37 seconds after Steve Nash exited early in the first quarter with a recurring right hamstring injury. He helped Los Angeles tie a season low with seven turnovers.
"I thought that was key — those 23 seconds. Otherwise he would've been tired," coach Mike D'Antoni said, sarcastically. "He just looked at me and said, 'I'm not coming out tonight.' Sounds good to me."
With Bryant engineering the offense, Los Angeles showed some of its best ball movement of the season.
Dwight Howard had 24 points and 15 rebounds, Pau Gasol added 12 points and 10 assists and three others scored in double figures for the Lakers (38-36), who stayed even with Utah (38-36) for the eighth and final playoff seed. Los Angeles hosts 10th-place Dallas (36-37) in a critical tilt Tuesday night.
Even with the pressure of a playoff race, Bryant was all smiles in a cramped quarter of Sacramento's visiting locker room. He had met Chamberlain when he was about 8 years old in Philadelphia and long held the Lakers legend in higher esteem than some milestones he's reached because of the franchise connection.
"He was like Conan the Barbarian," Bryant said. "That was the most impressive thing to me. He was just a warm-hearted gentleman."
Bryant's latest performance proved too much for the Kings again.
Tyreke Evans had 21 points and nine rebounds, and DeMarcus Cousins added 19 points and 11 rebounds but missed a pair of difficult 3-pointers in the final seconds to seal Sacramento's latest loss. The Lakers won the season series 3-1.
"I guess you can't really talk bad about the way these guys competed," Kings coach Keith Smart said. "I thought our guys did everything they could from a statistical standpoint outside of winning the basketball game."
At least until the closing moments.
Bryant slipped a pass to Gasol for a fast-break dunk — and his 13th assist — to put Los Angeles ahead 98-93 with 4:52 remaining. Gasol also tossed an alley-oop to Howard just before.
Cousins followed with a free throw and a long jumper, and Evans added a layup to slice the Lakers' lead to two. After Bryant missed a jumper, Jodie Meeks stripped Evans on a layup attempt at the other end. Bryant hit 1 of 2 free throws to put the Lakers ahead 101-98 with 24 seconds remaining, giving Sacramento one last chance.
Howard blocked Cousins' 3-point attempt. After pleading with the official for a foul, Cousins got the ball back and he forced a 3-point miss before Bryant's final free throws sealed Sacramento's latest loss.
"The play wasn't for me. I was supposed to hand it off," Cousins said. "But I got hit in my lower groin and it kind of screwed up the play."
Los Angeles lost Nash with a strained right hamstring just 1:48 into the game. D'Antoni patted Nash on the back before the point guard walked gingerly to the locker room and never returned. Nash is day to day.
Sacramento surged ahead 37-25 after the first quarter with a frenetic pace that often left the Lakers' frontline in the backcourt. The Kings, who entered the game averaging an NBA-best 108.9 points since the All-Star break, made 15 of their first 21 from the floor.
Sacramento held Bryant scoreless until he hit a pair of free throws with 8:50 remaining in the second quarter. The shots sparked Bryant and the Lakers late in the half, along with a larger-than-normal sprinkling of Los Angeles fans sporting purple and gold throughout the announced sellout crowd of 17,317.
Bryant made a pull-up jumper from the free throw line with 7:54 remaining in the second quarter to eclipse Chamberlain's mark of 31,419 points. The only three ahead of him now is Michael Jordan (32,292), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).