LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers really think they're on to something, even if it's nothing revolutionary. They're gaining confidence in their newfound attitude and approach with each victory they're producing.
Not even a fantastic fourth-quarter rally by the New Orleans Hornets could shake Kobe's conviction that the Lakers have finally figured out a few things about their puzzling season.
Dwight Howard scored 24 points, Bryant had 14 points and 11 assists in another pass-first performance, and the Lakers hung on to beat New Orleans 111-106 Tuesday night for their first three-game winning streak in five weeks.
Earl Clark had 20 points and 12 rebounds for the Lakers (20-25), who jumped to an 18-point lead midway through the fourth quarter with their third straight game of patient passing and hard-nosed defense quarterbacked by Bryant. The fifth-leading scorer in NBA history has warmly embraced his new role as a playmaker — no surprise for somebody whose first basketball muse was Magic Johnson.
"It's working pretty well," said Bryant, whose 39 assists in the Lakers' last three games are the biggest three-game total of his 17-season career. "It's very easy for me to look over the defense and know where they're coming from, just kind of line my guys up in the right way and just pick them apart."
With Bryant running the show, the Lakers even survived a frenetic finish. Their lead dwindled to 102-101 with 2 minutes left shortly after an electric 16-2 run in a 2½ minute stretch by the Hornets, but Clark hit a layup and Steve Nash calmly buried a 3-pointer with 1:21 left to clinch Los Angeles' ninth straight win over New Orleans.
Nash had 12 points and five assists, while Antawn Jamison scored 16 points. Four-time All-Star Pau Gasol had seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists as a reserve in the Lakers' final home game before a seven-game trip, their longest of the season, while the Grammy Awards take over Staples Center.
The trip should be daunting for the Lakers, who have lost 15 of 20 on the road this season, including seven straight since Christmas. Instead, they're optimistic about trying out their new approach in a hostile environment.
"We're doing a good job of not being selfish, and of doing whatever we can to help our team win," Howard said. "Things are clicking for us. Our offense is a lot smoother, and on defense we're really holding each other accountable."
Sounds simple — but the Lakers have rarely looked this good in their complex season.
Eric Gordon scored 18 of his 25 points in the first half for the Hornets, who got within one point on Greivis Vasquez's running jumper.
Ryan Anderson scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter for the Hornets, who had won eight of 12, including an impressive victory in Memphis two nights earlier at the start of their five-game trip. Anderson, Vasquez and Robin Lopez led the impressive late rally that just fell short, with Lopez finishing with 16 points and nine rebounds.
"We're a young team that's still building chemistry, and to come back like that is a really good confidence boost for the guys," said Gordon, a Staples Center favorite in his career with the Clippers. "We had a chance to win. We were getting a lot of stops and were scoring at will. It just boiled down to the final plays."
Rookie Anthony Davis had 18 points for the Hornets, who haven't beaten the Lakers at Staples Center since January 2009.
Bryant reached new statistical heights in his revamped role, racking up 10 assists in three straight games for just the fifth time in his career and the first time in four years. Bryant also had eight rebounds, falling just short of a triple-double for the third straight game.
Two days after beating Oklahoma City in impressive fashion, the Lakers got right back to their improved form in the first half, holding the Hornets scoreless for 7:41 spanning the first two quarters with a 17-0 run.
"Even though we were down 18, we should have won the game," Vasquez said. "It's hard losing like that, but I thought we battled. We just can't get down by 18. We can't allow us to do that to ourselves. We've got to bring the juice from the beginning. We're good enough to beat anybody if we just play with energy. If we don't play with energy, it's going to be a long night."
NOTES: The Hornets' brutal road trip began in Tennessee and will eventually take them to Minnesota for their fourth game in five nights on Saturday. They'll be at Utah on Wednesday night. ... Steve Blake had two points and four assists in the veteran guard's first appearance for the Lakers since Nov. 11. He had missed the Lakers' past 37 games with an abdominal injury that required surgery and resulting groin problems. ... The Lakers missed four free throws in less than 1 second of clock time midway through the third quarter. After Howard missed two, Gasol grabbed the rebound and got fouled without the clock moving — but Gasol then missed two as well. Clark collected that rebound, but threw it past Bryant for a backcourt violation.