Starting with Kobe Bryant's soaring dunk over Nikola Pekovic on their second possession, the Los Angeles Lakers jumped to a big lead against a woeful opponent and never fumbled it away while moving to the brink of a .500 record.
After the Lakers' tumultuous season, such simple achievements qualify as serious progress toward a playoff spot.
Bryant scored 33 points and Antawn Jamison added 17 in the Lakers' 21st consecutive victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, 116-94 on Thursday night.
The Lakers (29-30) have won 12 of 17 and five of seven while moving within two games of Houston for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with their longest stretch of solid play this year. They're getting steady leadership from Bryant, who has reasserted himself as a scorer after working as a setup man for several weeks.
"I've been in attack mode since the break. It's go time," Bryant said. "We're getting a little closer, and we're starting to get in more of a striking distance where you start watching (the playoff race)."
Bryant and Jodie Meeks each hit four of Los Angeles' 16 3-pointers, and Meeks finished with 16 points. Bryant had 22 points in a strong first half for the Lakers, focused on scoring while the Timberwolves overcompensated defensively for the low-post absence of Andrei Kirilenko, who has a strained right calf, and Pekovic, who left early with an abdominal strain.
Frequently guarded by Los Angeles native Derrick Williams, Bryant catalyzed a solid all-around game by the Lakers, who finally appeared to become a cohesive team in February. Bryant and Steve Nash sat out the fourth quarter for the Lakers, who will have a chance to get back to .500 for the first time since Dec. 28 when they host Atlanta on Sunday night.
"We've had enough time together where we've turned a corner and we're making improvement instead of continually taking steps back," said Nash, who had 10 points and seven assists. "I think that improvement has been a long time coming, but it's only the beginning. We really need to continue to improve."
J.J. Barea scored 20 points and Luke Ridnour added 19 for the short-handed Timberwolves, who have lost four straight and 20 of 24. Ricky Rubio had 13 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds, but thanks to its latest injury woes, Minnesota never threated to get its first road win over the Lakers since Dec. 2, 2005.
"It's been horrendous. I've never seen anything like this," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. "And it's not just getting injuries, but when the guys do start trickling back, they haven't played together, so we've got no rhythm as a team. We're just trying to fit people in. It's been really frustrating, but I give our guys credit. They're still trying to fight through it. After a while, it gets really old, but the schedule doesn't stop. You've got to keep playing."
Los Angeles' mastery of Minnesota is the NBA's longest active winning streak in any matchup. The Lakers never trailed the undermanned Wolves in the latest meeting, cruising to their 13th straight home win over Minnesota.
The Lakers haven't lost to Minnesota since March 6, 2007.
Starting with Bryant's poster-worthy slam over Pekovic, the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history played the entire half with particular fire. Los Angeles' veteran legs appeared rejuvenated by two days off, and the Lakers took a 10-point halftime lead on nearly 53 percent shooting with eight 3-pointers.
"Man, it's tough. I don't think anybody in here has ever lost like this before," Williams said. "I mean, we've had only nine or 10 players all season, and it takes a toll on you every single night — especially against the Lakers, who have a couple of guys that come off the bench who could start on a lot of teams in the NBA."
Barea kept Minnesota close with 13 points on a series of strong drives to the hoop, but the Wolves' lack of inside depth was obvious. Rubio also responded well to his benching late in Tuesday's overtime loss at Phoenix.
NOTES: Los Angeles finished one 3-pointer shy of tying its franchise record for a regulation game, most recently matched Nov. 30 against Denver. ... Kevin Love attended the game, but the former UCLA star hasn't played since Jan. 3 due to a broken bone in his right hand. ... Zach Galifianakis, Will Arnett, Adam Carolla, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Los Angeles Galaxy players Robbie Keane and Mike Magee watched from courtside.