LA Lakers 124, Sacramento 101

LOS ANGELES, April 15 (AP) - The Los Angeles Lakers began the season in chaos 5 1/2 months ago. They finished it as the Western Conference champions.

Pau Gasol had 22 points, leading MVP candidate Kobe Bryant added 20, and the Lakers beat the short-handed Sacramento Kings 124-101 Tuesday night to clinch the No. 1 seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

"I told the guys to celebrate, have a good time for two days,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We're back to business Thursday.''

The Lakers (57-25) begin the playoffs this weekend - most likely Sunday - against Denver or Dallas. It will be the Nuggets unless they beat Memphis and Dallas loses to No. 2 seed New Orleans on Wednesday night. If the Hornets win, they'll have the same record as the Lakers, but Los Angeles wins the tiebreaker because of a better conference record.

The Lakers enter the playoffs having gone 8-1 to finish the regular season.

"It's all about momentum,'' Bryant said. "You want to be playing your best basketball going into the playoffs, and we feel like we're doing that so we ended the season exactly where we wanted to.''

The Lakers were 3-0 against Denver this season and 3-1 against Dallas.

"Whoever we face, we're going to have our hands full,'' said Bryant, mindful of the strength and depth in the West, where as many as eight teams could finish with at least 50 victories. "No matter who you match up with in the West, it's going to be tough.''

Gasol shot 9-of-11 before coming out of the game for good with 2:38 left in the third quarter, and Bryant joined him on the bench moments later after having shot just 3-of-13. But he went 13-of-14 from the foul line.

Lamar Odom added 15 points and 12 rebounds, Vladimir Radmanovic scored 14 points, Jordan Farmar added 13, and Ronny Turiaf had 10 points and six assists for the Lakers, who went strictly with reserves in the fourth quarter.

Quincy Douby led the Kings (38-44) with a career-high 32 points. Beno Udrih scored 22 points, Francisco Garcia added 15 and Shelden Williams had 12 points and a season-high 11 rebounds.

The Kings played their final game of the season without their top three scorers: Kevin Martin, Ron Artest and Brad Miller. Artest, who has a sprained left thumb, missed the final two games after scoring 22 points in a 94-91 victory over New Orleans on Saturday night, a triumph that opened the door for the Lakers to win the West.

"We fought through a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries,'' Kings coach Reggie Theus said. "(The Lakers) definitely understood that this was a team that had come in here once before and beat them. This was a game they really needed, and they played like they should have. They are a great basketball team. It will be interesting to see what will happen in the playoffs. They have the potential in that locker room to do it all.''

The Lakers overcame injuries to up-and-coming center Andrew Bynum and backup forward Trevor Ariza to win the West after a 9-8 start. Bynum (left knee) hasn't played since Jan. 13, and Ariza (right foot) has been sidelined since being injured a week later. There's no timetable on their return.

The acquisition of Gasol from Memphis on Feb. 1 has paid huge dividends. The Lakers are 22-5 with the 7-footer in their lineup. Gasol returned earlier this month after missing nine games because of a sprained ankle.

Reserves Farmar, Turiaf and Sasha Vujacic showed significant improvement between last season and this one.

Gasol has never played on a team that has won a playoff game, much less a series.

"I'm not really looking, thinking about the past, just focusing on what we've got here, an opportunity to do something great,'' he said. "It doesn't stop here.''

Bryant, regarded as one of the NBA's best players for several years but without an MVP award in 11 previous seasons, called the Lakers' front office a mess and demanded a trade last spring in the wake of the team's failure to win a playoff series for the third straight year.

After things calmed down, team owner Dr. Jerry Buss said during training camp he was listening to offers, angering Bryant again. Trade talk was a constant for the first weeks of the season, but Bryant said recently this has been his most satisfying year because of the relationship he's had with his teammates.

Bryant said he didn't believe the Lakers could win the West last summer, but added: "We talked about it in training camp, our goal was to win the championship. It's been a great turnaround. We all feel very good about it. We're excited about it. We're all very proud of each other. There's still a lot of work to be done.''

Odom scored five points during a 12-4 run that gave the Lakers a 76-57 lead early in the third quarter, and a 22-7 spurt to end the period made it 101-72. The Lakers led by as many as 30 points in the fourth quarter.

Garcia sat out the last 8 1/2 minutes of the second quarter with three fouls, and teammate Spencer Hawes soon picked up his third and went to the bench. The Lakers led 62-48 at halftime thanks to a 3-pointer by Farmar at the buzzer. Douby, averaging 4.4 points, had 15 in the half to match his previous season high.

The Lakers, who never trailed for the 15th time this season, made their first four shots for an 8-0 lead, and led 34-27 entering the second quarter.

Notes: Since the NBA went to the conference format in 1970, the Lakers have held the No. 1 seed in the West 14 times. ... The Lakers won the season series with Sacramento 3-1 for the second straight year. The Kings beat them 114-113 last month at Staples Center. ... Martin, Artest and Miller averaged 57.6 points between them this season. ... Bryant had two of his five assists in the first quarter to him 4,000 in his career, becoming the 16th player in NBA history with 21,000 points and 4,000 assists. He is the third player in franchise history to reach 4,000 assists, joining Magic Johnson and Jerry West.

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