By MATT BEARDMORE
Posted Mar 02 2013 8:59PM
Another victory won't move the Los Angeles Lakers back into the Western Conference playoff picture, but it will lift them to .500.
The Lakers will try to get to the break-even point for the first time in more than two months on Sunday night when they go for a seventh straight home victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
Acquiring Dwight Howard and two-time MVP Steve Nash in the offseason brought championship expectations, but this Lakers team has grossly underachieved.
Los Angeles (29-30), though, is enjoying its best stretch of the season with 12 wins in 17 games. The Lakers are just 2 1/2 games behind eighth-place Houston and eyeing a .500 record for the first time since they were 15-15 on Dec. 28.
"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 in Thursday's 116-94 home win over Minnesota.
"I think that improvement has been a long time coming, but it's only the beginning. We really need to continue to improve."
Even in his 17th season, 34-year-old Kobe Bryant has still found a way to improve his game, shooting a career-best 47.2 percent. He's hit 59.6 of his field-goal attempts in the last four contests while averaging 35.0 points. The league's fifth all-time leading scorer has taken 21 or more shots in each of those games after a 13-game run when he took more than 19 just twice.
"I've been in attack mode since the (All-Star) break. It's go time," Bryant said Thursday after hitting four 3-pointers and scoring 33 points. "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)."
The Hawks (33-24) can forget about catching East-leading Miami (42-14) in the Southeast Division, but they're in a tight battle with Brooklyn for the fourth seed and the first-round home-court advantage that comes with it.
Atlanta was hoping to arrive at Staples Center on a five-game winning streak, but it committed 21 turnovers in Friday's 92-87 loss to Phoenix.
"It's been good for us these first three games of the road trip, and we've been playing very well, (but) maybe we needed a game like this to just snap up back into reality," said coach Larry Drew, a former Laker point guard. "Now we have to go into LA to play against a very tough Laker team and then we go to Denver (on Monday) to finish this road trip out. We let a golden opportunity slip away tonight, but we've got to be ready for the next."
Howard better be ready for Al Horford, who has been on a tear over the last eight games - averaging 24.8 points and 11.8 rebounds.
Atlanta, though, will likely need a better offensive effort from Josh Smith, who had five points on 2-of-11 shooting on Friday, if it's going to post its first road win in this series since Feb. 15, 2006.
Playing without Horford (torn pectoral muscle), the Hawks had one of their worst shooting performances of the season (34.4 percent) in the last matchup between these teams, an 86-78 Lakers home win last Feb. 14.
Bryant finished with a season-low 10 points in that contest, Los Angeles' third straight victory over Atlanta.
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