LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers have all the ingredients to repeat as NBA champions for the first time since completing their three-peat in 2002. Staying healthy is a must, and now Andrew Bynum is a question mark -- again.
Kobe Bryant had 22 points and a season-high 13 assists, leading Los Angeles to a 104-96 victory over Minnesota on Friday night and sending the Timberwolves to their 12th straight loss.
But most of the postgame attention focused on Bynum, who strained his left Achilles' tendon early in the third quarter and left the game with 11 points and five rebounds.
"The guys on this team, we've been playing together for a while, so that's not a problem. You just continue to play," Bryant said. "We're used to playing through injuries and things like that. I saw him after the game and he wasn't limping too much, so hopefully it's not that serious and he won't miss any time.
"But we need his rebounding and his defense. We throw the ball into him a lot, and he gets easy buckets for us with his size."
Lamar Odom scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol added 17 points and 14 rebounds to help the Lakers win their sixth in a row, following their first three-game skid since obtaining Gasol during the 2007-08 season.
It's just a formality, but the Lakers mathematically clinched a postseason berth for the 29th time in Jerry Buss' 31 years as the team's owner.
"He's a gambler -- and a proficient one, I think," coach Phil Jackson said. "He knows the odds, he knows when to take the risk, and he carries that sense that this is a risk-reward type of game. This year he took the big risk and brought Lamar back in the hopes that we can get back to where we have a shot at the championship again. That was a big bill to chew, for an organization that had never lost money... over the last 30 or so years he's owned the team."
Bryant shot 4 for 11 from the field and had seven assists in the first quarter, after averaging just 4.9 through his first 63 games. The Lakers have had only two other double-digit assist performances by an individual this season -- both by the 2008 MVP.
The Lakers have won 18 of the last 19 games in which Bryant has had fewer than 20 field-goal attempts. The only blemish was 105-85 loss at San Antonio in which he took a season-low 10 shots and scored 16 points. He has put up 20 or more shots in 14 of their last 15 defeats -- and 30 or more in five of them.
"It just depends on the defense they're playing against you. You just make them pick their poison," Bryant said. "Either they play me man-up to start the game or they don't. They decided to come after me, so I hit my guys and they made shots."
"I think it's easy to say that this was our best game, and lot of it had to do with our guys doing the right things," coach Kurt Rambis said after his team slipped to 14-56. "As always, we had hiccups and moments where we didn't do things properly, but that is to be expected."
Bryant had an unusually quiet first half with 11 points -- eight of them on free throws -- and took only three shots from the field in more than 15 minutes on the floor. His only field goal of the half was a 3-pointer with 2:14 left in the second quarter.
With the two-time NBA scoring champ orchestrating the offense early on instead of concentrating on scoring, the Lakers opened up a 13-point lead late in the opening quarter and led 59-49 at halftime. The Timberwolves opened the third with a 17-7 run, tying it at 68 on Darko Milicic's 23-footer with 4:49 left in the quarter.
After a Lakers timeout, Bryant intercepted Corey Brewer's pass and fed Gasol for a dunk that put Los Angeles ahead to stay. They pulled out to a 10-point lead by the end of the third and took their biggest lead, 91-76, on Shannon Brown's two free throws with 7:47 to play. The Timberwolves got as close as 95-88 on Love's three-point play with 2:51 left, but lost to the Lakers for the 10th straight time.
"This is the time of year where it doesn't matter who you're playing against. You've just got to play hard, do your job and play the right way," Bryant said. "We did a good job tonight. We got back on defense. I think our rebounding could have been much better in spurts -- but for the most part, we did a good job of protecting the paint."
Los Angeles converted 19 Minnesota turnovers into 26 points. The Timberwolves forced 15 turnovers by the Lakers, but had only nine points to show for it.
"We fought so hard to get back in the game, and that late run took a little bit out of us," Flynn said. "But I liked our effort in this game even though we lost, we played hard and played decent basketball for a full 48 minutes."
Odom, who signed a four-year contract on July 31 that will pay him a guaranteed $27 million -- $33 million if the team exercises the option on the fourth year -- is averaging 10.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 46.2 percent from the field as the Lakers' sixth man. ... Los Angeles has to go no worse than 9-4 the rest of the regular season for the 12th 60-win season in franchise history, and Jackson's eighth as an NBA coach. ... Bryant needs 25 points to overtake Alex English (25,613) for 12th place on the career list.