Kobe Bryant

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…

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.

– Reported by Greg Beacham of the Associated Press

The Lakers moved within two games of Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. … Bryant had two steals to become the 15th NBA player with at least 18,000 for his career. … Bryant is 8-for-14 from 3-point range in the last three games after shooting 9-for-49 in his previous 18. … Dante Cunningham started in place of Kirilenko and finished with five points and three rebounds in 33 minutes.

– Reported by NBA.com