LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dwight Howard got in the way when Mike Conley drove the lane in the waning seconds, doing his delicate best to alter Conley's potential game-deciding shot without fouling.
When Conley couldn't score over Howard, the Los Angeles Lakers could exhale — one more victory in their desperate playoff push.
Kobe Bryant had 24 points and nine assists, Pau Gasol added 19 points, and the Lakers stayed in the final playoff position in the Western Conference with an 86-84 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.
Howard hit a free throw with 4.1 seconds left before playing solid defense on Conley's final shot attempt, and the Lakers won their third straight in the final weeks of their push for a postseason spot. Los Angeles (40-36) barely leads Utah (40-37) — and everybody on the Lakers' high-priced roster is aware of their situation.
"This is the big push for us," Bryant said. "We've got a very tough stretch, and we're excited. You want to be going into the playoffs feeling like you're playing good ball against tough opposition. It's been a lot of figuring out we had to do, but it's better late than never."
Howard had nine points and 10 rebounds, while Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison contributed 13 points apiece off the bench as the Lakers won without injured starters Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. Los Angeles also avoided getting swept in its season series with the Grizzlies, whose four-game winning streak ended.
But it wasn't over until Conley, who scored 21 points in a stellar performance, missed a potential go-ahead jumper with 5 seconds left and another layup before the buzzer. The playoff-bound Grizzlies couldn't score in the final 2½ minutes, and they gave some of the credit to the Lakers' desperate defense.
"We just didn't get a loose ball or rebound that we needed in the whole game, especially late in the fourth quarter," Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said.
Memphis' Marc Gasol had 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a lively matchup with his brother. Zach Randolph added 15 points as the Grizzlies fell one game behind Denver for the fourth seed in the West.
Los Angeles' tumultuous season will come down to the final two weeks, with the high-powered Lakers hoping just to reach the playoffs as the eighth seed. To make the postseason for the 16th time in Bryant's 17 seasons, the Lakers must finish one game ahead of Utah, which kept pace with a 95-83 win over New Orleans earlier Friday night.