Rapid Reaction: Lakers 90, Bulls 81

LOS ANGELES -- The downside of the Los Angeles Lakers putting together those two inspiring comeback wins in the past two games is that they played so poorly at the start that they needed to pull the rabbit out of a hat.

The less-exciting, yet much more efficient approach is to take care of business from the start and not need to rely on any late-game heroics.

Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni called it a "ditch."

"We can't get in there," D'Antoni said before the Lakers played the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. "That's not good. We got to be able to cure that."

L.A. had the antidote for a day at least: defense.

Led by Dwight Howard (not too many Lakers sentences have started that way this season, huh?), the Lakers completely stifled Chicago's offense.

Now, the Bulls were without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson of course, but the way the Lakers were protecting their turf Sunday, you could have put Jordan and Pippen back in a Chicago uniform and L.A. still would have given itself a chance.

The Lakers kept the Bulls to just 37.1 percent shooting overall, 25 percent on 3-pointers and just 81 points total -- the least points they've given up to an opponent since Golden State scored 77 back in November.

How it happened: Even though the Lakers weren't exactly sharp themselves to start the game (0-for-8 on 3-pointers in the first quarter), they held the Bulls to 6-for-18 shooting in the opening period to take a four-point lead. With balanced scoring (six players in double digits) and tough defense, L.A. was able to push that lead to as many as 18 in the third. Then the tables were turned a bit as the Lakers found themselves as the team protecting a late lead, rather than being the ones trying to dig out of a late deficit. Chicago cut the margin to just eight points with a little more than eight minutes remaining, but the Lakers were able to keep it back over 10 for pretty much the rest of the way until Marco Belinelli hit a meaningless 3-pointer in the final minute.

What it means: Get this: the Lakers are two games over .500 for the first time this season. They've now won 16 of their past 22 games (.727) -- a significant stretch spanning more than a quarter of the season. With the win, the Lakers are now a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 18 games left to play.

Hits: Bryant followed up his 40-point, 12-assist games with a solid 19 and nine along with seven rebounds.

Howard had 16 points, 21 rebounds, four blocks and a steal.

L.A.'s bench outscored Chicago's subs 16-10.

Misses: The Lakers shot just 5-for-26 (19.2 percent) on 3-pointers.

Howard shot an airball on a free throw in the first quarter and was 0-for-5 from the line overall.

Bryant and Metta World Peace got into a brief shouting match late in the first half after World Peace was called for an offensive foul while trying to set a screen for Bryant. Steve Nash intervened to settle both players down.

Stat of the game: Howard grabbed 21 rebounds, his fourth time this season grabbing 20 or more. The Lakers were just 1-2 the first three times he did it. Sunday also marked the 10th straight game that Howard had 12 or more rebounds.

What's next: The Lakers go back on the road for a three-game trip, continuing their brutal March where 10 out of their 14 games are away from Staples Center. The trip starts Tuesday against the Magic in Howard's return to Orlando. The Lakers follow that with the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday in Atlanta and then go to Indiana to play the Pacers on Friday.