It could have been the Lakers' darkest hour this season, losing at home to the New Orleans Hornets.

So Kobe Bryant brought out his flashlight, flicked it on and shined it directly at the Hornets.

Twelve chaotic minutes later, Bryant had taken the Lakers to a 104-96 victory Tuesday at Staples Center.

Yes, there is light near the end of the regular season. Barely.

Bryant entered the fourth quarter with seven points and finished with 30, pushing the Lakers to their most important victory this season, if only because they moved half a game ahead of Utah for eighth place in the Western Conference.

It wasn't the kind of night that inspired confidence for a long Lakers playoff run. Not even close.

But if they make it past April 17, they can thank Bryant. As usual.

"We have one of the best closers in the game," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That's why we could be a dangerous team."

The Lakers' cause was helped when Utah (41-38) lost at home to Oklahoma City, 90-80, news that trickled through the arena in the second quarter Tuesday.

Somehow, though, it didn't seem to matter to the Lakers (41-37).

They trailed at halftime, 50-45, as Bryant, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison combined to make four of 17 shots. It got only marginally better through three quarters, the score tied at 70-70 going into the fourth.

Bryant had made only two of seven shots at that point. He made seven of 11 the rest of the way.

"It was just ahhhh . . . I gotta go again," he said afterward. "I really didn't want to . . . but you got to do what you got to do."