LOS ANGELES — Karl Malone, playing against his former team for the first time, had 19 points and 13 rebounds Sunday night to help the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 91-84 for their eighth straight victory.
Playing his ninth game since being sidelined nearly three months with a torn knee ligament — the first serious injury of his 19-year NBA career — Malone shot 5-of-10 and 9-of-12 from the foul line.
Kobe Bryant scored 10 of his 34 points in the last two minutes; Gary Payton added 17 points, and Shaquille O'Neal had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Lakers (50-23), who have an NBA-best 19-4 record since the All-Star break and trail Western Conference-leading Sacramento by two games with nine remaining.
The Lakers reached 50 wins for the eighth straight season not counting 1998-99 campaign, shortened to 50 games because of labor problems.
Raja Bell scored 16 of his career-high 26 points in the fourth quarter for the Jazz (38-36), who lost for just the third time in 10 games and fell into a virtual tie with Portland for the eighth and final playoff berth in the West — a half-game ahead of Denver.
Raul Lopez was the only other Utah player in double figures with 12 points.
The Jazz outscored the Lakers 26-8 to finish the third quarter and start the fourth to take a 79-77 lead with 4:29 remaining.
The Lakers responded by going on a 14-5 run to finish the game. Payton made four free throws to put Los Angeles ahead for good before Bryant scored his team's final 10 points — eight from the foul line.
Malone, the NBA's second-leading career scorer, missed the Lakers' first game against Utah because of suspension and the last two due to a knee injury that caused him to miss 39 games. The Lakers are 27-6 when he's played.
Malone, who signed a free agent contract with the Lakers last summer, sat out only 10 games during his 18 seasons with the Jazz — six because of injury and four due to suspension.
Jerry Sloan, in his 16th season as Utah's coach, spoke fondly of Malone before the game.
"He's a terrific guy and did a great job for our organization," said Sloan, who celebrated his 62nd birthday Sunday. "We had a terrific relationship all these years. I don't know of anybody who's played any harder."
Malone said Sloan deserved to be chosen NBA coach of the year for guiding the Jazz into playoff contention.
"I care about him twice as much as a person as I do as a coach," Malone said.
Malone scored four points during a 12-2 spurt that gave the Lakers a 55-42 lead. The Lakers led by as many as 16 points before settling for a 69-55 lead entering the fourth quarter.
So impressive in beating Sacramento and Minnesota by a total of 41 points in their previous two games, the Lakers appeared sluggish before outscoring the Jazz 12-1 to finish the second quarter for a 43-38 halftime lead.