Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers have 22 games left to try to finish with the best record in the Western Conference. Four of those contests will be against Ron Artest and the Sacramento Kings.
The Pacific Division rivals meet for the first time this season Tuesday night as the Lakers visit Arco Arena in search of a 12th win in 13 games.
Los Angeles (42-18) trails San Antonio (41-17) by percentage points in the race for the West's best mark. The Lakers also are 2 1/2 games ahead of Phoenix for first place in the Pacific Division.
How Bryant fares in these matchups with Artest - a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year - could go a long way toward determining the Lakers' success against the Kings (27-32). The teams also meet Sunday in Los Angeles as well as two more times in April.
Bryant turned in a virtuoso performance Sunday as the Lakers won 108-104 in overtime over Dallas. The superstar guard scored 30 of his 52 points after the third quarter and made his final 17 free throws for the highest-scoring effort in the NBA this season.
"We gave him a single look, then we double-teamed him, then we gave him a triple-team and he split the triple-team and scored," Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. "We tried to zone him, we tried to funnel him in the trap for a zone and he went the other way. He didn't cooperate on any of our defenses."
It marked Bryant's 22nd career game of at least 50 points. He also had 11 rebounds.
"It was a physical game," Bryant said. "It was back and forth. We didn't play extremely well, but it felt good to get this one done."
Bryant - second in the league in scoring at 28.2 points per game - has always been a prime target for Sacramento fans and averaged 31.3 points against Artest and the Kings last season as the Lakers won three of four meetings. That includes a 38.0 average in two games on the road.
Bryant's newest teammate, Pau Gasol, has never won in 10 career games at Arco Arena - all with Memphis. Gasol has three double-doubles in his last four games, including 17 points and 14 rebounds on Sunday.
While the Lakers have a new look with Gasol, the Kings will look different to them without Mike Bibby - a stalwart in the teams' rivalry from years past. Bibby was dealt to Atlanta on Feb. 16.
Artest, however, will be in uniform after helping lead Sacramento to a 120-109 win over Miami on Sunday. The Kings trailed 69-49 at halftime before rallying.
"Sometimes in this league you are going to be down 20 points. As long as you keep fighting you are going to get it back," said Artest, who scored a team-high 32 points.
Although the Kings' hopes for reaching the playoffs in the powerful West are slim, they have won eight of their last nine home games and are still hoping to finish with a .500 record or better.
"As the days come, whether we're in the playoff picture or we're out of the playoff picture, that's still a goal that is attainable," first-year coach Reggie Theus said. "It would be a significant goal of ours to reach that and I think something that we can build on even for next year in terms of what was expected of us this year and where we're headed."
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