LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant missed practice Sunday because of a sore throat, which raised few worries among the Los Angeles Lakers.
If anything, it might just mean a little less trash talk between Bryant and Ron Artest when the Lakers host the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday night.
"We know when it's game time he's going to come out and be ready to play no matter what's going on,'' teammate Shannon Brown said. "It's definitely going to take more than a sore throat. "He's got to be missing some limbs for him not to come out there and be ready to play the game.''
The top-seeded Lakers were off a week after eliminating the Utah Jazz in five games and waiting for the fifth-seeded Rockets to finish off Portland in six games. Houston advanced to the second round for the first time since 1997.
The most intriguing matchup, of course, will be Bryant, the reigning league MVP, against Artest and Shane Battier.
Bryant and Artest shoved and jawed their way through a 102-96 Lakers victory at Houston on March 11.
"It wasn't much of a battle,'' Bryant said after scoring 37 points that night. "I kicked his (butt) tonight.''
Los Angeles won the season series 4-0, dominating the fourth quarter of each game. Bryant averaged 28.3 points.
"I can see us playing better. The first time we played them T-Mac was hurt,'' Artest said, referring to Tracy McGrady. "One time we played them at home I didn't play. The next time we played them in L.A. we just got rid of Rafer (Alston), a new team. The last time we played them in L.A., that was a good game. We finally had our team, but they still got us in the fourth quarter.''
The Rockets were all but written off when McGrady had season-ending knee surgery in February.
"I think we'll do it now,'' Artest said. "It wasn't only the Lakers, it was also Memphis and Minnesota, Dallas, Chicago where we didn't execute in the fourth.''
In a recent TV interview, Artest called Portland guard Brandon Roy "the best player I've played against.'' Better than Bryant and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James? Artest reiterated his initial statement.
On Saturday, Bryant remained relatively quiet about playing against Artest.
"It's fun,'' Bryant said. "He's obviously a great defensive player so I look forward to it.''
The Rockets talked about their late-game struggles against the Lakers.
"They really took it to us in the fourth quarter,'' coach Rick Adelman said. "We were in every game at the end of three and the fourth quarter they dominated. They really turned it up a notch. Usually in all four games Kobe really got aggressive. So it's pretty constant.
"You have to make him work for everything. You're not going to stop him, you're not going to shut him down, but you've got to make him work. That's the advantage we have, throw both guys (Battier and Artest) at him and maybe we can wear him down a little bit.
"It's a team thing. The team has to be in position to help.''
On the flip side, the Lakers had three second-half letdowns against the Jazz, including blowing a 13-point third-quarter lead in Game 3 and losing by two points. Even in the clincher, with a number of subs in, they let the Jazz shave a 22-point lead down to six before winning 107-96.
Derek Fisher, for one, is sure the Lakers won't be overconfident and complacent.
"I just think the way our season ended last season, just all puts us in the same boat of not wanting our season to end where we lost our last game,'' Fisher said, referring to losing the NBA finals in six games to the Celtics. "So even if there are moments of complacency or where it appears there's not a sense of urgency, we believe strongly and collectively that that's not the case.
Andrew Bynum, the Lakers' former starting center, could see more playing time to help defend Yao Ming. He played just 15 minutes per game against Utah as he tried to regain form following a long absence because of a knee injury. His performances were subpar.
"I think he's really revved up for this,'' coach Phil Jackson said. "He's excited about it and we hope that he stays under control and remembers his principles about defense and rebounding, and the offense will just come.''
Yao's pumped, too. Asked if he likes the Rockets being big underdogs, he asked, "What is an underdog?''
When told it meant people expect them to lose, Yao said: "I'm used to that. Don't worry about it. I'm used to it.''
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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