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Blazers must cool off Kobe Bryant

The Laker superstar has been a one-man wrecking machine lately

The Trail Blazers would like to throw cold water on an inferno tonight at Staples Center, and we're not talking about the L.A. Lakers.

The Lakers, three-time defending NBA champions, have shown some life this week, knocking off Houston and Utah to improve to 28-25 and climb into a tie for eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

But it's Kobe Bryant who needs a blast from a fire hose.

With Shaquille O'Neal duded up in street clothes, resting a sore knee and toe, Bryant has run his streak of consecutive 40-point games to seven, and 35-point games to 11. No player has accomplished the former feat since Michael Jordan in 1986-87; only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have had longer streaks of the latter.

'Scary,' Scottie Pippen says of Bryant's scoring binge. 'It's real scary to know Shaq hasn't been in there, but Kobe has been playing the way he is. They are winning games without Shaq; that doesn't make it any easier for us going in there. We have to find a way to make Kobe work hard and earn every shot.'

Bryant has been soaring and scoring despite a sore knee, but he should be tested tonight. Coach Maurice Cheeks intends to start Bonzi Wells, then bring in Ruben Patterson to defend the Laker superstar.

Patterson always cherishes the opportunity to guard Bryant. They once were teammates with the Lakers, and Patterson christened himself 'The Kobe Stopper' for his work on the then-youngster in practice.

'Hopefully, the big fellow (O'Neal) won't play, but Kobe has been playing so well,' Patterson says. 'You have to try to play physical with him and deny (him) the ball. He's going to hit some tough shots, but we are going to be very aggressive with him. We are going to make other guys try to beat us instead of let him beat us with 40 or 50 points on his own.'

After Portland's 102-90 season-opening victory over the Lakers at the Rose Garden, a reporter touched a nerve when he asked Bryant about Patterson's defense.

'He does a good job staying in front of me at times, but nobody can guard me one-on-one,' Bryant responded. 'That's not what I'm here for. That's not what I do. I don't play one-on-one basketball. If you want to play one-on-one basketball, holler at me in the offseason. We will go down to Ruckers (Park in New York) and do that whole little thing. During 82 games in the regular season, don't even holler at me about that.

'If you want to talk about dethroning the Lakers, then I will listen. If you want to talk that one-on-one stuff É that's so 1996 to me.'

Dethroning the Lakers seems to be on just about everyone's mind in the wild, wild West. Sure, Dallas has the best record, San Antonio has been on fire, Sacramento seems ready to take the next step and Portland has its act together. The Lakers, in a battle just to make the playoffs, still have the full attention of their rivals.

'Somebody is still going to have to beat them,' Sacramento General Manager Geoff Petrie says. 'Kobe's numbers are out of this world the last 10 games or so, but Shaq was playing better before he decided to sit out the last three games.

'When they beat us (124-113) on Jan. 31, Shaq was 13 of 13 at the line (actually 12 of 13), and he made a bunch of those turnaround jumpers from the baseline Ñ shots you want him to take,' Petrie said. 'He was starting to get a little more active, get in a little better shape.

'If they have both of those guys ready, I would be very surprised if they are not in the playoffs, and if they get there, somebody has to knock them out. That's not going to be an easy task.'

Eric Musselman said much the same thing after Portland's 125-98 dismantling of his Golden State Warriors on Wednesday at the Rose Garden.

'Sacramento is not a good team to ask me about, because they absolutely annihilate us,' Musselman says. 'Portland is a talented club. Their guys look like they are playing unselfishly and enjoy playing with each other.

'We have played the Lakers pretty well,' he says, 'but I still think they are the team to beat. It's tough to be motivated for a long season year after year when they have been winning at their pace.

'Whether they can turn it off and on is another story, but with the experience of their coaching staff and players and having been through the playoffs so many times, I like their chances.'

Sacramento coach Rick Adelman has kept the Kings (37-18) atop the Pacific Division despite injuries that have robbed serious playing time from their top four scorers: Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson.

'No team in the league has lost close to that kind of firepower,' Petrie says. 'Under the circumstances, we have done a great job not just staying afloat but maintaining one of the four or five best records in the league. It has been pretty amazing.

'The best thing that could happen to us is to get everybody back the next couple of weeks and stay that way. That would give us several weeks left of the regular season to get some continuity and a flow going into the playoffs.'

Cheeks seems to have Portland (35-18) focused on winning the division and earning the conference's No. 2 seed.

'We are in a dogfight with Sacramento,' the Portland coach says. 'We can't afford to lose any games if we are going to win the division. It is going to come down to whoever is playing the best down the stretch, and there are a lot of teams in the West playing pretty good basketball.'

Portland will approach tonight's game with playoff intensity.

'It's important to go there and play well,' Pippen says. 'They are the world champs, and we have to look at them as the team to beat if we want to go far.'

NOTES: Bonzi Wells and Pippen each snapped shooting slumps with big performances against Golden State. Wells was unconscious early, making 10 of his first 12 shots while scoring 26 points in only 15 first-half minutes. Wells, who entered the game having hit only 35 of 91 shots in his previous nine games, finished 11 of 18 and scored 29 points. 'Bonzi was due for a game like that,' Cheeks says. 'He hadn't been making shots, but É he had his offensive flow going.' Pippen was 12 of 39 in his previous four games, but he sank 7 of 10 shots and had 16 points in only 15 minutes.

Webber (sprained ankle) should return to action for Sacramento next week. Reserve center Scot Pollard (broken finger) is expected back within two weeks. É Several of the Sacramento players are into wearing retro jerseys, including second-year forward Gerald Wallace, who joked to a reporter as his coach walked by the other day, 'I want a Rick Adelman throwback jersey.' Adelman, grinning: 'That is a throwaway, not a throwback.'

New York coach Don Chaney on Cheeks as Portland coach: 'Maurice has done a great job, because (Portland) is a really tough place to coach. For a team to be successful, you have to have a couple of stars and a lot of role players. Portland is deep enough that a lot of guys not playing much could start on most teams. It's hard to manage a group like that. But his players have learned that there's one basketball, and they have to share it. I see improved chemistry this year over last year.'

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