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Bulls-Lakers Preview

AP - Sports

With Kobe Bryant playing at a historic level, the Los Angeles Lakers are closing in on a playoff spot.

The Lakers will try to continue their recent surge on Sunday when they host the Chicago Bulls, who are still waiting on Derrick Rose to make his season debut.

After losing 10 of 12 in January, Los Angeles was a season-worst eight games below .500 and its playoff chances seemed remote. Instead, the Lakers (32-31) have won 15 of 21 after their 118-116 overtime victory over Toronto on Friday.

Now Los Angeles has an opportunity to move ahead of sinking Utah into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with its sixth straight home win.

The Lakers also appear to be catching the banged-up Bulls at an opportune time. Richard Hamilton (back) was not expected to make the trip, while Kirk Hinrich (foot) and Taj Gibson (sprained MCL) will be game-time decisions.

Despite reports that Rose's doctor has cleared him to play, coach Tom Thibodeau said on Friday that Rose is "not quite'' ready to make his debut. The 2011 NBA MVP continues to practice without restrictions, but his return from a torn ACL in his left knee remains uncertain.

"He's been cleared to do everything there is,'' Thibodeau said. "Before he makes the final step, everyone has to get together and sign off. That hasn't happened yet. The most important part of this is that we have to trust Derrick, and I trust him.''

Even if Rose remains out, Bryant should have plenty of motivation. The All-Star guard had just 16 points on 7-of-22 shooting in a 95-83 loss at Chicago on Jan. 21. After the game, Jimmy Butler - the Bulls' primary defender on Bryant - was referred to by the local media as "The Kobe Stopper" for his efforts.

Butler, however, may have his hands full this time. After finishing with 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in a win at New Orleans on Wednesday, Bryant had 41, 12 and six against the Raptors.

He's the first player to record back-to-back games with at least 40 points, 12 assists and six boards since Michael Jordan pulled off the feat April 9-13, 1989.

"I know I have the energy and the determination (to keep this going)," Bryant said. "Anybody that I line up against on any given night, I don't think they're going to be able to out-will me."

Bryant ranks third in the NBA at 27.8 points per game, but has averaged just 21.0 on 41.8 percent shooting in his last six home games in this series.

Dwight Howard, though, could be more of a factor after totaling 44 points and 28 rebounds in his last two games. He had eight and nine, respectively, the first meeting.

The Lakers have averaged 109.0 points - 6.3 above their season average - while shooting 48.1 percent over their last nine contests.

They'll try to keep it going against a highly ranked Chicago defense that held them to 39.5 percent shooting and 3 for 17 from 3-point range in its January win.

Carlos Boozer and Marco Belinelli combined for 44 points as the short-handed Bulls (35-27) snapped a two-game skid with an 89-88 victory over Utah on Friday. Belinelli, who hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left on Friday, has averaged 21.0 points and made 10 of 15 from beyond the arc in his last three games.

The Bulls have won three straight overall in this series.

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