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Lakers-Thunder Preview

AP - Sports

Kobe Bryant hasn't lost any of his competitive fire despite this being his 17th NBA season, which is a big reason the Los Angeles Lakers have been able to climb back to the .500 mark.

If he can will his team into the playoffs, there's a possibility Tuesday night's road matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder could be a first-round preview.

Bryant scored 34 points, including the go-ahead layup with nine seconds remaining, as the Lakers (30-30) defeated Atlanta 99-98 on Sunday to get back to the break-even mark for the first time since they were 15-15 on Dec. 28.

He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, helping Los Angeles to its fifth victory in six tries.

"It was more of a message to my team here to kind of have that will, that hunger, to push through it by any means necessary,'' Bryant said. "It's just a challenge. The fun comes in the challenge, and we're up for it.

"I think we're starting to get a groove a little bit."

Bryant is averaging 34.8 points over his last five as the ninth-place Lakers try to get into the Western Conference playoff picture. They are within striking distance of Golden State, Utah and Houston for one of the last three spots.

Coach Mike D'Antoni knows Bryant will be the catalyst if Los Angeles is to avoid missing the postseason for the first time since 2004-05.

"I don't know where he's getting his young legs from," said D'Antoni, whose Lakers haven't been over .500 since winning his debut against Brooklyn on Nov. 20 to get to 6-5. "His belief in himself is huge. He's been doing it for years."

Bryant scored 21 points and had a season high-tying 14 assists in a 105-96 home win over the Thunder on Jan. 27. He's averaging 33.3 points over his last six versus Oklahoma City, including last season's five-game loss in the West semifinals.

Slowing Kevin Durant has been Los Angeles' biggest challenge, especially this season. He's averaging 37.7 points in the three meetings, including 36 in a 114-108 win Dec. 7 and 42 in a 116-101 victory Jan. 11.

Durant netted 35 points in Sunday's 108-104 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, helping the Thunder (43-16) hold on after leading by as many as 19 points.

That moved Oklahoma City 1 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers for second place in the West, though it remains three games back of San Antonio.

"We've grown up a lot as a team," Durant said. "We've been through situations like this. We just kept saying, 'Weather the storm, it'll get better.'"

Russell Westbrook, who had 17 points and 13 assists in the last meeting with the Lakers, finished with 29 points and 10 assists Sunday while also keeping his teammates calm during a rough stretch.

Coach Scott Brooks said that has become expected from his point guard.

"His leadership is getting better year by year and it should be,'' Brooks said. "It was a classic example of what he's done. He's an emotional guy, but he keeps everything together.''

Oklahoma City is one of the NBA's best home teams at 26-4, and it has won 18 straight there versus West teams. The Lakers have lost five straight at Chesapeake Energy Arena, including last year's playoffs.

"They probably have the best crowd in the league," Bryant said. "It's incredible."

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