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Thunder-Lakers Preview

AP - Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the team to beat in the Western Conference, but Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are showing they may have another run in them - provided they stay focused.

The Thunder visit the Lakers on Thursday night in Derek Fisher's return to Staples Center.

Oklahoma City (38-12) continues to hold onto first place in the West, although San Antonio has closed the gap.

The Lakers (31-19) are also trying to make a move, having won three of four and eight of 11 to pull into third place and within seven games of the Thunder.

However, Los Angeles put up little fight when it shot 38.5 percent and lost 100-85 at Oklahoma City on Feb. 23. Kevin Durant scored 33 points to lead the Thunder, while Bryant had 24 on 7-of-24 shooting.

This meeting will feature Fisher on the other side of the rivalry. The Laker favorite was sent to Houston at the trade deadline, then was bought out before signing with the Thunder.

Fisher had played 13 of his 16 NBA seasons with Los Angeles, which decided to go in a different direction at the point guard position after acquiring Ramon Sessions from Cleveland.

"I think that I was surprised by it, but since then I've very much realized that it's not so much about what went wrong and why it happened but more so where I'm going next and the next chapter of my life," Fisher said.

The Thunder have won four straight since acquiring Fisher, although he has had minimal impact, averaging 3.8 points and 1.3 rebounds in 22.3 minutes.

While Oklahoma City will go for its fifth straight victory Thursday, Los Angeles is trying to continue its strong play.

However, the recent success has not been without drama in the last week, including a possible brewing issue between Andrew Bynum and coach Mike Brown following a 104-101 victory over Golden State on Tuesday.

Bynum sat the final 9 minutes after missing a 3-pointer in the third quarter. The 7-foot center, who has attempted eight 3s in his career, was surprised by Brown's decision.

"I don't know what was bench-worthy about the shot to be honest with you," said Bynum, who had 11 points and five rebounds. "I made one (in Sunday's game). I wanted to make another one. That's it. He took offense to it, so he put me on the bench."

Bynum's benching came two days after Brown sat Bryant late in a 102-96 loss to Memphis. Bryant responded with two big shots in the final 1:04 against the Warriors.

"Why is everybody acting like we're in eighth place?" said Bryant, who finished with 30 points. "You guys were kissing the Clippers' (butts) at the start of the season, and now we're in the third seed and everybody's acting like we (stink). I don't understand it."

Thursday opens a four-game homestand for Los Angeles, which has dropped two of three at Staples Center but is 20-4 there.

The Thunder are 16-8 on the road and coming off a 109-95 win at Portland on Tuesday.

Russell Westbrook scored 32 points and had eight assists as Oklahoma City shot 57.0 percent. The Thunder built a 21-point lead before holding on after the Trail Blazers pulled within five in the third quarter.

"As we move through the end of the regular season and get into the playoffs, we're going to face similar situations where we have a lead or we're playing well, and the home team is always going to make a run, especially when you're playing the better teams in the West," Fisher told the Thunder's official website. "The way we responded tonight was a great sign."

Oklahoma City's next five games are against playoff contenders, including Miami and Chicago - the top two teams in the East.

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