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Lakers get 10th straight win

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Just a couple weeks ago, the Los Angeles
Lakers hoped to move up to second or third in the Western
Conference standings.

Now, thanks to 10 straight wins to equal a season high, they're
playing for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant scored 26 points; Karl Malone had 20 points, 14
rebounds and six assists; and Shaquille O'Neal thoroughly outplayed
Yao Ming as the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 93-85 Thursday
night to move into a tie for the conference lead with slumping
Sacramento.

"We're proud of ourselves. We've been able to climb a huge
hill," Bryant said. "Things are looking pretty good for us. We
have to be happy with where we are.

"We're having a blast out there. I don't know what comes first
-- having a blast or winning."

The Lakers (52-23) have been winning, going an NBA-best 21-4
since the All-Star break. They play four of their remaining seven
games at home.

The Kings, beaten by Dallas 127-117 for their seventh loss in 11
games, play four of their last seven on the road. The teams meet in
Sacramento on April 11.

Indiana (55-20) leads the Eastern Conference, where no other
team has won more than 48 games.

O'Neal had 18 points and eight rebounds and Gary Payton added 12
points and a season-high 13 rebounds for the Lakers, who shot just
37.7 percent but outrebounded the Rockets 58-35.

Bryant also had seven rebounds, four assists and five steals.

"Our rebounding was good tonight and Shaq did a great job on
Yao Ming," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We're playing with
great enthusiasm -- that helps a lot."

Cuttino Mobley scored 26 points, Steve Francis had 17 points and
eight assists, and Jim Jackson added 13 points and 12 rebounds for
the Rockets (42-32), who lost for the sixth time in nine games.

Yao was held to six points and eight rebounds, shooting 3-of-15.

"I just kind of stayed with him, put a body on him," O'Neal
said. "He just missed some shots. I tried to keep him out of the
middle of the floor and shoot jumpers."

The Rockets won two of their previous three games against the
Lakers this season, with Yao outscoring O'Neal 80-74 and
outrebounding him 27-26.

It was a different story in this game.

"He put a lot of pressure on me at the beginning of the game,"
Yao said of O'Neal through an interpreter. "He didn't give me a
lot of space to adjust my shot, so I think he had a big effect. But
in the latter part of the game, he came off me and I just couldn't
put the ball in the hole. You're always going to have bad games,
and I just didn't play well tonight."

The Lakers won by outscoring the Rockets 26-19 in the fourth
quarter.

"We just executed down the stretch, made some stops, and did
what we needed to do," Malone said.

O'Neal muscled through Yao for a dunk to give the Lakers a 74-69
lead, and baskets by Malone and Payton gave the Lakers a
seven-point advantage.

Pressured by O'Neal, Yao missed the rim on a shot from close
range. Payton made two free throws and Bryant scored to give the
Lakers an 82-71 lead with 4:50 left. The Rockets weren't closer
than six points after that.

Mobley scored five points to cap a 15-2 run starting the third
quarter, giving Houston a 55-49 lead. The Rockets led 59-56 when
Bryant scored six points during an 8-0 spurt that put Los Angeles
ahead by five. The Lakers led 67-66 entering the final period.

The Lakers outscored the Rockets 27-15 to finish the second
period for a 47-40 halftime lead. Bryant scored nine points and
Devean George made two 3-pointers during the spurt.

Mobley burned Bryant consistently in the first quarter, shooting
7-of-8 for 15 points as the Rockets took a 23-18 lead despite
committing eight fouls to one for the Lakers. Yao, Francis and
Maurice Taylor had two fouls each in the first 9{ minutes.

Game notes
O'Neal and Yao had one rebound each in the first half. ...
Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy went after official Derrick Stafford
as the teams left the court at halftime. He was restrained by
trainer Keith Jones. ... The Lakers go for their 11th straight win
Friday night in Seattle. They also won 10 in a row Nov. 19-Dec. 9.
... Phil Jackson said Yao is as good as anyone offensively against
O'Neal since Hakeem Olajuwon was in his prime with the Rockets.
But, Jackson added, Yao is overmatched by O'Neal on the defensive
end. ... Francis had three points, three assists and three fouls in
the first half along with a technical foul. ... Malone got two
steals early in the third quarter to move into ninth place on the
NBA's career list. He entered with 2,075 steals, tying him with
Mookie Blaylock. ... Bryant left the game for the only time with
9:06 remaining, and returned less than three minutes later.