Trail Blazers-Lakers Preview

The Los Angeles Lakers wrapped up the Western Conference’s top

seed with Kobe Bryant resting, leaving little reason for the

reigning finals MVP to take the floor again prior to the

playoffs.

The Portland Trail Blazers have plenty of incentive to move up

and avoid the Lakers in the first round.

Portland has lost 14 of 16 at Staples Center heading into a

visit with the NBA champions Sunday afternoon, but Bryant may again

be on the bench in a game critical to the Trail Blazers’ playoff

seeding.

The Lakers (56-23) are 3-5 in their last eight games, but that

slump hasn’t been enough to damage their status as the West’s top

team.

Andrew Bynum has missed the last 10 games with a strained left

Achilles’ tendon and won’t return until the playoffs, and it

remains to be seen if Bryant might sit out the last three games as

well.

Coach Phil Jackson gave Bryant a night off to rest his legs and

aching right index finger in a 98-96 loss at Denver on Thursday,

and the 12-time All-Star remained a spectator Friday. He wasn’t

needed in Minnesota, though, where Pau Gasol scored 29 points and

grabbed 15 rebounds in a 97-88 win that guaranteed Los Angeles the

West’s top record.

“Advantage goes to the people who have home court, no doubt

about it,” said Jackson, who was non-committal about his plans for

Bryant on Sunday. “It doesn’t guarantee you anything. It guarantees

you an extra game.”

That extra game could mean a lot if the Lakers were to meet

Portland (48-31) in the opening round. The Lakers had lost nine

straight at the Rose Garden prior to a 99-82 win Feb. 6, but

they’ve won five straight in the series at home by an average of

13.0 points.

The Trail Blazers can still finish as high as fifth but will

likely find themselves in sixth, seventh or eighth. They had a

chance to pull into a tie with Oklahoma City for sixth Friday night

but lost 83-77 at home to Dallas in a physical, contentious contest

that saw three Portland players earn technical fouls and several

courtside fans escorted from their seats.

“I said (to my players), ‘This is what we’re going to be facing

(in the playoffs),'” coach Nate McMillan told the NBA’s official

Web site. “You’re going to be facing this type of intensity, where

every call is going to be questioned. You have to stay calm on that

floor and be able to get to the next possession.”

Portland finishes the season by hosting the Thunder on Monday

and Golden State on Wednesday.

“The next two games, it’s going to keep that type of

atmosphere,” McMillan said, “and we have to be able to play with

it.”

Both meetings this season have come in Portland – Bryant sat out

in February with a sore ankle – and the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer

at 27.1 points per game has averaged 36.4 in his last seven home

games against the Trail Blazers.

Bryant wasn’t the only star to miss these teams’ most recent

contest. That was one of 12 straight games Brandon Roy sat out with

a strained hamstring.

Roy has only faced the Lakers on the road three times – missing

three others to injury – and he hasn’t been effective. The former

Rookie of the Year has averaged 14.7 points and shot 36.2

percent.

Los Angeles is 5-2 without Bryant this season.