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Knicks' furious comeback falls short

NEW YORK (AP) -- Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal have the Los
Angeles Lakers playing like champions again.

Bryant dazzled New York with an array of drives, jumpers and
dunks, and O'Neal overpowered the Knicks inside as the Lakers won
114-109 Thursday night to enter the All-Star break with a winning
record for the first time this season.

"Kobe and Shaq have shown they're the top two dogs in the
league,'' teammate Robert Horry said. "They're carrying us. You
have to give the credit to those two guys.''

Bryant matched his season high with 46 points and O'Neal added
33 as the Knicks had no answer for Los Angeles' dynamic duo. Bryant
(40) and O'Neal (28) combined to outscore the Knicks in the first
three quarters as the Lakers took a 97-67 lead.

The Lakers (24-23) then survived a spirited fourth-quarter rally
by the Knicks to end the first half of the season with their fifth
straight win, including four on the road.

"That was quite a show the first three quarters,'' Lakers coach
Phil Jackson said. "Shaq and Kobe put on a show tonight. It was a
spectacular performance by Kobe tonight.''

After a sluggish start left the Lakers 11-19 following a
Christmas Day loss to Sacramento, the three-time defending
champions have won 13 of 17 to close within 1½ games of Houston for
the final playoff spot in the West.

"We just have to keep doing it,'' Jackson said. "The
championship rings don't mean anything unless we do it on the
court. We found out the hard way that no one is really impressed by
the championship banners.''

Bryant and O'Neal are a different story.

Bryant has scored at least 35 points in five straight games,
scoring 201 points in that stretch. This scoring spree coincides
with Jackson telling Bryant to take over more of the scoring load.

"He's opened the offense up and allowed me to penetrate more,''
Bryant said. "I'm getting the ball in position where I can score
quickly. I'm being more assertive.''

The Knicks, who had won seven of 10, played the second half
without leading scorer Allan Houston, who left the game with a
bruised right wrist and is day to day.

Latrell Sprewell led New York with 24 points, Howard Eisley
added 16 and Charlie Ward had 15 points and 11 assists.

"At least we gave them something to cheer about,'' Sprewell
said. "Because early in the game they were pretty much cheering
for those guys.''

Bryant had 16 of his 22 third-quarter points during a 25-9 run
that put the Lakers up 95-61 with 1:41 to go.

Bryant started the run with a driving layup, knifing through the
center of the Knicks' defense for the easy basket. He added three
3-pointers, a runner and a turnaround jumper from deep on the
baseline. He flexed after his final 3 gave the Lakers a 34-point
lead.

"When he's shooting that well from the 3 you can't really push
up on him because his first step is so explosive,'' Sprewell said.
"He does an excellent job getting around guys.''

The Knicks didn't go away, scoring the first 16 points of the
fourth quarter to get within 14.

Sprewell, who made all nine of his 3-pointers Tuesday against
the Clippers, hit a 3 to make it 103-91 with 5:34 to go.

A jumper by Michael Doleac made it 107-100 with 2:45 to go.
After a turnover by Bryant, Lee Nailon scored underneath to make it
a five-point game with 1:52 to go.

After another Lakers' turnover, O'Neal blocked Sprewell's layup
attempt and made one free throw to make it 108-102.

Sprewell shot an airball when Bryant appeared to hit his arm on
the way up. Bryant then hit two free throws to make it 110-102 with
30.3 seconds to play.

"Absolutely I was fouled on the play,'' Sprewell said. "To me
it was an easy call.''

The Lakers used a 17-4 run to go up 35-23 with 8:17 to play in
the half. The game stayed fairly even until Bryant ended the half
with some flair.

With just over a minute left, Bryant beat Sprewell to the
baseline and threw down a reverse tomahawk jam that brought oohs
and aahs from the fans.

"It's been a long time since I've had a dunk during the game
that had the crowd buzzing a couple of plays later,'' Bryant said.
"That felt good.''

Bryant then posed after hitting a 3-pointer over Sprewell with
under a second left that made it 60-45 at the half.

The Lakers ended the first quarter with four dunks -- two by
O'Neal and two off passes from O'Neal -- to take a 24-19 lead.

"It's a very had matchup for us to guard Kobe and to guard Shaq
at the same time,'' Knicks coach Don Chaney said. "They put you in
a dilemma no matter what you try to do.''

Game notes
The Lakers have won three straight and nine of 13 against
the Knicks. ... The Lakers improved to 9-15 on the road. ...
Sprewell was 5-for-8 on 3-pointers.

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