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Kobe Set To Return Tonight Against San Antonio

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SAN ANTONIO(AP) — The San Antonio Spurs handed the Los Angeles Lakers their worst loss of the season earlier this week, but that came with Kobe Bryant sidelined.

The Spurs likely won’t get such a break this time with the Lakers star set to return from injury.

The Western Conference-leading Spurs will be trying to extend their winning streak to six Friday night, but Bryant is expected to play for the first time in eight games and face San Antonio for the first time in 2011-12.

After its eight-game home winning streak was snapped with a 98-84 loss to the Bryant-less Lakers on April 11, the Spurs (45-16) routed Los Angeles 112-91 at Staples Center on Wednesday.

Tony Parker had 29 points and 13 assists and Tim Duncan added 19 points with eight rebounds as San Antonio snapped a three-game skid in the series.

“It went just as well for us as it went for them in San Antonio,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “The Lakers had the kind of night we had back home when they destroyed us. So we had a good night, and we still caught a break.

“I looked hard, but I didn’t see Kobe anywhere. I think that helped us a little bit.”

The Spurs, one-half game in front of Oklahoma City, could see plenty of Bryant on Friday after he missed the last seven games with a bruised left shin. Los Angeles went 5-2 without the NBA scoring leader.

The Pacific Division-leading Lakers (40-23) are looking for a strong three-game finish as they try to hold off the Clippers for the third seed in the West. They were able to survive without Bryant thanks in part to Andrew Bynum, who averaged 23.1 points and 14.1 rebounds during that stretch, and Pau Gasol, who scored 21.1 points per game while the 14-time All-Star was out.

Bynum had 31 points and nine rebounds while Gasol had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a 99-87 victory at Golden State on Wednesday. The Lakers set a season high with 34 assists.

“It’s been good to see how much the guys have progressed in doing things they ordinarily would not try to do,” Bryant said. “Now when I’m not out there, you have to do other things. You have to experiment with your game, and they had a great deal of success with that and their confidence is at a high level, which is great.”

The Lakers, though, will face a deep San Antonio team that might be playing as well as any club in the NBA. Without Duncan, who was given the night off to rest, San Antonio beat Sacramento 127-102 on Wednesday to end a 3-0 California trip.

Ten Spurs scored at least eight points, with Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal tying for the team lead with 17.

“Our best player (Duncan) doesn’t play and we still win by 20,” said Stephen Jackson, the lone Spur to play 30 minutes. “It’s our preparation, giving every team we face respect, and going out and playing hard.”

Duncan will likely return to the lineup Friday as the Spurs try to avoid a third straight home loss to the Lakers. Bynum’s career-best and NBA season-high 30 boards helped Los Angeles outrebound San Antonio 60-33 on April 11.

The Lakers, who host the Thunder on Sunday before closing out their schedule at Sacramento on Thursday, will clinch home-court advantage in the first round with a victory Friday or a loss by Memphis to Charlotte.

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