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Team Is Ready for the Challenge

A few weeks ago, Coach Phil Jackson circled these two tough games at the end of a five-game trip, figuring a split of back-to-back games against the New York Knicks and Miami Heat was a realistic goal and would keep second-place Portland from gaining serious ground.

After Sunday’s seven-point victory over the Knicks, 27-8 at Madison Square Garden, suddenly tonight’s game in Miami could give the Lakers a sweeping sensation.

It’s a situation similar to the Lakers’ recent six-game Eastern Conference trip, when Jackson told the players he thought 5-1 was the best they could do, and they swept the trip.

“Phil’s always underestimating us,” said Kobe Bryant, who agreed that Jackson probably in part does it to motivate his players. “Phil always does that.

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“Every time he’s done that, we’ve proved him wrong, and he just laughs.”

Said Jackson, when he was asked if he’d settle for a split now: “Well, you get one, might as well get two, right? That’d be nice.”

*

For some players, the victory over the blue-collar Knicks was the biggest of the season--even above the Feb. 29 momentum game over Portland.

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“I think this ranks higher, because this is the fourth game on this trip,” guard Derek Fisher said. “I think it was important for us to get this win to make up for the loss we had in Washington.

“Now, it’s time for us to move on to Miami. We can finish this road trip up really strong. The challenges keep coming. And we’ve accepted them and taken them head-on so far.”

*

Glen Rice had a tough shooting game (three for 10), but had no trouble flying to the basket in the final minutes of the fourth quarter for a Bryant-like put-back slam.

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“I felt like I had to get the ball into the hoop some kind of way,” Rice said with a shrug. “It was an opportunity there, so I just took advantage of it.”

TONIGHT

at Miami, 5 PST

Channel 9, TBS

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* Site--American Airlines Arena.

* Radio--KLAC (570).

* Records--Lakers 55-12, Heat 42-23.

* Record vs. Heat--1-0.

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* Update--The Heat has won five in a row, but still trails the Pacers by three games for No. 1-seeding in the Eastern Conference.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

TRIPLE PLAYS / The Big 3

Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Glen Rice have been the driving force behind the Lakers’ success. How they fared:

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O’NEAL

*--*

Sun. Season 43 Points 29.0 10 Rebounds 14.1 3 Assists 3.8

*--*

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BRYANT

*--*

Sun. Season 24 Points 22.4 9 Rebounds 6.0 7 Assists 4.7

*--*

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RICE

*--*

Sun. Season 6 Points 16.0 4 Rebounds 4.1 2 Assists 2.1

*--*

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The Top 3

Best records in the NBA:

LAKERS

Record 55-12

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Sun. d. N.Y., 92-85

Tonight at Miami

*

PORTLAND

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Record 50-16

Sat. d. Seattle, 97-96

Wed. vs. Detroit

*

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INDIANA

Record 46-21

Sat. d. Char.,115-99

Tue. vs. New York

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