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Lakers, Rockets snatch big wins

THE Los Angeles Lakers widened their already gaping advantage in the Pacific Division with a 132-106 pounding of the Phoenix Suns on Thursday.

Lamar Odom had a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds while Kobe Bryant grabbed 22 and eight assists as the league-leading Lakers (48-10) stretched their command in the Pacific.

"We wanted to come out and play hard and understand that we're playing for a bigger purpose," Bryant told reporters after the match.

"We just want to get better and continue to improve so that when June comes around hopefully we're playing for a championship."

Bryant set the pace with 13 first-quarter points and finished 10-for-13 from the field while sitting out the fourth quarter of the blowout.

The contest was the first meeting between Bryant and Phoenix center Shaquille O'Neal since the two shared MVP honors at the All-Star Game.

O'Neal had just 12 points and seven rebounds for the Suns, who were missing All-Stars Steve Nash (ankle) and Amare Stoudemire, who is out indefinitely with an eye injury.

Leandro Barbosa took the team's scoring honors with 18 points but Phoenix could do little to stop the top-ranked Los Angeles offense.

The Lakers closed the first quarter with a 19-6 run to take a 70-55 halftime advantage before cruising to their sixth straight win and the 17th in their last 19 contests.

Los Angeles amassed 38 assists and shot 57 percent from the floor, though the team was more focused on containing the Suns fastbreak offense for key stretches of the game.

"To be a perfect team you have to be the best defensive team in the league, and that's what we're trying to do," Odom said. "We're striving for perfection."

Phoenix fell to 4-2 under coach Alvin Gentry, who took over when Terry Porter was fired earlier this month.

Under Gentry, the Suns have returned to their run-and-gun style and have averaged 124 points over their last six games. Still, at 32-25, Phoenix are currently two games out of the Western Conference playoff race.

In Houston, the Rockets held LeBron James without an assist for the first time in his career and limited the Cleveland Cavaliers to their lowest score of the season, recording a 93-74 win.

Yao Ming scored 28 points for Houston and Ron Artest added 15 while harassing James on defense most of the night, leading the Rockets to their sixth consecutive victory and ninth straight at home.

James scored 21 points, but went just 7-for-21 from the field with three turnovers.

It was the first time in 493 NBA games that he failed to record an assist.

The Cavaliers had season-low point totals in the first (11) and third (10) quarters, and their 34 percent shooting (27-for-80) was also a season worst.

The defeat ended the Cavs' five-game winning streak. They also lost forward Ben Wallace, who left in the third quarter with a broken right leg.

Houston had 25 assists, its sixth straight game with 20 or more, and went 8-for-19 from 3-point range.


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