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Thursday, April 7th (All times eastern)

Houston Rockets (44-31) at Los Angeles Lakers (33-41), 10:30 p.m.

(Sports Network) - Kobe Bryant will return to the lineup for the lottery-bound Los Angeles Lakers tonight, when they try to play spoiler against the Houston Rockets at the Staples Center.

The Lakers have dropped four straight and 13 of their last 16 games to slip out of postseason contention for the first time in 11 seasons. Meanwhile, the Rockets are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, sitting sixth in the standings. Houston is just a half-game ahead of seventh place Denver and 1 1/2 contests behind fifth place Sacramento.

The Rockets have hurt themselves with three consecutive defeats, including a 122-117 loss to the Golden State Warriors at The Arena in Oakland on Tuesday. Tracy McGrady had a game-high 44 points and grabbed seven rebounds for the Rockets in the defeat.

Yao Ming tallied 23 points and 11 rebounds in the setback, while Bob Sura added 15 points. Mike James rounded out the Rockets' double-figure scorers with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting.

Houston was forced to do without the services of sharpshooter Jon Barry due to back spasms. Barry, who has missed the last two games, is expected to sit out tonight's contest.

The Rockets will be without starting forward Juwan Howard for the rest of the season and the playoffs, as he is suffering from a viral infection in his heart that will bar him from physical exertion for four to six months. Howard had been out with a sprained right knee, but had hoped to return for the postseason.

Houston, which is in the midst of a four-game road trip, is 22-16 in foreign buildings this season. The Rockets have won three of five and seven of their last 10 road games.

Los Angeles' forgettable season continued on Tuesday, as it fell 125-99 to the Phoenix Suns at America West Arena. Caron Butler had 30 points, seven rebounds and six steals for the Lakers, who were without Bryant (shin).

Chucky Atkins added 14 points and eight assists for Los Angeles, while Devean George chipped in 12 points. Jumaine Jones tacked on 10 points in the losing effort.

The Lakers hit 41.2 percent from the field, including 6-of-19 (.316) from three-point range. Los Angeles hit 13-of-17 (.765) from the free throw line, while committing 11 turnovers.

Los Angeles, which has four of its next six contests at home, is 22-15 in its friendly confines this season. The Lakers have lost four of five and five of their last eight home games.

The Lakers have won two of three meetings between these squads this season. Los Angeles has won six of the last nine meetings, but Houston snapped a four- game series losing streak on Feb. 6 at the Toyota Center. The Rockets have lost eight of their last 10 road contests against the Lakers.

04/07 10:13:18 ET


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