Will the Lakers' swoon continue?

LOS ANGELES — The All-Star game was never supposed to be Kobe Bryant's highlight at Staples Center this season.

Not when his two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers were expected to have a shot at a third in a row. Even after LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Heat agreed with Michael Jordan that the Lakers were the favorites until somebody beat them in June.

These days, June basketball doesn't even look like a sure thing for the Lakers.

They stumbled into the All-Star break with three straight losses, capped by a defeat in Cleveland against a Cavaliers team they beat by 55 earlier in the season.

But nobody is counting Bryant's bunch out yet.

"They are the champions. We understand and know the second half of the season, they are going to play even better and when it comes time to win, they are going to be the team to beat," Wade said.

Wade's Heat might have the team to do it, and the Boston Celtics would love another shot at their biggest rivals after losing in seven games last June. But first, the Lakers have to prove they're the best in the West before they worry about who's tops in the East.

They are currently third in the conference, 81/2; games behind NBA-leading San Antonio and 21/2; back of second-place Dallas. But the Lakers looked shaky late last season before putting it together, and they're confident they can do it again.

"It has been like a lot of hot and cold this season, a lot of contrasts and looking for a level of consistency," All-Star forward Pau Gasol said. "I feel that we can do that."

Bryant won his fourth All-Star MVP award Sunday, scoring 37 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the Western Conference's 148-143 victory over the East. He looked poised for the stretch run, with a couple of soaring dunks, one over a chasing James, that showed there's plenty of bounce left in his sometimes aching legs.

The season resumes today, with the first business the likely conclusion to the Carmelo Anthony situation. A deal sending him to New York is expected to be finalized today.

Even if the Lakers get things figured out, the road to the NBA finals might go through San Antonio. With a 46-10 record and health they haven't enjoyed in recent years, the Spurs seem capable of winning a fifth title with Tim Duncan after they struggled just to reach the postseason in 2010.

"Last year we had 50 wins the whole season and now we have 46, so no one really expected it," All-Star Manu Ginobili. "We have always been healthy and nobody misses a game, and we got the experience and we got a better bench."

While they cruise out West, Boston leads Miami by percentage points in the East, with Chicago two games back. The Celtics are 3-0 against the Heat, but haven't been able to keep centers Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal healthy to surround their four All-Stars.

"We are not where we want to be. I mean, I know it sounds crazy, still at the top of the East and we have the best record, but I don't think we are near where we want to be," Paul Pierce said. "We battled a lot of injury. We battled inconsistent play over the last couple of weeks. We are just fortunate to be in the position that we have. We haven't been healthy all year long. I'm just waiting to see what's going to happen in the next couple of weeks when we get about 95 percent healthy, to see what's really going to happen."

The Knicks are sixth in the East, in position to make their first playoff appearance since 2004. They lurk as a dangerous lower seed if they land Anthony to join fellow All-Star Amare Stoudemire in a potentially explosive frontcourt.

"The team that we have now, we are not too bad," Stoudemire said. "We are making our playoff push, but you never know how things may end up here in the next few days."

The MVP race could come down to Chicago point guard Derrick Rose or James, the two-time winner who figured his move to Miami counted himself and Wade out this season. But he's been so good that he believes he's back in the conversation, especially if the Heat continue to recover from their rocky start and reach the potential that was expected of them.

"For the first two-thirds of the season, we played some good basketball. For the last third of the season, we have to understand that we cannot afford to take a step backwards and we have to keep moving forward," James said. "We have to continue to get better, because there are teams out there that's better than us right now."

Maybe the Lakers can still prove they are one of them.

"We are looking forward to it," Bryant said. "We are up for the challenge."

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