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The All-Star question: What can Kobe do in a game with 'D'

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HOUSTON (AP) - Even when it's only an exhibition, everyone wants to ask Kobe Bryant about point totals.

Bryant won't make any predictions about how many he'll put up Sunday night in the NBA All-Star game, even though scoring has made him the biggest attraction in the league during the first half of the season.

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"I just look forward to going out there and winning the game, playing defense, believe it or not, doing whatever we need to win the game,'' he said.

Uh, sorry Kobe. People in more than 200 countries aren't tuning in to watch you block shots.

The possibilities seem endless. After scoring 81 points in a game this season, imagine how many Bryant can get in a game where there is little defense played.

"I think it's fun to have the discussions about Kobe,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said. "I think it's a terrific water cooler subject. Can he go for 100? Can he outscore a team by himself?

The latter seems unlikely, given that the Eastern Conference counters with Allen Iverson and LeBron James, who trail Bryant in what is shaping up as the most exciting scoring race in years.

Bryant went into the All-Star break averaging 35 points, with Iverson at 33.2 and James at 31.2. The NBA hasn't had three players average 30 or more points since 1982, when George Gervin beat out Moses Malone and Adrian Dantley to win the scoring title.

Bryant and Iverson have already been the stars in the NBA's showcase.

Iverson won his second MVP award in the East's victory last year in Denver, and Bryant took the award in 2002 after scoring 31 points back home in Philadelphia.

Maybe now it's James' turn. The Cleveland star headed into his second All-Star game after scoring 43 points in a win over San Antonio on Monday, then adding 43 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists Wednesday night in a victory over Boston.

James, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, made his All-Star debut last year with 13 points, and he goes into the break with comfortable playoff position - which Bryant and Iverson don't have - after leading the Cavs to the third-best record in the East.

The All-Star game record, by the way, is 42 points, and Bryant wasn't surprised at all to learn who held it.

"Wilt? Oh, couldn't have guessed that one,'' he said with a smile.

Chamberlain set that record in 1962, the year of his 100-point game. Bryant's total of 81 against Toronto in January was the next-highest in an NBA game.

The scoring race has sometimes overshadowed the other big story of the first half, the play of the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons got off to one of the best starts in NBA history before cooling off a bit and bringing a 42-9 record into the break.

Though none of its players was elected to start, four Detroit players were voted in as reserves. Pistons coach Flip Saunders, who will coach the East, said he may send Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace into the game at the same time.

"We are definitely going to have to work it out where all of us are on the floor together,'' Billups said. "We've got the man that is in control of it, so we should be able to work that out.''

All-Star weekend is back in Houston for the first time since 1989, when the game drew 44,735 fans at the Astrodome. It's a rare chance to celebrate this season for the city's fans, who have watched the Rockets stumble into last place while enduring injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

Both players will start for the West, and Yao could garner more attention from the worldwide audience than any of the other 23 All-Stars. China has sent a seven electronic media outlets to Houston.

With players such as Memphis' Pau Gasol (Spain) and San Antonio's Tony Parker (France) making their first All-Star game appearances, the game is being televised in 44 languages. More than 300 international media members were scheduled to be in Houston for the weekend festivities, included the 3-point and dunk contests Saturday night.

Maybe that's why Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy wasn't all that impressed after learning his two players would get to start in front of the home crowd.

"I'm sure it means something to them, although you're not going to be playing in front of Houston fans - but we're not playing in front of a hell of a lot of Houston fans now, so maybe in that way, it's the same,'' he said.

Billups, Hamilton and Toronto's Chris Bosh are the other first-time All-Stars. Bryant and Iverson both said the first selection was their highlight, though Iverson acknowledged that his seventh selection was meaningful, too.

"The first appearance is always going to be the most memorable,'' Iverson said. "This one is special because I'm 30 years old and you hear all the negative things about your game declining and at this point you should be breaking down. I still go out and play hard every night and give it my all. I guess the fans recognize that because they put me in the All-Star game.''

Bryant and Tim Duncan are back for the eighth time, while Kevin Garnett is making his ninth appearance. Shaquille O'Neal is an All-Star for the 13th consecutive time, one behind the record held by Jerry West and Karl Malone.

Malone was the MVP the last time the All-Star game came to Houston. With so much of the focus this season on scoring, it seems likely that this year's winner will be someone who finds his name high up on the season's scoring leaderboard.

"If the game is up and down and moving, then you know Kobe, Tracy McGrady, LeBron, Allen those guys who can create will be the guys you have to look out for,'' former Lakers star Magic Johnson said. "So it's going to be fun.''

That will be especially true if Bryant and the other top scorers have big nights. While there will always be All-Star game skeptics who point out that they aren't true representations of the way the sport should be played, the NBA knows exactly what kind of game it wants.

The scoring race has helped the league regain some of its popularity after a rough 2004-05 season that was marred by the brawl in Detroit. The NBA's marketing is geared toward its star players, and it hasn't had one do things such as Bryant since Michael Jordan retired. The 81-point game made such news that it knocked the NFL's conference title games, played the same day, out of the top spot in many sports pages.

So forget that talk of playing like a team player Sunday night, Kobe. The fans want scoring, and so do the people running the event.

"It's not the NBA Finals, it's not even a regular-season game,'' Stern said. "It's the All-Star game, it's a celebration. A celebration of talent, speed, grace. Let's put it on display and have some fun.''

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