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Knicks brace for a crowning from LeBron James

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - There's a fierce competitive nature in certain superstar athletes, a burning passion among the elite that pushes them to be record-breakers.

A determined and focused Kobe Bryant nearly set Madison Square Garden on fire with his hot hand Monday night, dropping in a Garden-record 61 points to set the Broadway stage for tonight's royal visit from the King. Less than 48 hours after the fans' lovefest with Bryant, here comes the LeBron James express rolling into midtown tonight for the Cavaliers' last scheduled visit of the season as the Knicks' "Dream Week" continues.

Perfect timing, huh?

"We set the bar up high for him," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said with a laugh after practice yesterday. "He's going to have to play really well."

James adores lacing up the sneakers and playing at the Garden just as much as anyone. He was the object of the crowd's affection in the Knicks' Nov. 25 loss to the Cavs, which came on the heels -- four days to be exact -- of the Knicks' cap-clearing trades that could pave a golden trail from Cleveland to New York for James come the 2010 "Summer of LeBron."

Bryant and James have a friendly little rivalry going as both jockey for the title as the league's best player, so dare we think James might be pondering it's time to challenge Kobe in an imaginary game of "Can you top this?" tonight and go for 62?

"I'm sure he does to a certain extent. I think it's fun for us, but he's trying to get a win" D'Antoni said. "I think that's his mindset. He plays hard every night, but New York's a little special and I'm sure he's going to come in ready to go."

Of course, there's a slight chance this won't be James' last trek to the Garden in '09. The Knicks could actually meet the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs, a scenario that might captivate this playoff-starved city and create the same kind of buzz that Michael Jordan's Bulls did in their epic postseason battles with the Knicks.

As far-fetched as that might seem at the moment, think about it for a second: James throwing up his trademark talcum powder before the start of a playoff game at the Garden. What a scene that would be.

But that's looking far down the road. The Knicks haven't matched up well with the Cavs in their previous two meetings, getting shellacked by a combined 54 points. They just don't have the same kind of depth as the Cavs and it caught up to them both times.

"They've got a lot of quality players and there's a reason why they've won as many games as they have," David Lee said. "They are not 2-35 and only beaten us twice. They've beaten a lot of teams. They've done a great job this season, so we are going to do our best to change that up."

Notes & quotes: Bryant's performance on Monday night drew the highest rating (2.09) in nearly two years for a Knicks' game on MSG Network ... Chris Duhon (flu-like symptoms) and Al Harrington (sore left knee) didn't practice but are probable for tonight's game.

New York Sports