Cavs, Magic, Lakers seem best, but threats abound
Maybe Kobe Bryant is too beaten up to last through three playoff rounds against the rest of the West.
Perhaps the aging Boston Celtics do have one more run in them, or the Atlanta Hawks are ready to take the next step.
Sure, it’s easy to think this year’s NBA champion will be LeBron James and Cleveland, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, or the Orlando Magic.
Just don’t tell that to all the other teams believing the trio can be knocked off.
“I don’t think anybody is afraid of anybody,” Dallas owner Mark Cuban said. “We think we can beat anybody and anybody thinks they can beat us. That’s how good the teams are.”
The best during the regular season were the Cavaliers, but they were last season, too. All that got them was a trip to Orlando, where the Magic ended their season in the conference finals, and James picked up a $25,000 fine for not talking to the media after the loss.
But with a bolstered front line that now features Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison alongside James, there may not be anything that can stop the Cavaliers this time.
“Dan Gilbert, Danny Ferry went out and got the pieces that I feel should help us against the bigger teams that we’ll be going against,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown.
“We still have a long way to go. It’s going to be tough for us, because we’re going to face a lot of different types of teams on this run, hopefully. We’ll see how we pan out after we get started.”
That comes Saturday, when the Cavaliers open against the Chicago Bulls, who earned the NBA’s final playoff spot on the last night of the regular season. Also Saturday, Milwaukee visits Atlanta; Boston hosts Miami and Utah visits Denver.
On Sunday, it’s playoff newcomer Oklahoma City at the Lakers; Orlando hosting Charlotte, another first-time postseason team; San Antonio visiting Dallas; and Phoenix entertaining Portland.
The Suns, who missed the playoffs last year but rode a late-season surge to the No. 3 seed in the West this year, are another team that could spoil one of the presumed finals matchups.
“I don’t know if you start matching us up with all the teams in the league how talented we are, but I think as a collective group we’re pretty doggone good,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.
All eight playoff teams in the West won 50 games, the second time that happened in three years. Still, the Lakers probably stand out as the class of the conference – when their health allows it.
“The West is wide open. A lot of great teams out there,” Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “The Lakers, if they’re healthy with (Andrew) Bynum and everybody, I think they’re still the favorites, but everybody else is kind of bunched up and on the same level. Anything is possible.”
Bynum, the Lakers’ starting center, missed the last 13 games with a strained left Achilles’ tendon. Bryant missed four of the last five games with a series of injuries, most notably a broken right index finger that caused him to shoot awfully in April.
“He’s going to be just fine,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “How we play together as a team is really the critical element of playing in the playoffs.”
Yet health is always an issue come playoff time, and a pair of the league’s oldest teams insist they have it. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are all ready to go for the Spurs, giving them reason to think they can avenge last season’s first-round loss to the Southwest Division champion Mavericks.
“We’re playing better than we have all year long, there’s no doubt about that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Whether that’s good enough to do anything of note in the playoffs, we’ll see. But we’re very thankful we’re playing our best basketball now.”
The Celtics aren’t, dropping seven of their final 10 to tumble to the No. 4 seed. But with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all playing, the 2008 champions insist they will look much sharper in the postseason than they did over the second half of the regular season.
And they’d better, with Dwyane Wade and the Heat looming as a dangerous opening opponent.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” Miami forward Quentin Richardson said. “We’re going to be ready. We’ll never be intimidated by anyone. We just look at them as a very good, veteran team. They have some good players. It’s going to be a good series and I’m pretty excited about it.”
The Lakers, who beat the Magic last year in five games, are bidding to become the first team with three consecutive trips to the finals since O’Neal and Bryant led them to three straight championships from 2000-02.
But every round could be a difficult for team that played so fluidly early on but dropped six of its final 10. They were beaten badly the last time they played the Thunder, who are led by Kevin Durant, who averaged 30.1 points to become the NBA’s youngest scoring champion. Bryant was fourth with 27 points per game.
“A lot of people don’t know that we probably won’t be guarding each other for the majority of the games,” Durant said. “It’s not going to be KD versus Kobe. I’m sure he really doesn’t think like that and I don’t think like that. It’s the Thunder versus the Lakers.
“Of course, fans want to get into the 1-on-1 matchups but it’s far from that. It’s all about team basketball and getting wins any way you can.”
The Cavs think it’s their year to get the most. Orlando believes it can stop them again.
One of them probably faces the Lakers for the title.
LeBron vs. Kobe, or an NBA finals rematch. Three great teams, two good story lines.
And plenty of teams trying to wreck it.
“I think every series,” Cuban said, “from 1 to 8 on through, is pretty much a pick-it.”
AP sportswriters Doug Alden in Salt Lake City, Jaime Aron in Dallas, Beth Harris in Los Angeles, Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City, Paul Newberry in Atlanta, and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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