LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are on a collision course to meet in the NBA finals

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Every now and then something truly shocking happens in the NBA playoffs, such as Golden State tossing top-seeded Dallas in the very first round three years ago. But a looming threat of the great surprise isn't what drives professional basketball's second season. It isn't like the Stanley Cup playoffs, where one goaltender, perhaps even one best described as pretty good, can beat what everyone agrees is a better team. It isn't like October baseball, where one starting pitcher can determine the course of a series. And it isn't like playoff football, which revels in the randomness of any given Sunday.

Mostly, the NBA postseason is like the theater. You understand, by and large, what is going to happen, but the artistry compels you anyway. We want to see if what we suspect is true. The NBA, because of the global star power of its best players, has the only postseason that can truly be ruined by an upset.

Basketball fans may love the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder . . . but not to the degree that they want to see them dump Kobe Bryant from the playoffs.

The postseason where the best teams most often win opens play this weekend, and it would take something fairly unforeseen over the next eight weeks to prevent Kobe Bryant and LeBron James from meeting in the NBA Finals.

The question for now is who, if anybody in the playoff field, can stop either the Lakers and/or the Cavaliers from winning four out of seven games in three straight series.

There is only one threat to LeBron and Cleveland: defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando, slightly retooled from last spring but just as formidable. The Celtics, champions once removed, are too old and feeble now. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were assembled for a short run and the run is over; the mileage has simply overwhelmed their considerable basketball know-how.

The Atlanta Hawks, physically capable of challenging anybody, haven't yet exhibited the acumen or the poise, and these things simply never reveal themselves for the first time in the playoffs.

If the Cavaliers are as motivated to win as they claim to be, they'll take out the Chicago Bulls (tougher than nails but not talented enough yet) in no more than four games, then Miami (which will upset the Celtics) in five, and get ready to visit revenge on Orlando.

The defending champion Lakers, however, will have challengers spying from everywhere. While Cleveland could play C-plus basketball for a series and beat everybody except Orlando in the Eastern Conference, the Lakers had better relocate their championship form. But it certainly does help Los Angeles that Oklahoma City is too young to put up a sustained challenge and the second-round opponent will likely be absent a head coach (Denver's George Karl) or a fully healthy all-star (Utah's Carlos Boozer).

Still, the Lakers haven't played like a champ in weeks. Kobe is trying to get past hand, ankle and knee injuries. Big Andrew Bynum, injured again, is just returning to the lineup, and who knows how this will affect Phil Jackson's rotation and the Lakers bench. We'll find out rather quickly if the Lakers were, as we suspect, simply bored and ready to start the playoffs or in some kind of meaningful downswing. As one Western Conference all-star told me last week, "Something very funky is going on with the Lakers. The Ron Artest [for Trevor Ariza] thing hasn't worked as they want it to. . . . Are they as good as they were last year? No."

Likely, the Lakers' biggest test is going to come from an unlikely source: the Phoenix Suns, who are better than they were last year, or the year before that or the year before that. They play better defense than at any time during the Mike D'Antoni era. Alvin Gentry, a D'Antoni lieutenant, has developed a bench, and the Suns have a mental toughness and chemistry they've lacked in recent years. "Maybe," Grant Hill told me the other night, "it's time to change our goals from what they were early in the season or midway through the season."

As predictable as the results usually are in the NBA playoffs, only three series are dead-lock certainties, and only one in the West. The Lakers will beat Oklahoma City, probably in five. Cleveland will sweep or take Chicago in five. Orlando will sweep or take Charlotte in five. Everything else could, perhaps even should, be competitive.

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