There are reasons. Facts. Statistics. There are overwhelmingly practical explanations as to why the Los Angeles Lakers can't possibly repeat as four-time NBA champions.

Yet as the league's playoff picture only seems to be getting more murky in the fading light of the regular season, with teams such as Washington and Houston still battling for playoff berths and teams such as Dallas and New Jersey only tenuously clinging to top seedings, all that clinical logic swirling around Los Angeles is beginning to look suspect.

After all, for each notion that the Lakers aren't hungry enough or deep enough, for every time San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan's name comes up as evidence of their demise, there is a 7-foot-1, 330-pound thundercloud and a 6-foot-6, 220-pound bolt of lightning who lay out evidence to the contrary. And Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are becoming harder and harder to ignore, what with all that shiny stuff on their ring fingers.

"This is not going to be something that's easy, but the worthwhile things never are. I feel good about the history of this team in the playoffs. I feel good about what we can do," Bryant said recently, the same night he also just happened to mention that dropping 55 points on Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards -- 42 in the first half alone, 23 of them in a row -- was "not a big deal."

Since then, Bryant has calmly wreaked havoc with a string of psyches from Dallas to Sacramento, and for every step he's taken, a newly healthy and motivated O'Neal has rumbled alongside, over the last five weeks averaging 31.6 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. Their performances have complemented each other thoroughly enough for the Lakers to win seven of their last eight games and for the rest of the league to begin wondering exactly which facts and figures represent the Lakers best.

Los Angeles, for instance, just scored an impressive win over Dallas, but it is a collective 3-7 against the top three teams in the Western Conference. Bryant and O'Neal have been putting up astounding numbers but beyond them, the Lakers are about as statistically deep as a puddle, with Derek Fisher the only other player on the roster whose scoring average is in double figures. (At 10.4 points per game, Fisher is only barely there.) And while the 35-12 record the Lakers have racked up since Christmas has been impressive, it is also an indicator of how hard they've had to play just to get what will likely be a No. 6 seed in the playoffs, and how tired they may be when they get there.

"The first two months of the season were just treacherous, so to survive that gives us momentum and hope, but we also still haven't proven we have a three-guard rotation, and we still haven't had a strong bench," Coach Phil Jackson ruminated. "We know that Sacramento and San Antonio and Dallas have played well, and that we haven't shown our ability to attack those top teams and beat them with consistency in the regular season, but I think we're going to be okay.

"I think in the playoffs, we can do the things that have brought us into focus before, and we can start doing the things we do that bring things together."

Of course, as for the rest of it, Jackson said: "I can't even project who is going to come out of the East. Usually by this time, someone over there has momentum, but I just can't see anyone."

His confusion is certainly understandable. For the second year in a row, the best team in the Eastern Conference has a record that would rank it no higher than fourth in the West, and even that team -- the Nets (48-29) -- is only atop the East standings by a few millimeters. Detroit is right behind at 47-29; Indiana right behind the Pistons at 46-31.

Even Philadelphia is in the mix, although 76ers star Allen Iverson appeared hurt in an uninspired loss to Sacramento on Sunday. Then again, Detroit is also in trouble, having lost star rebounder Ben Wallace to a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee for about two weeks.

"The thing too is that no matter what seed anyone goes into the playoffs as, it's wide open," Celtics star Paul Pierce said. "There's no clear favorite, no dominant team."

The same could be said for the West, where the Mavericks (57-19) have reigned for most of the season but now look shaky in the face of the surging Spurs (57-20). There is equal jostling at the bottom of the conference, where Houston (40-37) is nipping at the Phoenix Suns (40-36), a closer battle even than the one Washington (35-41) is pitching to overthrow Milwaukee (38-40) for the eighth and final spot in the East.

Considering the muddle of teams on both sides, it's no surprise then, that the Lakers at least have a renewed chance at another title. In fact, to O'Neal, it all adds up to a certain -- well -- logic.

"We'll be ready," he stated flatly when reporters asked him about the playoffs this week. "I think teams are more worried about us than us worried about them."

The defending champion Lakers got off to a poor start this season, but lately, Kobe Bryant has helped reverse that trend.