Lakers' road to repeat may go through Chicago
Kobe Bryant has all that championship experience, and perhaps the NBA's best supporting cast. The Miami Heat have the promise of what LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can deliver in their first postseason together, and the Boston Celtics think their playoff-tested group can do it again.
''You don't ever know if you're going to win a championship until you get there, but you know you have the pieces that can compete for one,'' Wade said. ''That's where we're at right now.''
But to win an NBA title, those teams may have to go past Michael Jordan.
Well, past his likeness anyway.
The Chicago Bulls, with dynamite point guard Derrick Rose, earned home-court advantage by finishing with the league's best record for the first time since Jordan ruled the NBA. Keep on winning, and the Bulls would open the finals at the United Center, with its statue of Jordan outside.
And what a story it would be if his old coach was on the opposing sideline.
Phil Jackson, who led Jordan and the Bulls to six NBA titles, is expected to retire after this season. The Lakers would love to send him off with a sixth title in Los Angeles and a remarkable fourth three-peat.
They are the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and endured a five-game losing streak late in the season. But they still have Bryant, seeking to tie Jordan with a sixth ring, and loads of interior depth with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and they hope a healthy Andrew Bynum.
And they might be back on track after closing the regular season with two straight victories.
''Maybe we turned a corner the last two nights,'' Jackson said. ''We can't do anything easy. We're bipolar.''
The playoffs start on Saturday, with Chicago hosting Indiana in the opener. Also Saturday, the Heat play Philadelphia; Atlanta and Orlando meet in a postseason rematch, and Portland visits Dallas.
The Lakers get started Sunday against New Orleans, after West No. 1 seed San Antonio welcomes the Memphis Grizzlies. The Celtics drew the New York Knicks, in their first postseason since 2004 and confident they are dangerous with the Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire tandem; before scoring leader Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder face the new-look Denver Nuggets in the nightcap.
The Bulls may lack the star power of some other heavyweights, but they've spent the last few months making believers of all of them. Led by Rose, perhaps the MVP favorite, Chicago went 62-20 for its best record since finishing with the same mark in 1997-98, Jordan's final season.
''Chicago's a good team and there's a reason why can they keep coming at you in waves,'' Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said, ''and they play hard.''
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah provide a strong tandem inside and the Bulls not surprisingly were a top defensive club under coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the Boston defense that knocked out Wade, then James in last year's playoffs on the way to the finals.
That duo then joined Chris Bosh in Miami, and after some early struggles and more scrutiny than any team should endure, the Heat surged into the postseason with 15 wins in their last 18 games and perhaps can still meet the expectations that were raised last July.
''All these teams we're talking about, they're all flawed. There's no perfect team to be honest with you. So if you've got two of the five best players, they are very dangerous,'' Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said.
The two most intriguing first-round series could involve Anthony's current and former teams.
New York struggled last month as it adjusted to the trade with Denver, but won seven straight down the stretch to set up the 14th Celtics-Knicks series. Boston had its own problems since dealing center Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder, and though the Celtics quickly put things together last year after a lackluster finish to the regular season, there's questions if they can do it again following such a major change to their roster.
Doc Rivers said his team will be ready.
''I think this is what our guys have been playing for all year,'' he said. ''You know, when you lose a Game 7, it sticks with you and that's very difficult to get back through the regular season because the whole season you're thinking about, 'Gosh, we've got to go through 82 of these just to have a chance to get back to where we were at last year' and now all that part is gone. And now we can start trying to get back to, and finish the job.''
The Nuggets went 18-7 after trading their All-Star forward along with Chauncey Billups, moving up to the No. 5 seed by getting balanced contributions throughout the roster. Oklahoma City provided a tough first-round test for the Lakers last year and believes it's better equipped to compete with the champs with Perkins patrolling the paint.
The winner of that series might have to play the Spurs, then the Lakers just to reach the finals.
''When you're in the Western Conference, if you're looking for something easy, you've come to the wrong place,'' Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. ''In this conference, it's a lot different than it's been in the East. A lot of their playoff positioning has been settled for days and weeks. Out West, it's been the epitome of high-level competition all year. It's only going to be more competitive now.''
The Lakers believe they can be the team to emerge from it.
''Every team we can match up with in the playoffs, especially defensively,'' Odom said.
AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas, Tim Reynolds in Miami and Antonio Gonzalez in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.