The National Basketball Association is heading into the premier part of its season -- the playoffs, and it has its two biggest attractions in the center of the spotlight.
"That's a road you have to follow if you want to be considered among the great ones because it demonstrates that you're either making the players around you better or management is putting better players around you in order to showcase your talent longer into the playoffs," NBA commissioner David Stern said last week.
"The campaign last year about the finals was, `Where legends are born' and I think you could have said that for the playoffs. You clearly -- in order to write yourself large in NBA history -- you've got to be in the playoffs."
James thought he was headed there last year before a late-season collapse left the Cleveland Cavaliers at home. Now in his third year, he's ready to make up for lost time.
"I don't put timelines on anything," James said following practice on Thursday. "It's unfortunate I didn't make it the last two years, but I'm here now."
Not surprisingly, James and Bryant get the prime slots this weekend. The Cavaliers open their first postseason since 1998 on Saturday afternoon on national television against the Washington Wizards, and the Lakers have the Sunday afternoon TV game for both their opener at Phoenix and Game 4 back at Staples Center next weekend.
In the other best-of-seven series that open today, defending champion San Antonio hosts Sacramento, Chicago visits Miami, and the Los Angeles Clippers host the Denver Nuggets. Also tomorrow, New Jersey hosts Indiana, Milwaukee heads to Detroit, and Memphis visits Dallas.
That last one has caused plenty of debate. The Mavericks (60-22) had the West's second-best record, but they fell to the No. 4 seed because they are in the same division as the Spurs (63-19). So Dallas is forced play a tough opening-round opponent in the Grizzlies, who went 49-33.
"The Mavericks are getting the short end of the stick," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "They're playing the five seed when they should be playing the seven. The fair way to do it is just seed one through eight based on records."
Then again, they may not have wanted to play the No. 7 seed anyway. That's where Bryant lurks -- and he scored 62 points in a game against the Mavs this season.
Neither James nor Bryant is expected to go far: Even if Cleveland gets by Washington -- the Cavs dropped three of four meetings this season -- it would draw powerful Detroit in the second round. The Lakers, the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, won only once in four matchups with high-scoring the Suns.
But count them out at your own risk. Bryant averaged 42.5 points against Phoenix, and James finished a sensational regular season with averages of 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
"I think we'll see the best of him," Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. "There is nobody in this league that can stop him. He's going to get his."
The National Basketball Association set an attendance record for the second straight year, announcing on Thursday that it averaged 17,558 fans for its games this season.
With the league's arenas filled to 91.4 percent capacity, the league bettered last season's average of 17,314. Before that, the previous mark had been 17,252 in 1995-1996.