Star power notwithstanding, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers will find plenty of danger lurking in the NBA postseason.
The Lakers head into the playoffs vying for a second straight championship, hoping that a little rest at the end of the regular season will have re-energized superstar Kobe Bryant for the last stretch.
The Cavaliers built the best regular-season record — but then again they did that last year only to fall to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals.
This time around the Cavs hope they can go all the way, having brought in veteran Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison to help out superstar LeBron James.
“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,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said.
The Cavaliers open their postseason campaign today against Chicago, who secured the final playoff berth on the final night of the season.
In other Eastern Conference series, Milwaukee face Atlanta, Boston take on Miami and Orlando take on Charlotte.
The Celtics lost seven of their last 10 regular season games, but the 2008 NBA champs expect to pick things up with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen healthy.
They’ll need to be at their best against a Heat team led by Dwyane Wade.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” Miami forward Quentin Richardson said. “We’re going to be ready.”
The Lakers’ first test will be Oklahoma City, while in other Western Conference series Utah play Denver, Phoenix take on Portland and Dallas take on familiar Texas foes San Antonio.
“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,” he said.
Los Angeles, who beat Orlando for the title last year, are vying to become the first team with three straight trips to the finals since O’Neal and Bryant led them to three straight from 2000 to 2002.
The Thunder will try to bring a quick end to that bid with the help of Kevin Durant, who averaged 30.1 points to become the NBA’s youngest scoring champion. Durant stressed that he didn’t see the series playing out as a showdown between himself and Bryant.
“It’s not going to be K.D. versus Kobe. It’s the Thunder versus the Lakers,” Durant said. “Of course, fans want to get into the one-on-one matchups, but it’s far from that. It’s all about team basketball and getting wins any way you can.”
Phoenix missed the playoffs last year, but turned it on late in the season to seize the third seed in the West.
“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 Western Conference teams won 50 games. The Lakers remain the undisputed leaders, but have battled injuries late in the season — notably Bryant’s broken finger and sore knee.
“The West is wide open. A lot of great teams out there,” Mavericks 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.”
San Antonio have also battled injuries, but the aging Spurs say Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are all ready to try to avenge their loss to Dallas in the first round last year.
“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.”
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