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Lakers and Cavs favored to reach finals

WHEN Kobe Bryant was last seen in the playoffs, he was hopeless and helpless as his Los Angeles Lakers were being run over by the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA finals.

LeBron James never even got to a sixth game in his first time on the big stage, as the Cleveland Cavaliers were quickly swept away by the San Antonio Spurs.

Now, with one big injury in the Eastern Conference and too many flawed teams in the West, one of the superstars has a good chance of getting the ending he wants this time.

"If I'm not competing for the NBA championship, then I'm wasting my time and I'm wasting my teammates' time," James said. "To be in a position to be in the playoffs and to be in a position to fight for the NBA championship, I'm looking forward to it."

The playoffs begin this weekend, with James and the Cavaliers hosting the Detroit Pistons today in their opener. Also today, Boston - without the injured Kevin Garnett - faces the Chicago Bulls, the Dallas Mavericks visit San Antonio in a rematch of a recent postseason thriller, and the Portland Trail Blazers welcome the Houston Rockets for their first playoff game since 2003.

Bryant and the Lakers get started tomorrow against the Utah Jazz. Then, the Orlando Magic hosts the Philadelphia 76ers, NBA scoring leader Dwyane Wade leads the Miami Heat to the Atlanta Hawks, and the New Orleans Hornets visit the Denver Nuggets.

Cleveland finished with a league-best 66-16 record and has home-court advantage throughout the postseason. That means someone is going to have to beat the Cavaliers in their arena, where they were 39-2 this season - and that second loss came in the regular-season finale when James didn't play.

That gives them a solid chance to get back to the finals, where they were swept by the Spurs two years ago after mustering the worst offensive performance in the history of the finals. This version is much better on that end, thanks in large part to Mo Williams, who delivered an All-Star season in his first year in Cleveland.

Their road won't be easy, though. Few teams can match the postseason experience of the Pistons, who have made six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals. After that could be the explosive Wade, followed by perhaps the defending champion Celtics.

And unlike in 2007, when the Cavaliers weren't viewed as title contenders, this time they won't sneak up on anyone.

"They'll be facing the kind of pressure we felt last year being the No. 1 seed," Boston coach Doc Rivers said.

Rivers has his own problems.

He said on Thursday that Garnett won't be ready for the postseason opener and may not play at all because of his right knee injury. The Celtics have kept winning without Garnett and perhaps have enough with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to do so early, but certainly would miss him against the Cavaliers or Lakers - if they get that far.

Garnett was the key to a Boston frontcourt that pushed around the Lakers in the finals last year, which ended with the Celtics' 131-92 rout in Game 6. This time, it's Los Angeles that is healthy up front, with Andrew Bynum back from a knee injury to anchor the middle.

Bynum, who missed the postseason last year because of a knee injury, is pumped up for the playoffs.

"I am very, very, very excited," Bynum said. "I have never played in an NBA playoff game - well, I played in Phoenix for a minute, but that doesn't really count. I think I have a great chance to help push us over the hump."


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