Let's sum up the NBA playoffs with a five-word question: Can anybody beat the Lakers?
Wait a minute, here's a better question: Can anybody in the West beat 'em once?
Lest we all forget, nobody beat them last year until Game 1 of the finals. And we all remember how the Lakers responded to that, right? They won the next four, finishing with a 15-1 postseason record that was the best in NBA history.
A whole new season begins this weekend, and a good way to start is by throwing out everything that happened during the regular season. OK, not everything.
The point here is that the proposition of beating the Lakers in a five- or seven-game series is more formidable than the optimists in other Western Conference cities would have people believe.
The two-time defending champions bring a mental edge into this postseason, a unique sense of confidence in themselves, that no other NBA team -- East or West -- comes close to matching.
Take, for instance, the Sacramento Kings, who finished the regular season with the best record in the league (61-21). They have pretty much spent the past 5 1/2 months knocking the daylights out of everybody except one team, which of course is the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and their cohorts beat the Kings three times and lost once.
Other teams quake in the Kings' raucous arena. The Lakers go in there expecting to win. In the last eight games between the teams, the Lakers are 7-1.
Then there are the San Antonio Spurs, who have changed 60 percent of their starting lineup but are still anchored by Tim Duncan, whom we all remember turning to jelly along with the rest of his team last May as the Lakers went into the Alamodome and took Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals.
The Dallas Mavericks also check into the postseason with a most interesting team, a Don Nelson Gimmick Special run by everyone's favorite Dairy Queen clerk, Mark Cuban.
Lots of folks out West think the Mavs just might be crazy enough to confound the mighty Lakers with wave after wave of offense from a phalanx of outside-shooting 7-footers, the league's best pair of shoot-first point guards and a pair of would-be Kobe-stoppers in Greg Buckner and Adrian Griffin. And we didn't even mention Michael Finley.
Problem is, the Mavericks need to get past the Minnesota Timberwolves and then the winner of the Sacramento-Utah series.
Perhaps Karl Malone said it best Wednesday night: ''No one expects us to do anything, of course.''
That's right, Karl, because as they say down in Louisiana, y'all got whupped. Sacramento swept the season series against Utah 4-0, winning by an average margin of almost 23 points.
So at least there's a high probability that there will be a Western Conference semifinal series between Dallas and Sacramento that shapes up, in theory, as one of the most entertaining playoff series possible. The winner would get the Lakers, assuming they take care of the Spurs.
On paper, it all looks fairly promising in terms of compelling basketball.
But looking at it from the perspective of trying to justify the probability of someone actually knocking off the Lakers four times in a seven-game series, it's hard to argue with the oddsmakers who have made Los Angeles a 6-5 favorite to win a third straight title.
The biggest longshots are Utah and Seattle at 50-1, while the pick of the litter in the East is New Jersey at 8-1.
Oh, yes, the East. Have we mentioned the East?
Keeping with past practice, the NBA is conducting a playoff competition in the Eastern and Central time zones, too. The New Jersey Nets reportedly are the No. 1 seed.
But enough of that. Let's get back to the Lakers.
Shaq has been quite moody this season, going weeks on end without muttering to the beat writers. Kobe has ''issues,'' according to Reggie Miller. Rick Fox with the long locks shaved his head. Phil Jackson plays a cab driver in his latest commercial. Derek Fisher wears his headband over his ears as a symbol of concentration. Slava's a hunk. Shaq prefers the Whopper to the Big Mac.
Yes, it's all about the Lakers, folks, like it or not.
Nobody beat them last year in the conference playoffs, and nobody's beaten them yet this year, either. Not yet, anyway.
''Opponents when they play us think they can beat us, which is fine by us,'' Bryant said. ''We're a different team this year than it was last year, and our strengths last year aren't our strengths this year. Our weaknesses are different too, so I think that the perception is that we're definitely beatable.''
We'll see. The Lakers open their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. EDT.
The playoffs begin Saturday with Indiana-New Jersey at 12:30 p.m., Utah-Sacramento at 3 p.m., Seattle-San Antonio at 5:30 p.m. and Orlando-Charlotte at 8:30 p.m.
Sunday's slate includes Philadelphia-Boston at 12:30 p.m., Minnesota-Dallas at 3 p.m. and Toronto-Detroit at 8:30 p.m.
NBC will televise the first three games each day, with the late games on TNT.
The second games of each series are spread out over next week, two every night Monday through Thursday. Game 3 of the Nets-Pacers series is Friday night, with the other seven Games 3s set for next Saturday and Sunday.
The playoffs will last for the next eight or nine weeks, with Game 4 of the NBA Finals tentatively scheduled for June 11 -- the night the Lakers will finish their sweep.
OK, so maybe it doesn't go that way. But at this point in time, remembering what the Lakers did to everybody a year ago, it's hard to envision any other scenario.
Beating the defending champs will not be easy.
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