Does a LeBron-Kobe final await?

When Kobe Bryant was last seen in the playoffs, he was hopeless and helpless as his Los Angeles Lakers were run over in Boston 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 Cleveland was quickly swept away by San Antonio in the finals the previous year.

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 Detroit on Saturday in their opener. Also Saturday, Boston — without injured Kevin Garnett — faces Chicago, Dallas visits San Antonio in a rematch of a recent postseason thriller, and Portland welcomes Houston for its first playoff game since 2003.

Bryant and the Lakers get started Sunday against the Utah Jazz. Then, Orlando hosts Philadelphia, NBA scoring leader Dwyane Wade leads Miami into Atlanta, and the New Orleans Hornets visit Denver.

Cleveland finished a league-best 66-16 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 even dress.

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 championship round. 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 conference finals. After that could be the explosive Wade, followed by perhaps the defending champion Celtics.

And unlike 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.

That's nothing compared to Rivers' problems.

Rivers said 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 been able to keep winning without their leader and perhaps have enough with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to keep doing so early in the playoffs, but certainly would miss him against the Cavs or Lakers — if they get that far.

"I hate to be so frank, but I do not believe they have a chance (to repeat)," former NBA star and TNT analyst Chris Webber said. "KG, as far as how good he is and playing against him and seeing how he energizes the whole team, I don't care who you are, you can't do that from the bench."

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, scored 22 points Tuesday in a victory over Utah that set up a rematch between the teams in the first round.

"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."

The Lakers didn't need Bynum to storm through the West playoffs last year, winning 12 of 15 games. They'll be favored to get through again with so many potential opponents entering at a disadvantage.

San Antonio? No Manu Ginobili.

Portland? Too young.

New Orleans? Too injury-prone.

Utah? Can't win on the road.

Denver might have the best chance, finally having earned home-court advantage in the first round after five straight exits. The Nuggets have a clutch postseason performer in Chauncey Billups, the 2004 finals MVP whose early season acquisition sparked a division title run from a team that began the season as an afterthought.

The all-Texas matchup between Dallas and San Antonio could be one of the highlights of the first round. The Southwest Division rivals met in the 2006 West semifinals, where the Mavericks won Game 7 in overtime on the Spurs' home floor en route to the NBA finals.

It's been mostly playoff misery since then for Dallas. The Mavs blew a 2-0 lead to Miami in those finals, were embarrassed as the No. 1 seed by Golden State in the first round in 2007, then lost again in the first round last year.

This time, they come in after a strong finish that vaulted them to the No. 6 seed after flirting with eighth and a dreaded matchup with the Lakers.

And just like James and Bryant, the Mavs are looking for a different script.

"What you want to do is get hot. That usually means you're doing everything better," coach Rick Carlisle said. "Hey, there are 16 teams wanting to do that. I don't think we're any different than the other 15 teams. We've been playing well, we want to continue to move in an upward direction."


AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas and Howard Ulman in Boston contributed to this report.

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