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The Lakers lost six of their final 10 last year. Barkley said their size makes it tough for anybody to beat them four times, and Kerr thinks they just lost some enthusiasm after a late charge to catch the Spurs for the No. 1 seed fell short.

“I think they have plenty of confidence and they should. I mean they’re back-to-back champs,” Kerr said. “They’ve got so much veteran experience that I think they’ll regain their focus and find their way back in a first-round series and be the team to beat.”

Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni has been writing off the Celtics‘ struggles, mindful of what they did last year. But perhaps this Boston group isn’t like last year’s team, but rather one D’Antoni used to coach.

As Phoenix president, Kerr made a team-altering trade in 2008 before the deadline when he sent Shawn Marion, a mainstay of the Suns’ small-ball schemes, to Miami for O’Neal. He sees similarities in the struggles of those Suns and these Celtics to adjust to such a major swap so late in the season, with a notable exception.

“I guess the difference is we made the trade because we felt like we weren’t good enough as we were to win the whole thing with Marion, whereas Boston to me was the best team in the league for most of the season,” Kerr said.

Now the East favorite is unknown. TNT will exclusively televise the East finals among the approximately 40 games it will show during the playoffs. While Barkley sees top-seeded Chicago getting there, he can envision Miami or Boston _ also hammered by the Bulls last week _ as the opponent.

“I think Boston’s going to be fine,” he said. “I think when they play Miami in the second round, that’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out series.”

It was easier to like the Celtics in those situations with their snarling former center. While the Heat played with no fear of Boston on Sunday, Barkley noticed how much tougher Oklahoma City looked later that night with Perkins patrolling the middle when it went into Los Angeles and routed the Lakers.

Perhaps that was just part of a late-season malaise for the Lakers. And maybe it’s why they won’t have to worry about the Celtics once they snap out of it.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the East that scares the daylights out of Boston. But with that said, they’re going to have to recapture the old glory, the old spirit somehow in the next couple of weeks and I haven’t seen anything to indicate that that’s going to happen,” Kerr said. “I was convinced that Boston was the best most of the season, but that’s kind of thrown out the window now for me.”