Kobe Bryant has all that championship experience, and perhaps the NBA’s best supporting cast. The Miami Heat have the promise of what LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can deliver in their first postseason together, and the Boston Celtics think their playoff-tested group can do it again.
“You don’t ever know if you’re going to win a championship until you get there, but you know you have the pieces that can compete for one,” Wade said. “That’s where we’re at right now.”
But to win an NBA title, those teams may have to go past Michael Jordan.
Well, past his likeness anyway.
The Chicago Bulls, with dynamite point guard Derrick Rose, earned home-court advantage by finishing with the league’s best record for the first time since Jordan ruled the NBA. Keep on winning, and the Bulls would open the finals at the United Center, with its statue of Jordan outside.
And what a story it would be if his old coach was on the opposing sideline.
Phil Jackson, who led Jordan and the Bulls to six NBA titles, is expected to retire after this season. The Lakers would love to send him off with a sixth title in Los Angeles and a remarkable fourth three-peat.
They are the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and endured a five-game losing streak late in the season. But they still have Bryant, seeking to tie Jordan with a sixth ring, and loads of interior depth with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and they hope a healthy Andrew Bynum.
And they might be back on track after closing the regular season with two straight victories.
“Maybe we turned a corner the last two nights,” Jackson said. “We can’t do anything easy. We’re bipolar.”
The playoffs start on Saturday, with Chicago hosting Indiana in the opener. Also Saturday, the Heat play Philadelphia; Atlanta and Orlando meet in a postseason rematch, and Portland visits Dallas.
The Lakers get started Sunday against New Orleans, after West No. 1 seed San Antonio welcomes the Memphis Grizzlies. The Celtics drew the New York Knicks, in their first postseason since 2004 and confident they are dangerous with the Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire tandem; before scoring leader Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder face the new-look Denver Nuggets in the nightcap.
The Bulls may lack the star power of some other heavyweights, but they’ve spent the last few months making believers of all of them. Led by Rose, perhaps the MVP favorite, Chicago went 62-20 for its best record since finishing with the same mark in 1997-98, Jordan’s final season.
“Chicago’s a good team and there’s a reason why can they keep coming at you in waves,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said, “and they play hard.”
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah provide a strong tandem inside and the Bulls not surprisingly were a top defensive club under coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the Boston defense that knocked out Wade, then James in last year’s playoffs on the way to the finals.