LeBron James and the Miami Heat are the reigning NBA champions and given… ( David Santiago / Associated…)
The NBA toughened its anti-flopping rules for the playoffs, perhaps giving the Lakers an unintended nudge.
The team widely expected to meet the Miami Heat in the Finals made a sham-mockery of the season's first four months, not to mention its league-high $100-million payroll, before securing a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
Not that forward Metta World Peace believes the Lakers will be an easy out given that they have won five consecutive games, a relatively epic streak by their standards.
"We're very scary," World Peace said Wednesday night. "Like Halloween. Boo."
Miami has put the fear of LeBron James in the rest of the NBA, with the league's best player somehow improving while helping his team attain the top seeding in the Eastern Conference — by 12 games.
The Heat's first-round opponent, sub-.500 Milwaukee, is so bad that it should be shipped to Dayton, Ohio, for a play-in game.
Among other alleged challengers in the East, New York has not won a playoff series since 2000, Indiana is missing its most dynamic player in Danny Granger and Brooklyn's Big Three pose about as much of a threat to their Miami counterparts as "The Golden Girls'" Blanche, Rose and Dorothy would in a pickup game in South Beach.
So let's dispense with the formalities and pencil in Miami to reach the Finals. You can use a Sharpie if you'd like.
The West is trickier to predict.
James Harden is no longer in Oklahoma City, unless you count his appearances there in the opening two games of Houston's first-round series against the Thunder.
The Rockets, who hemorrhage points on defense like a Saturn V leaks fuel, won't make it back to Chesapeake Energy Arena for Game 5.
San Antonio should get past the Lakers with ease in the first round, unless the injured Kobe Bryant can tweet the Spurs into submission. A four-game sweep would ease some of the heartbreak lingering from Derek Fisher's point-four fling in 2004.
But old-and-slow San Antonio will have trouble with run-and-fun Denver in the conference semifinals, particularly if Kenneth Faried's ankle holds up. The Nuggets, owners of an NBA-best 38-3 home record, need to win only one game at the AT&T Center to make the series a mile-high mess for the Spurs.
The Clippers are eager to take Lob City to new heights after the low of being swept in the conference semifinals last season. Memphis in the first round shouldn't be too tough — been there, won that — but the Thunder and Serge Ibaka's rogue right hand will await in the next round.
Oklahoma City swept the regular-season series, three games to none, providing a psychological edge before the opening tip. The Thunder will also have the home-court advantage and a pair of freakish talents named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. See ya, Clippers.
A Thunder-Nuggets conference finals might not thrill TV executives, but it should be a winner for those who love epic thrillers. Or maybe you weren't watching in early March when Ty Lawson's 21-foot jumper with 0.2 seconds left capped a wild Nuggets victory over the Thunder.
Can a series go nine games?
Here's guessing Oklahoma City wins the West, setting up a Finals rematch against Miami. It's tempting to go with the Thunder until you remember it no longer has Harden and the Heat still has James.
Oklahoma City does have Fisher, who at 38 is more likely to make news for a flopping fine than a clutch shot.
As a friendly reminder, there are no warnings for faking contact in the playoffs; the league is imposing a $5,000 fine for the first offense.
Fisher has bigger worries, of course. There are worse kinds of flops in the playoffs.