Cavaliers set for title run
First round of NBA playoffs begin this weekend as LeBron James gets ready.
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2009 11:46 GMT

LeBron James is hoping to make up for last year's disappointment [GALLO/GETTY]
This time last year, when Kobe Bryant was last seen in the playoffs, he was unable to influence the Los Angeles Lakers as they went down to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA finals.

LeBron James did not even play a sixth game in his first time on the big stage, as the Cleveland Cavaliers were convincingly swept away by the San Antonio Spurs.

Now, as the superstars head into NBA playoffs, and with one big injury in the Eastern Conference and too many flawed teams in the West, one of Bryant and James has a good chance of getting the perfect ending he wants.

Game on

"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 the Detroit Pistons on Saturday in their opener.

Also on Saturday, Boston, without the injured Kevin Garnett, face the Chicago Bulls, the Dallas Mavericks visit San Antonio in a rematch of a recent post-season thriller.

The Portland Trail Blazers welcome the Houston Rockets for their first playoff game since 2003.

Bryant and the Lakers get started on Sunday against the Utah Jazz.

Then, the Orlando Magic host the Philadelphia 76ers, NBA scoring leader Dwyane
Wade leads the Miami Heat to the Atlanta Hawks, and the New Orleans Hornets visit the Denver Nuggets.

Advantage Cleveland

Cleveland finished with a league-best 66-16 record and have home-court advantage throughout the post-season.

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 did not play.

That gives them a solid chance to get back to the finals, where they were swept by the Spurs two years ago after mustering their worst offensive performance in the history of the finals.

This version is much better on that end, thanks in a large part to Mo Williams, who delivered an All-Star season in his first year in Cleveland.

Their road will not be easy. Few teams can match the post-season experience of the Pistons, who have made six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

After that could be the explosive Wade, followed by perhaps the defending champion Celtics.

And unlike in 2007, when the Cavaliers were not 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.

Injury to Boston's Kevin Garnett is a huge blow [GALLO/GETTY]
Garnett injury

Rivers announced 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 Cavaliers or Lakers - if they get that far.

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 is Los Angeles that are 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 on 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.''

Who else?

NBA Playoffs - week 1

Saturday, April 18
Chicago at Boston
Detroit at Cleveland
Dallas at San Antonio
Houston at Portland

Sunday, April 19
Utah at L.A. Lakers
Philadelphia at Orlando
Miami at Atlanta
New Orleans at Denver

Monday, April 20
Chicago at Boston
Dallas at San Antonio

Tuesday, April 21
Detroit at Cleveland
Houston at Portland
Utah at L.A. Lakers

Wednesday, April 22
Philadelphia at Orlando
Miami at Atlanta
New Orleans at Denver

Thursday, April 23
Boston at Chicago
San Antonio at Dallas
L.A. Lakers at Utah

Friday, April 24
Cleveland at Detroit
Orlando at Philadelphia
Portland at Houston

The Lakers did not need Bynum to storm through the West playoffs last year, winning 12 of 15 games.

They will be favoured to get through again with so many potential opponents entering at a disadvantage.

Denver might have the best chance, finally having earned home-court advantage in the first round after five straight exits.

The Nuggets have a proven 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 semi-finals, where the Mavericks won Game 7 in overtime on the Spurs' home floor en route to the NBA finals.

It has been mostly playoff misery since then for the Mavericks.

They 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.

Just like James and Bryant, the Mavericks are looking for a different ending.

"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.''

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