Fear factor missing despite Cavaliers' strength

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Maybe Kobe Bryant is too beaten up to last three playoff rounds against the rest of the West.

Perhaps the aging Boston Celtics have one more run in them, or the Atlanta Hawks are ready to make a major impact.

Sure, it's easy to think the NBA champion this season will be LeBron James and Cleveland, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, or the Orlando Magic.

But do not tell that to all the other teams who believe the trio can be knocked off.

"I don't think anybody is afraid of anybody," Dallas owner Mark Cuban said. "We think we can beat anybody, and anybody thinks they can beat us. That's how good the teams are."

The Cavaliers were No.1 in the regular season, but they were last season, too. All that got them was a trip to Orlando, where the Magic ended their season in the conference finals, and James picked up a $25,000 fine for not talking to the media after the loss.

But with a bolstered front line that now features Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison alongside James, there might not be anything that can stop the Cavaliers.

"Dan Gilbert, Danny Ferry went out and got the pieces that I feel should help us against the bigger teams that we'll be going against," Cleveland coach Mike Brown.

"We still have a long way to go. It's going to be tough for us because we're going to face a lot of different types of teams on this run, hopefully. We'll see how we pan out after we get started."

That comes Saturday, when the Cavaliers open against the Chicago Bulls, who earned the NBA's final playoff spot on the last night of the regular season. Also Saturday, Milwaukee visits Atlanta; Boston plays host to Miami and Utah visits Denver.

Sunday, it's playoff newcomer Oklahoma City at the Lakers; Orlando playing host to Charlotte, another first-time postseason team; San Antonio visiting Dallas; and Phoenix entertaining Portland.

The Suns, who missed the playoffs last year but rode a late-season surge to the No. 3 seed in the West this year, are another team that could spoil one of the presumed finals matchups.

"I don't know if you start matching us up with all the teams in the league [in terms of] how talented we are, but I think, as a collective group, we're pretty doggone good," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.

The eight Western Conference playoffs teams won at least 50 regular-season games, the second time that has happened in the past three years. The Lakers, however, likely stand out as the class of the conference when their health permits.

"The West is wide open. A lot of great teams out there," Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki said.

"The Lakers, if they're healthy with [Andrew] Bynum and everybody, I think they're still the favorites, but everybody else is kind of bunched up and on the same level. Anything is possible."

Bynum, the Lakers' starting center, missed the last 13 games because of a strained left Achilles tendon. Bryant missed four of the past five games with a series of injuries.

But health always is an issue at playoff time, and a pair of the league's oldest teams insist they have it.

Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are ready to go for San Antonio, giving the Spurs reason to think they can avenge their first-round loss last season to the Southwest Division champion Mavericks.

The Celtics, however, are not playing well, having dropped seven of their final 10 games to tumble to the No. 4 seed. But, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen playing, the 2008 champions insist they will look much sharper in the postseason than they did in the second half of the regular season.



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