With Kobe Bryant more focused than ever, Los Angeles is poised to stand on top of the NBA mountain once again. The league MVP has been able to overcome injuries to himself and key teammates, a shortened offseason due to Olympic basketball, and the scrutiny of the media to lead the Lake Show to No. 1 in the West by a wide margin.
Even as the Nuggets found themselves sliding into second, they were still a full 10 games back of Zen Master Jackson and not even a blip on of Phil's motorcycle mirrors. Pundits and analysts all agreed about a month ago that the Jazz could present the biggest challenge...and then they lost seven of nine and Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan pulled no punches by calling his team's chances of surviving the first round as "bleak".
Sloan is a smart man and has it right. L.A. will cruise to the second round, where they could have a stiffer challenge from the Blazers (if the young team is able to put away a more experienced Rockets squad that won the season series this year). Given that seeds 2-7 in the West were separated by only a few games, I won't be surprised to see the Hornets knock off Denver or if San Antonio is knocked out minus Manu.
If the Hornets are healthy, specifically trade reject Tyson Chandler, New Orleans could be the team that could give Kobe and crew the toughest round en route to the Finals. No matter how you look at it, L.A. will be back in the Finals for the second straight year, likely to challenge Cleveland for the title.