Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers have survived the first round and are one step closer to defending their back-to-back championships. However, this year may be the most difficult title defense they've had yet.
Chalk it up to contender parity, an ever-increasing league talent pool or the fact that the Lakers' weaknesses have been clearly exposed this year, but their road to the championship will NOT be anything like the first three title runs from 2000-2002.
Despite the fact that a few ultra-talented teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings were competitive challengers during those years, L.A. was more than dominant enough with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant both in their prime, as well as deeper and more talented benches than nearly anyone else in the league.
Getting out of the Western Conference typically posed a few tough games here and there, but facing the Eastern Conference finalists was usually a stroll through the park.
The last three seasons have seen the Lakers battle stiff competition through the West, only to find themselves in absolute dogfights during the Finals. That they've been able to win the NBA title two out of those three years is a testament to this team's versatility, chemistry and inner drive.
This year, the Lakers are still talented, experienced and big, but they'll have their hands full just to get out of the second round against the Dallas Mavericks.
Don't think I'm counting out the defending champs. Not for a second.
At the same time, I'm not ready to buy a parade ticket yet either.
Here are the prospects for all eight remaining playoff teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers. They have been ranked in order from least to most likely to win it all.