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PREVIEW: Lakers begin repeat quest versus Durant, Thunder
By Paul Levine Apr 15, 2010, 21:35 GMT
Los Angeles - This weekend, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson will begin his 60th NBA playoff series, while Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant will play in his first.
So it should be no surprise that when Jackson started some verbal jousting, Durant took the bait.
Jackson, who has won a record 10 championships, began his familiar refrain of working the referees before the start of a series. On Tuesday, he told Los Angeles area reporters, 'By the calls (Durant) gets, he really gets to the line a lot, I'll tell ya.'
Durant, who averaged better than 10 free throws per game as he won his first scoring title, responded harshly Thursday.
'That's a part of my game, getting to the free-throw line and being aggressive,' Durant told the Daily Oklahoman. 'If you say that I get superstar calls or I get babied by the refs, that's just taking away from how I play. That's disrespectful to me.'
The Lakers are the defending champions and the top seed in the Western Conference. They shouldn't have too much trouble versus the inexperienced Thunder (50-32), which leaped from 23 wins to their first post-season berth in four years.
But every little bit helps, and Jackson's verbal volley may have Durant thinking about something other than the Lakers (57-25) when their best-of-seven first-round series starts Sunday in Los Angeles.
Perhaps Jackson was deflecting attention away from his team, which has some issues.
'The Lakers appear to be the team to beat (in the West), but they've got a lot of question marks right now,' TNT analyst Doug Collins said.
Los Angeles stumbled down the stretch, losing six of its last nine games. Centre Andrew Bynum missed the last 13 contests with a strained Achilles tendon. And superstar Kobe Bryant sat the last two to rest the broken finger he has had since December.
'His finger looks just as bad as it did during the All-Star game,' NBA TV analyst Kevin McHale said. 'That thing is really, really looking bad. The swelling hasn't gone down.'
LA's road to repeating may be rough as every playoff team in the West won at least 50 games.
Also Sunday, the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks (55-27) take on the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs (50-32) in a rematch of last year's first-round series won by Dallas.
In that series, the Spurs were missing Argentine star Manu Ginobili, who averaged better than 21 points over the last two months of this season. Meanwhile, the Mavs are 23-7 since their acquisition of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.
Injuries could be a factor for the rest of the West.
The third-seeded Phoenix Suns (54-28) are relatively healthy but without centre Robin Lopez, who has a bulging disk in his back. They are 22-9 when the 7-footer starts.
On Sunday, the Suns will host the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers (50-32), who have been hobbled by injuries all season. All- Star guard Brandon Roy has torn knee cartilage but will try to play through it.
The fourth-seeded Denver Nuggets (53-29) reached the conference finals a year ago but are dealing with the absence of cancer-stricken coach George Karl and forward Kenyon Martin who has a nagging knee injury.
On Saturday, they entertain the fifth-seeded Utah Jazz (53-29), who have Carlos Boozer nursing a strained ribcage muscle and fellow forward Andrei Kirilenko bothered by a calf injury.
In the East, there is anticipation aplenty for a rematch of last year's conference finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.
Led by reigning MVP LeBron James, the top-seeded Cavaliers (61-21) will have back centre Shaquille O'Neal for Saturday's opener of their series versus the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls (41-41), who got past the Toronto Raptors for the final playoff spot.
'I think the Cavaliers are going to win the whole thing,' said TNT analyst Charles Barkley.
The second-seeded Magic (59-23) may be the only team that can derail Cleveland's title quest. Led by 'Superman' centre Dwight Howard, they did it last year. If they do it again, it could signal the end in Cleveland for James, the top prize among this summer's free agents.
First, the Magic must dispatch the seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats (44-38), who will play their first postseason game Sunday, just weeks after Michael Jordan took ownership of the team.
On Saturday, the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks (53-29) host the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks (46-36), who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 but are missing Andrew Bogut. The Australian centre suffered a broken hand and dislocated elbow earlier this month.
There are questions swirling around the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics (50-32), who host superstar Dwyane Wade and the fifth-seeded Miami Heat (47-35) on Saturday. An ageing Boston team that won the title two years ago has lost half their game since Christmas.
'They're just an older team,' Barkley said. 'Kevin Garnett is one of my favorite players. (But) you can just tell he's not the same player.'