By Frank Pingue
One of the most talented fields in recent memory will open the playoffs this weekend when 16 teams start a grueling push toward the NBA Finals where the eventual champion will have made it through four best-of-seven-games series.
The Heat, who compiled the third-best record in the regular season despite a mediocre 8-7 start to their campaign, begin their quest for a championship against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday in the Eastern Conference quarter-final.
But getting to the NBA Finals will be no easy feat as Miami could potentially face the Boston Celtics in the second round and then the Bulls in the Conference decider.
"Staying the course," James said. "That's all (Miami coach Erik Spoelstra) talked about. Staying the course, staying the course, and we'll get through everything."
The streaking Bulls, who capped the regular season with nine straight wins to overtake San Antonio for the best overall record, enter the playoffs as the favorites after bowing out in the first round in each of the last two seasons.
Chicago, who have lost only five games at home all season, have home-court advantage throughout the postseason starting with a first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers, the only team in the playoffs with a losing regular season record.
The Boston Celtics, last year's runner-up, play Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks in the first round while the Orlando Magic, powered by two-time defending defensive player of the year Dwight Howard, will battle the Atlanta Hawks in the other Eastern Conference series.
In the Western Conference, the Spurs kept their grip on first place despite a late-season skid while 13-times All-Star Tim Duncan was out with an ankle injury.
But the Spurs will limp into the playoffs having lost two straight games and with questions surrounding the health of guard Manu Ginobili, who hyperextended his right elbow during the regular-season finale.
San Antonio, who were eliminated in the second round of the postseason last year, play the Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round this year, a team they lost to twice in March.
The Dallas Mavericks will face the Portland Trail Blazers while the Oklahoma City Thunder will play a Denver Nuggets team that has thrived since trading four-times All-Star Anthony to the Knicks in February.
The Lakers were able to breath a collective sigh of relief after learning center Andrew Bynum, who injured his right knee earlier this week, is expected to be ready to play in the first round against the New Orleans Hornets.
"He allows us to be the dominant team we're capable of being," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher. "It's hard to think about not having him for any significant length of time. It was tough to see."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)