<
>

Fear the Lakeshow

Dr. Jack Ramsay does not dole out praise thoughtlessly, and did you see what he said about the Lakers' performance last night?

The first quarter of the Lakers' 102-95 win over the Spurs here Thursday night was the best overall performance by any team I've seen this season.

He also said that with a healthy Andrew Bynum, this team would become "a real juggernaut."

Last year, most of New England, it seemed, was irate at ESPN.com's writers, nine out of ten (here's looking at you, Tim Legler!) of who chose the Lakers to beat the Celtics.

Kobe BryantWe made those picks shortly after the Lakers had whomped the mighty Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. At that moment -- the night of the picking -- it was hard to picture the Lakers losing a game. They had been so dominant against such a good team.

I wouldn't be shocked if the picks were similar again this year.

Here's the thing about this Laker team: By John Hollinger's sophisticated analysis of the regular season so far, the Cavaliers are most likely to win the title this year. The Celtics are second. And the Lakers are third, at about 17% likely to take the top prize.

Most people consider San Antonio the consensus fourth out of four major contenders.

But for any of those teams to win, somebody will have to beat the Lakers, and none of those teams have shown they're any good at it.

The Celtics, Cavaliers, and Spurs have played the Lakers a combined seven times. And between them they have one measly one-point victory. That was January 14, when the Spurs, with a healthy Manu Ginobili, got the Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back, and eked out a 112 -111 nailbiter thanks to Roger Mason's now famous three-point play. In those seven games, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by a whopping 720-663.

The Cavaliers haven't come closer than ten points in either of their losses to the Lakers.

Of course, there's a lot of basketball left to played. The playoffs will weigh mightily. But you can see how it's going to be hard to pick against the Lakers in a big series.

It's always hard to tell which teams are coasting. Are the Lakers better than their record? The Spurs? The Celtics, who have been injured? Which team will step up in the really big games?

So far this season, the answer has been: The Lakers. They're the team that steps up for big games.

There is one little caveat, however.

According to Hollinger's playoff predictor, my list of four elite teams is missing one: The Orlando Magic. The Magic currently rate as slightly more likely than San Antonio to win the title.

And how has Orlando performed against the Lakers? Magically well. Having won by three on December 20, and twice that on January 16, they are undefeated.

It's a small sample size, to be sure. And the Magic could have a very tough road to the Finals, likely having to face both the Celtics and the Cavaliers on the way. But at least there is one small flaw in the nearly perfect armor the Lakers put on for the big games.

(Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)