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Lakers' biggest challenge waits in East

If you're looking for some intrigue involving the Lakers and the Western Conference, read something else. There's nothing suspenseful about the conference right now. There is no wild, wild West to speak off. The two-time reigning, defending world champions are 13-1 since the All-Star break. They're bigger, stronger, more poised and talented than anyone else, and at the moment they have even foes agreeing with such lofty assessments.

"That's one heck of a team we played tonight," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said on Tuesday, after his squad fell 139-137 to the Lakers in triple overtime at the Staples Center. "We fought. We hung in there. But those are the world champions we were up against."

And the results were, well ... predictable.

As was the case with the Phoenix Suns, everyone is falling by the wayside when it comes to these Lakers. The San Antonio Spurs proved weeks ago that having the best record doesn't necessarily mean you have the best team when the Lakers romped them on their home court. The Dallas Mavericks had the momentum and the No. 2 seed until the Lakers returned them to reality. The same could be said for Oklahoma City, and we don't need to bother mentioning anyone else.

Out West, that is!

The East, however, is an entirely different matter. With Boston, Miami, Chicago and Orlando in the mix, the belief is that at least three of those four teams could give the Lakers a legitimate run for the coveted NBA crown.

"The playoffs are almost here," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said while at Madison Square Garden the other night. "That's the path to the championship. It's what this team plays for, and we intend to have something to say about it when all is said and done."

Truth is, most feel the Boston Celtics are the only team capable of providing a legitimate obstacle to a Lakers three-peat. The Celtics can match the Lakers in size. Their length is unquestionable. So is their poise, experience, perimeter shooting and defense.

A trilogy -- what would be the teams' third meeting in the NBA Finals in the past four years -- appears imminent.

"I don't blame anyone for feeling that way," Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade said recently. "But we'll see."

Why wait? Considering the way the Lakers are rolling, the West is irrelevant right now. Let's break it down, team by team, as to what could happen when -- not if -- one of these Eastern Conference foes meets the Lakers in the Finals.

Boston: If healthy, all the pieces are in place to dethrone the Lakers. While it's true the Celtics deployed Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder, there's a reason they have Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal. Plus, there's another 7-footer on their roster in Nenad Krstic, and a small forward in Jeff Green who's capable of subbing for both Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. There's muscle on the bench in Glen "Big Baby" Davis; length, skill and experience in Kevin Garnett; Hall of Fame credentials in all three (KG, Pierce and Allen); and unquestionable motivation.

"They won the title last year," Rivers explained. "We remember it well. We were there."

About the only impediment to a Celtics crown is Rajon Rondo's jump shot. Kobe Bryant will defend and lie 10 feet off him. If Rondo can't make those shots, the Celtics have a problem.

Miami: Despite their troubles -- a slow start and a recent five-game skid -- the Heat are still 27 games above .500, blessed with two MVP candidates in LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, and boast two victories over the Lakers this season. Ron Artest's physical presence on defense has no effect on James. Wade is as close a match to the Black Mamba as there is in the game. The acquisition of Mike Bibby, along with the elevated pulse of Mike Miller, helps the Heat, as well. Not to mention that Derek Fisher's and Steve Blake's presence at point allows Miami to put sharpshooter Eddie House on the floor, too, without being a defensive liability. Plus, Miami plays defense.

About the only hindrance, aside from wondering if the injured Udonis Haslem will return in time for the playoffs, is that the Heat have actually started Erick Dampier at center.

Any team that desperate simply can't be trusted to make it to the Finals.

Chicago: We all know Derrick Rose is the league MVP. Despite a rookie head coach in Tom Thibodeau, injuries to both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer early on, and no viable 2-guard to speak of, the Bulls still entered Thursday night as the No. 1 seed in the East, one game ahead of Boston, with one of the best defenses in the game and, unquestionably, the best point guard in the world.

Rose is averaging 24.9 points, 7.8 assists, while pumping in nearly 38 minutes a night, having firmly established himself as the most feared point guard in the game. He's simply too quick, too athletic, too poised and gifted to be contained. But he can't shoot jump shots for his teammates, nor provide the experience they'll probably need going up against Boston or, ultimately, L.A. -- if they were to make it to the Finals.

Orlando: They've got the best big man in the game in Dwight Howard and a bunch of shooters surrounding him in Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas. But that ain't enough to deal with Boston or L.A., and I don't have the space to explain why right now, so get over it. Ain't happening. Period.

This year, that is. But this could be the end of a Lakers dynasty, so who knows about next year and beyond.

Oops! I'm supposed to discuss that another day!

Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.