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NBA playoffs preview: LeBron leads surging Lakers but Bucks enter as favourites

LeBron celebrates the win over the Timberwolves
LeBron celebrates the win over the TimberwolvesReuters
LeBron James (38) returned from injury in time to boost the red-hot Los Angeles Lakers' hopes of winning the NBA championship while Giannis Antetokounmpo (28) and the Milwaukee Bucks enter the playoffs as betting favourites to win their second title in two years.

James returned to the Lakers 19 days ago after a month-long absence due to a right foot tendon injury and helped muscle the team into a playoff spot that earlier in the year seemed all but unattainable.

By clinching the Western Conference's seventh seed, the Lakers earned the right to face electrifying guard Ja Morant (23) and the No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies in a best-of-seven games first-round series that begins on Sunday.

Morant, who was suspended eight games by the NBA in March after video showed him "holding a firearm in an intoxicated state" at a nightclub, is one of the league's brightest young stars and could cause fits for the Lakers' Anthony Davis.

"Ja Morant is fearless. He's going to get to the paint one way or another," ESPN NBA analyst JJ Reddick said on a conference call. "He's going to elevate. He's going to decide what the hell to do in the air and he's probably going to score.

"So, for Anthony Davis (30), I think when you talk about what he needs to do, he's got to be a rim protector in the half court, especially with Ja Morant because he's going to attack the basket over and over again."

The Western Conference's Golden State Warriors, who won a fourth NBA title in eight years in 2022, open their postseason on Saturday against the host Sacramento Kings.

The Kings, back in the postseason after a 16-year drought that is the longest in NBA history, are the third seed from the West and both a young and untested group.

The West's top-seeded Denver Nuggets will face the winner of the play-in tournament game later on Friday between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Another team to watch in the West will be the Phoenix Suns, who turned into a force when they acquired Kevin Durant (34) at the trade deadline and have gone 8-0 in games when the two-time NBA champion has played. Phoenix face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.

The Eastern Conference's Bucks are the overall top seed and will enjoy home-court advantage throughout their postseason run, which will begin on Sunday against either the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat.

Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Antetokounmpo is expected to figure prominently for a dominant Milwaukee team that, when healthy, are hard to see being eliminated during the early playoffs rounds.

The Boston Celtics have the next-best odds of any Eastern Conference team to win the NBA title and will begin their playoff journey on Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.

The All-Star tandem of Jayson Tatum (25) and Jaylen Brown (26) have dominated all season for a Celtics team that boasts plenty of playoff experience and perhaps one of the deepest teams they have had in recent memory.

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