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Lakers loaded for a chance to challenge the Heat

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 2:59 a.m. HST, Oct 30, 2012

LeBron James against Kobe Bryant, the dream NBA Finals that’s never become a reality.

Maybe this is the year.

James’ Miami Heat are on top of the league and got even stronger this summer, but nobody loaded up like the Lakers, who acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

One team or the other has appeared in the last five NBA Finals. Now, with more help than either has ever had, James and Bryant both will face title expectations — and a sense they’re due for that long-awaited showdown with each other in June.

“If we see that matchup, Kobe vs. LeBron, I think it would break all the records,” Lakers Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Magic Johnson said. “I think the viewership would be off the charts.”


Today’s Games
>> Washington at Cleveland
>> Boston at Miami
>> Dallas at L.A. Lakers

It’s no guarantee, of course. The Oklahoma City Thunder might still be best in the West, making a James-Kevin Durant rematch in the Finals just as likely as James-Bryant. Or maybe the Boston Celtics, who came so close to knocking out the Heat last year, can finish the job this time even after Ray Allen ditched them to join James on South Beach.

But even the guys chasing the King concede how difficult it will be to dethrone him.

“I think everyone knew if he won one that it’s going to be hard for everybody. ... I’m hoping there’s enough good teams, and we can be one of them, that we can knock him off,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.

The Celtics get the first shot, visiting the Heat in today’s season opener. The Lakers open later that night, and for a change all eyes at Staples Center won’t be only on Bryant.

The Lakers acquired the NBA’s best big man in Howard after surprisingly adding Nash, long one of the league’s best point guards, earlier in the summer. Just like that, a team that couldn’t get out of the second round the past two years put itself right back in the hunt for what would be Bryant’s sixth championship.

“We’re all determined to get there for sure,” Bryant said. “The hunger from Dwight and Nash can definitely, definitely help our energy.”

For James, the gold medal in the London Olympics was the completion of one of basketball’s greatest individual seasons. He joined Michael Jordan in 1992 as the only players to win the NBA championship, the Olympic gold medal, and the regular season and Finals MVP awards in the same season.

“In a sport like this, I think the ultimate goal and the only goal is to win,” James said. “You prepare to win. It doesn’t happen all the time. Of course not. But that should be your mind-set. Prepare your mind each and every night to win.”

When James hugged the beaten Durant after the Finals, it was easy to imagine them doing it again next year. Then the Lakers pushed Bryant’s championship window back open with their summer haul.

“The Heat are the team to beat because they are the champs,” said TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal, who won titles with both franchises. “The Lakers — on paper — are very, very talented. It’s going to be a very interesting year and I wish both of those teams make the Finals.”

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