Heading into the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers have firmly established themselves as the team to beat in the NBA.

L.A. capped off its undefeated six-game road trip by beating the Boston Celtics, 110-109, in overtime their first victory in Boston since January 2007. This win was followed by a 101-91 triumph at Cleveland, handing the Cavaliers their first home loss of the season.
The road trip wasn’t perfect, though. The Lakers lost their starting center Andrew Bynum for eight to 12 weeks to a right knee injury. Last season, it was his left knee that kept the seven-foot Bynum sidelined for the final 46 games of the regular season and for the playoffs.

A second contender has finally emerged in the West, and it’s a very familiar face: The San Antonio Spurs.

Since 1999, the Spurs have reached four NBA finals, winning the crown in all four years.
The Lakers have reached the finals five times during that span but have not won a championship since capturing their third in a row with Shaq and Kobe in 2002.
The 2006 Dallas Mavericks are the only other team to represent the West in the finals since 1998, when M.J. beat John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz for his sixth and final ring.

San Antonio led by All-Stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker also won in Boston last weekend. The Celtics led 93-90 with 45 seconds left in Sunday’s game, before the Spurs scored 11 points in 31 seconds to secure their victory against the defending champs.
The Spurs are one of only three teams to beat both of last year’s finalists. The other two? The Indiana Pacers and the Charlotte Bobcats. Go figure.

The Lakers have the league’s best record and only appear to be getting better. Lamar Odom, who returned to the starting lineup after the injury to Bynum, is showing signs of the vast potential that has been touted but unrealized for so many years. Against the Celtics last Thursday, Odom scored a season-high 20 points, then topped it with perhaps the best performance of his career, scoring 28 points and grabbing 17 rebounds on Sunday in Cleveland.

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are both playing in this Sunday’s All-Star Game in Phoenix. The pair has led the Lakers thus far and, in addition to Odom, will be counted on for even more scoring to fill the void left by the improving 21-year-old Bynum.

The Spurs and Lakers split their first two games each winning at home and will meet once more, in San Antonio, on March 12.

The three-team battle for the best record in the Eastern Conference is starting to look more and more like a two-horse race.

The Cavaliers, Celtics and Orlando Magic have been a cut above the rest in the East, but All-Star Jameer Nelson’s torn right labrum seriously hinders Orlando’s chances of winning the conference.

The Cavaliers and Celtics have shown flashes of greatness, but each team has revealed flaws that are too glaring to establish either as a clear frontrunner.

Until Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, Cleveland was a perfect 23-0 at its Quicken Loans Arena. Mo Williams, who was acquired from Milwaukee in August, has provided an additional offensive threat for the Cavaliers. He averages over 17 points per game and was Chris Bosh’s replacement for the All-Star game on Tuesday. LeBron James has been, well, LeBron James. That might be enough to capture the East.

Boston’s starting lineup is the same as last season, but question marks surround their bench. The Celtics’ reserves were outplayed by their Lakers and Spurs counterparts. Their failure to hold leads was a huge part of the C’s back-to-back home losses.

The Cavs, Celtics, Magic, Spurs and Lakers all have one starter in Sunday’s All-Star game and are sending 11 players to the game overall.

The odds are that two of those teams will also be sending their players to the NBA Finals in June, but little is guaranteed.

What is guaranteed are the results of Saturday’s Slam Dunk Contest.

Unless one of the challengers Rudy Gay, Rudy Fernandez or Nate Robinson can actually fly, Dwight Howard will win his second-straight jam title.

Starr is a member of the class of 2009.

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