The Los Angeles Lakers may not be the force they were in winning back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010, but star Kobe Bryant says it would be a mistake to under-rate their playoff chances.
"I expect to win it, absolutely," Bryant told an ESPN radio call-in show this week. "We've been shooting the ball extremely well, and our biggest key is our perimeter shooting, limiting our turnovers, and keeping the game at our pace. If we can do those things in the post-season, I like our chances."
Seeded third in the Western Conference, behind a San Antonio side led by aging warrior Tim Duncan and the youthfully energetic Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers face Denver in the first round beginning on Sunday.
"Everybody's a problem," Bryant said of the path to the championship series in the West. "The Western Conference has been tough from top to bottom now for years. There are no easy matchups.
"You can't look at one particular matchup and say, 'OK, that's going to be an easy series. That's going to be a gimme series.'
"That just doesn't happen in the Western Conference."
The Lakers ended up in their familiar spot atop the Pacific Division for the fifth straight season, but their path to a seventh consecutive playoff appearance had its rough spots.
They began the lockout-shortened campaign adjusting to new coach Mike Brown, successor to legendary Phil Jackson, who guided Bryant and the Lakers to five NBA titles -- in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010.
Talented young center Andrew Bynum, already a two-time NBA champion, earned his first All-Star nod, but also displayed worrying bouts of lackluster play.
Veteran defensive presence Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest, has six games remaining on his seven-game suspension for an ugly elbow to the head of the Thunder's James Harden.
The Lakers brought in youth with a mid-season trade of point guard Derek Fisher for Ramon Sessions, but Sessions will be playing his first playoff series against Denver and finished the regular season nursing a shoulder injury.
If the Lakers do have a chance to go all the way, it will likely be due to Bryant, who remains one of the league's most dangerous clutch performers.
"You always expect it," Spain's Pau Gasol said of Bryant's penchant for late-game heroics. "You count on that."
Bryant, 33, began the lockout-shortened season nursing a torn ligament in his right wrist sustained in an exhibition game.
He suffered a broken nose and concussion when he was hit in the face by Miami's Dwyane Wade in the All-Star game in February, but didn't miss a game until pain and inflammation in his left shin forced him to sit earlier this month.
Still, he's in better shape than he was heading into the past two post-seasons, and vowed that no lingering injuries will halt him this time around.
"I've got to do what I've got to do," Bryant said. "I did it a few years ago (in the Lakers' 2010 playoff series win over Oklahoma City) on one knee. Sometimes you've got to will it."