Wiedmer: With no LeBron, will anyone remember who wins these NBA playoffs?

AP photo by Jeff Chiu / Los Angeles Lakers teammates Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James sit on the bench during an April 7 game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. Despite having a roster stocked with experienced stars, the Lakers finished the regular season 33-49 and missed the playoffs.

It had to be a scary thought for National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver. So, too, for the upper management at ESPN, ABC, TNT and the NBA Network.

An NBA playoffs without LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers? Who would watch such a thing? How could we get through two months of pro basketball games that actually mean something without the puppet master King James and his overpublicized, undercooked opinions on everything from who deserves the league MVP award _ if not LeBron, at least one of his buddies - to COVID-19 vaccinations to whom he'd prefer (or not prefer) to coach him?

Heck, if we stage an NBA playoffs without LeBron, is it even worthy of mention? Shouldn't it carry an asterisk?

And yet here we are heading into the third full week of April without the Lakers in the postseason, yet with a pretty fair opening weekend of NBA playoff games in our rearview mirror. Remarkable, huh? In fact, outside of Southern California, we may not even have missed the LeBron Lakers and their celebrity fans.

After all, the Brooklyn Nets and their superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are facing the Boston Celtics in one of those classic Eastern Conference struggles that could easily go all seven games, especially if Sunday's 115-114 win by the Nets is any indication.

Earlier in the day, the Miami Heat - who were good enough over the course of the regular season, at 53-29, to earn the No. 1 seed in the East - flattened the Atlanta Hawks 115-91 to serve notice their top seed may have been well deserved.

The Milwaukee Bucks may not have had the best record in the East, but the reigning NBA champions may once more be be the best team, at least in part because they may have the game's best player when the stakes are highest in 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo, a.k.a The Greek Freak.

After all, it was the versatile Antetokounmpo who took over last year's NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, becoming all but unstoppable down the stretch. He was MVP of the title series, adding that to his two season MVP awards from 2019 and 2020.

For proof that such toughness isn't going anywhere, the Bucks came from behind very late in a 118-116 victory at Philadelphia near the end of March in a game that might have given the 76ers the best record in the East. Instead, the Bucks came from behind midway through the final period to prove they still have the chemistry and consistency to repeat as champs.

Yet the top team in the NBA during the recently completed regular season comes from the West, where the Phoenix Suns rose to post the best record by winning 64 of 82 games. Now the question is whether point guard Chris Paul, likely a future Hall of Famer, can finally win his first NBA championship ring.

As for the rest of the West, without LeBron and the Lakers in the mix, the next best team in that conference figures to be the Golden State Warriors, who reached the NBA Finals every year from 2015 to 2019 and won three titles in that stretch. They have battled injuries to Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson for several years, as well as a crushing defection by Durant to Brooklyn, yet may be the scariest team in the league now that Curry, Green and Thompson are all on the mend, if not completely healthy.

To understand how close the Warriors may be to reliving their dynastic days, consider this quote from Thompson after Saturday night's rout of the Dallas Mavericks: "It's a scary sight when we really get going."

Whether the Hawks can become a scary sight at some point seems doubtful after being pounded by the Heat. Trae Young hit but one of 12 shots, Atlanta's defense struggled and Duncan Robinson, not exactly the most athletic of NBA forwards, torched the Hawks for eight 3-pointers in nine attempts. Maybe the Hawks were merely worn out from having to win two play-in games in 48 hours before traveling from Cleveland to Miami and having to play on roughly 38 hours of rest.

But if Atlanta's basketball birds are going to turn this around and make a second straight run to the Eastern Conference finals, they need to quickly flip the switch.

Then again, and this comes from the Heat's Robinson after Sunday's win: "It's always nice to throw the first punch, but in the grand scheme of things, it's just winning one game."

However, with no LeBron around to throw the second punch, the first punch could prove more lethal than in past years this time around, whether most pro basketball fans remember it or not.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.