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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates after scoring against the New Orleans Pelicans in the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

I'm still not exactly sure how it works. And I'm pretty sure it will never work this way again if the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers get knocked out of this quirky NBA Playoffs play-in tourney this week, taking television titan LeBron James with them.

But for now, before the first favorite is felled, I'm kind of excited to watch this opening act, which begins Tuesday night at 6:30 on TNT with the Indiana Pacers hosting the Charlotte Hornets, followed by Washington at reeling Boston around 9.

So just what is this play-in tournament the NBA's concocted and just how much chance is there that LeBron's Lakers are hitting the beach and rediscovering their golf games by this weekend?

Well, the format goes something like this, beginning in the East: Seeded seventh, the Celtics will host the eighth-seeded Wizards with the 9th seeded Pacers hosting the 10th seeded Hornets. The Boston-Washington winner slides into the No. 7 seed spot for the main playoffs, where it will face East No. 2 Brooklyn. The loser then faces the Pacers-Hornets winner, with the winner of that game moving into the No. 8 spot in the main playoffs opposite top-seeded Philadelphia.

At least I think that's how it works.

But the real excitement and intrigue rests in the West, where the Lakers, seeded seventh seemingly due to more injuries than wins (42), host the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors and regular-season scoring champ Steph Curry.

If this were any kind of series — best-of-three, best-of-five, certainly a best-of-seven — there's no way the Lakers lose, even if both LeBron and Anthony Davis are playing in medical boots, hobbling around on crutches. They're still the defending champs, after all, and the Warriors may actually have fewer healthy bodies than LA.

But should Golden State win on Wednesday night in the Staples Center, the Lakers are one loss from elimination after winning it all in October in the NBA's Orlando "bubble." For those of you who believe in conspiracy theories, it will be interesting to see how many times LA visits the foul line as opposed to Golden State, because as beloved as Curry is, the NBA has to be hoping that King James and his Court make a deep playoff run.

Understand, too, that the loser of that Lakers-Warriors game probably still beats the winner of No. 9 Memphis and No. 10 San Antonio, so what LA and Golden State are playing for — and it's not an insignificant prize — is to avoid facing West top-seed Utah as the No. 8 seed.

It's crazy to even feintly imagine the Lakers potentially falling so early, either in the play-in tourney or in the opening round. And having won five straight to close out the regular season with a recovering James (high ankle sprain) averaging 24.5 ppg in his final two starts, it's highly unlikely such a fate befalls LA if it can avoid Utah right out of the gate.

Still, LeBron's never reached the Finals on a team that began the postseason lower than a No. 4 seed. And should it face a Jazz team with its own injured superstar — Donovan Mitchell — back on the court, anything could happen, even to the Lakers. That said, should LeBron and Co. avoid Utah early, as good as expected MVP Nicola Jokic is for Denver, the Nuggets are a fraud with guard Jamal Murray done for the year with a knee injury. Beyond that, the Clippers can't get out of their own way, and Phoenix, Dallas and Portland, though fun to watch, aren't strong enough inside to win a seven-game series against the champs.

So were I forced to choose an NBA champ today, I'd probably go with the mercenary All-Star team that is Brooklyn — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. The Nets' offense should be potent enough to survive difficult defensive challenges from a host of dangerous defensive teams in the East answering to the New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks, though such a challenge could also wear them down by the Finals. And good as the Atlanta Hawks have been the past three months, it's just tough to see the Hawks being anything but the fragile Hawks of old come the postseason.

That's not to say LeBron and Anthony Davis can't beat the Nets, it just seems a long shot without a home-court advantage.

But LeBron has willed far worse Cleveland teams than these Lakers into the Finals. He even once won it all with the Cavaliers, which might be the 36-year-old's most impressive accomplishment to date.

And as Lakers reserve Jared Dudley noted Sunday of the team's playoff possibilities: "We're up for it. We're the defending champs. They've got to worry about us. We're getting healthy at the right time, and no one wants to see a healthy Laker team."

Few truer words have ever been spoken regarding the NBA playoffs, because wherever they're seeded, when healthy, any team built around James and Davis is a threat to win it all.

But no matter who ultimately hoists the Larry O'Brien Trophy, league commissioner Adam Silver has to be at least a little bit nervous that his radical new play-in format to begin this year's postseason could finish the NBA's reigning champion — and its biggest television star — at the start.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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