(Reuters) - Can anyone stop LeBron James and the Miami Heat?
For nearly two months during the regular season the answer was an emphatic no as the reigning NBA champions went on a 27-game winning streak, second-longest ever in the league.
Now the National Basketball Association’s top 15 other teams join the Heat in the league’s second season - the playoffs, and beginning on Saturday a final answer will be given to the question that dominated the 2012-2013 season.
Topping the list of challengers are last year’s runners-up the Oklahoma City Thunder, top-seeded in the Western Conference, West second seeds San Antonio Spurs and the New York Knicks, seeded second in the Eastern Conference behind Miami.
“King” James ruled last year’s NBA playoffs by commanding the hardcourt from front to back by averaging 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He didn’t stop there, continuing on to London where he helped lead his mates to Olympic gold.
The Heat (66-16) have been heavily-favored all year to win the NBA title, but the price has soared even higher with the postseason about to begin.
“To go into the playoffs as the odds on favorite at 5/8 is unheard of in recent years,” said Kevin Bradley, sportsbook manager for online betting service Bovada.
“Despite this high price, 75 percent of the bets we have taken already today have been on them which has moved the Heat down to 2/3.”
Second pick Thunder (60-22), fueled by forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook, were listed at 17/4.
Facing much longer odds are Miami’s first-round opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, the only team in the playoffs with a losing record at 38-44. Miami hosts the first game of their series on Sunday.
NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks (54-28) kick off their playoffs campaign on Saturday against long-time rivals the Boston Celtics (41-40).
Rounding out the other opening best-of-seven Eastern Conference series, the Indiana Pacers (49-32) play the Atlanta Hawks (44-38) and the Brooklyn Nets (49-33) go against the Chicago Bulls (45-37).
Oklahoma City, losers in five games to Miami in last year’s NBA Finals, begin their postseason campaign on Sunday against the visiting Houston Rockets (45-37), who are spearheaded by former Thunder guard James “The Beard” Harden.
The Los Angeles Lakers (45-37) averted a first-round clash with the Thunder by downing the Rockets in overtime in their regular season finale.
Moving on against San Antonio (58-24) without the injured Kobe Bryant would seem a fatal blow for the Lakers, although big men Pau Gasol, who had a triple-double against Houston, and Dwight Howard blended well together in beating the Rockets.
The other Western Conference showdowns have the Denver Nuggets (57-25) taking on the Golden State Warriors (47-35), and the Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) meeting the Memphis Grizzlies (56-26) in a reprise of their seven-game series last year.
James, the undisputed best player on the planet, has further refined his all-round game this season, average 26.8 points with 8.0 rebounds while increasing his assists totals with 7.3 a game.
The Heat, who finished 37-4 at home, ended the season on a league-best eight game winning streak despite giving James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh received numerous games off to rest.
“Now we start the real thing,” Wade said.
Miami’s win streak, during which they won those 27 games by an average margin of 11.9 points, was finally ended on March 27 by the tough, defensively minded Chicago Bulls.
“Everything, the whole game will be physical,” James said about facing Chicago. “I look forward to it.”
James can expect more of the same from most opponents during the grueling playoff run, but having broken through last year for his first NBA crown, King James is keen to extend his reign.
Editing by Gene Cherry