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NBA: Lakers, Clippers still the teams to beat in the west

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Hollywood star power fueling the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers makes them the favorites to win the Western Conference and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy when the novel coronavirus-hit NBA season crowns its champion in Orlando, analysts said.

FILE PHOTO: Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry kisses the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy during Toronto Raptors victory parade celebration in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Moe Doiron/File Photo

LeBron James’ first place Lakers held a 5.5 game lead over Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers when the season was brought to an abrupt halt on March 11 due to the pandemic.

Play will resume on Thursday with 22 teams that were in striking distance of the playoffs battling it out until one team captures the title in front of spectator-free stands at the Walt Disney World Resort in October.

The Lakers and Clippers will face off in prime time on Thursday and all eyes will be on James, Leonard and their formidable supporting casts.

“We have strong favorites in the west with the Lakers and the Clippers,” ESPN analyst Jalen Rose told reporters on a recent call.

“Other squads that may have a puncher’s chance are the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers,” he said.

And James and Leonard don’t have to do it alone.

James has a valuable partner in dominant forward/center Anthony Davis while Leonard can look to the versatile scorer Paul George when defensive double teams are thrown his way.

Compare that to the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks, who Rose argues are too dependent on MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“If people are going to question whether they can win it all, it ain’t about Giannis’s greatness,” Rose said. “It’s about who is second and who is third (on the team).”

Laker great Magic Johnson concurred.

“Definitely the Lakers and the Clippers are the two teams to beat in the west,” he said. “And then you have dark horses in Houston and Denver.”

Johnson said that despite 25-year-old Antetokounmpo’s outstanding season, James, who is a decade the Greek phenomenon’s senior, is his pick for league MVP.

“LeBron affects the game in so many different ways and this year he’s almost averaging a triple double,” he said of the three-time champion, who is averaging 25.7 points, 10.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds this season.

“And you have to think about the way he’s played defense and has been a incredible leader,” Johnson said.

James himself is on a mission to show that he can go from Cleveland Cavaliers, where he won a title in 2016, to the Lakers, where he is hoping to return glory to the storied franchise.

“The thing I can’t fathom with LeBron is that everybody slows down,” former coach and TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy said on Tuesday. “We want to say Father Time is undefeated but I’ll tell you what, LeBron has been a tough out against Father Time.

“At some point he’s got to decline, but when?” he said. “It’s just unbelievable what he’s doing.”

Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Ken Ferris

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