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The NBA Playoffs will begin on April 18. Of course, the necessary fearless forecasts and previews abound. Here is FHM's two-part preview, beginning with the Western Division. Watch for the Eastern Division tomorrow! [firstpara]

Los Angeles Lakers (1) VS. Oklahoma City Thunder (8)
Regular Season Series: Lakers won (3-1)

The Lakers have been playing poorly over the last few games of the regular season. They were not living up to their image as imposing, defending champions. Much of this can be attributed to the absence of Andrew Bynum (strained left Achilles tendon) but more to the fact that their superstar, Kobe Bryant, has been plagued by several injuries.

Bynum has not played in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, but is expected to return during the playoffs. He will need to shake of some game rust and will probably not be a major factor for the Lakers in the first round.

Meanwhile, Bryant was rested during the last two games prior to the playoffs, in order for him to better recuperate from his various injuries.

It's been often said that the NBA playoffs is a completely different animal compared to the regular season. The Lakers are very familiar with this animal and its behavior. They've hunted down and captured a title before.

Kobe and company have experience and the ability to “turn on” their killer instinct when it really matters, as their biggest advantage in the playoffs. Similar to last season, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will have to step up their game in order for LA to prevent an upset.

The Thunder is a dark horse playoff entry this season. They are still in the relatively early stages of a franchise rebuilding campaign. Oklahoma has been riding on the efforts of their much improved, young franchise star, Kevin Durant.

In only his third year in the NBA, Durant has emerged as one of its best players this season; averaging 30 points and over seven rebounds a game. He's already left an indelible mark in NBA history by being the youngest scoring champion, ever.

Both he and point guard Russell Westbrook are spearheading the Thunder's playoff hopes, but strong play from role-players, Jeff Green and “star stopper” Thabo Sefolosha will be necessary for them to upset their first-round opponents.


WORDS BY: ERIK ONG

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