The playoff race in the NBA’s Eastern Conference figures to follow a predictable and generally uninteresting path for the first two rounds. But in the Western Conference, it’s a different story.

With eight teams separated by only seven games in the standings, this year’s Western Conference playoffs could be one of the most competitive in recent memory. While many of the top seeds were still up for grabs during the final night of the season, the wild conclusion to the regular season was a fitting prelude to what should be an even more competitive postseason. In this topsy-turvy conference, the Los Angeles Lakers are the favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year. The defending NBA Champions, led by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, return to the postseason with one of the deepest teams in the league and home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

Nonetheless, another trip to the NBA finals is anything but certain for the Lakers. Questions still linger around the health of center Andrew Bynum, whose Achilles’ injury has sidelined him since March. Even though he is expected to recover in time for the first round, any damage to the oft-injured Bynum could derail any title plans for the Lakers, who need the 7-footer to help Gasol and score in the paint.

It’s also difficult to speculate how far Bryant can carry the team in a Western Conference that is stronger than it was last year. As balanced as the Lakers are, the bulk of their offense still goes through Bryant, whose late-game heroics have been a trademark throughout his career. But as Bryant gets older and his injuries continue to mount, his teammates better not expect him to routinely rescue them at the end of games like he has done in the past.

But make no mistake about it, the Western Conference is still the Lakers’ to lose. Coach Phil Jackson is a master of the half-court offense typically seen in postseason basketball, and the rest of the conference has yet to stop the combination of Bryant and Gasol in the three seasons they’ve been together.

For the Lakers to repeat as champions, they are going to need Ron Artest to contribute more on offense and fill the void left from Trevor Ariza’s departure in the offseason. Still one of the premier defenders in the NBA, Artest has yet to provide the offensive punch for the Lakers that complimented his defensive prowess in the past.

Their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder isn’t expected to be much of a contest, but with key reserve Sasha Vujacic expected to miss the entire series and the uncertain status of Bynum, the Thunder and scoring phenom Kevin Durant could make things difficult for the Lakers.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the Lakers may come from the Southwest Division. The first-round series between the No. 2 Dallas Mavericks and No. 7 San Antonio Spurs might be the most interesting first-round matchup in the NBA.

The two Southwest Division foes meet in the postseason for the fifth time since 2001 in what could be their most intense playoff series yet. The Mavericks climbed to the second seed of the conference after owner Mark Cuban’s blockbuster trade brought Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood to Dallas to team up with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion. Dallas’ bench with DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Terry and Haywood gives them one of the strongest rotations in the NBA.

The Spurs are seeking their fifth championship since 1999, but this could be the last chance for the core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to win a title. Duncan and Ginobli are now on the wrong side of age 30, and the years of extended postseason quests have taken their toll on the group.

After an inconsistent start to the season, the Spurs have been playing solid basketball heading into the playoffs, hoping to make one final push as a dangerous 7-seed against a Dallas team that defeated them three times during the regular season, and in last year’s playoffs.

A dark horse team could come from the matchup between No. 4 seed the Denver Nuggets and the No. 5 seed Utah Jazz. The Jerry Sloan-coached Jazz have been known for hard fouls and physical play, and they will need to be maintain their physicality against Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen. Carlos Boozer will be called upon to help stop the Nuggets and their athletic yet physical attack.

The Nuggets were expected to clinch the second seed until a strange series of events, including Kenyon Martin’s injury and coach George Karl being diagnosed with cancer, pushed them down to the fourth spot in the conference. Now Nuggets interim coach John Welch will have to outfox Sloan in an unlikely matchup of coaches.

The battle between All-Star point guards Deron Williams of Utah and Chauncey Billups of Denver could be what tilts the series either way. Expect Billups, one of the toughest guards in the NBA, to challenge Williams head-on, and try to have his way with the young point guard.

The Phoenix Suns and Portland Trailblazers series doesn’t feature any real championship implications. The Suns’ trademark up-tempo offense that has put up gaudy numbers during the regular season was rendered useless once the more defensive-oriented playoff teams met them in the postseason. With Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire still running things in Phoenix, there is no reason to believe the outcome will be any different this year, even if they defeat the unheralded and undermanned Trailblazers.

Now as the postseason begins, all teams in the Western Conference are hoping to dethrone the Lakers. For the past two years, the Lakers have advanced to the finals because they’ve had the best combination of intelligence and brute strength, imposing their will on physically and mentally inferior opponents. But this is a different year, and between the Mavericks, Spurs, Jazz and Nuggets, there will be no shortage of physicality and intelligence, and that should lead to an unpredictable postseason in the Western Conference.