ACT TWO OF the NBA season begins this weekend with multiple story lines and hundreds of possibilities, the most compelling of which would be the conclusion the fans deserve and the league desires.

Boston vs. Los Angeles.

Or, if you prefer, Lakers-Celtics.

It promises the penetrating intensity of

Ali-Frazier, the bicoastal ferocity of Biggie-Tupac and a pure hoops heaven not seen since Magic-Larry.

Insofar as the Lakers and Celtics enter the 2008 playoffs as top seeds from each conference, a meeting in the NBA Finals would be fitting punctuation to a most captivating season.

Boston rebuilt itself last offseason, with general manager Danny Ainge changing his strategy on the fly. Realizing star forward Paul Pierce would turn 30 before the season, Ainge disposed of his long-term plan and took bold steps to assemble an immediate winner.

He traded for Ray Allen, who at age 32 remains one of the five best pure shooters in the league. Five weeks later, on July 31, came 31-year-old Kevin Garnett, the league's most unassuming superstar. In a blink, the Celtics had the pyramid of greatness needed to win a championship.

If an NBA-high 66 wins doesn't make Boston the favorite, its 25-5 record against the deeper and superior WesternConference ought to be.

Yet the Lakers, who run coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense, have their own pyramid of greatness: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.


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Even those who dismiss the sneaky assets of Odom because of his inconsistency or believe Gasol is skillful but too soft would acknowledge Bryant might be fabulous enough to count as two parts of any trio.

Thus, the stage awaits. All the Celtics and Lakers have to do is get there.

Cue the diabolical laughter.

These playoffs, especially in the Western Conference, are exceedingly treacherous. Unforgiving. Cruel, even, like roaming a mine field, while dodging bullets, hurdling rattlesnakes and avoiding alligators.

And, hopefully, eventually, scaling Mt. Shaq.

Understand, I'm a Shaq guy. Took his side in the feud that rocked Hollywood. Not long after Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal led L.A. to back-to-back-to-back titles through 2002, Kobe waged a campaign that — despite repeated denials — ultimately nudged O'Neal out of town.

Scarlet "S" — selfish — stamped on Kobe's forehead, Shaq in 2004 landed in Miami, altering the balance of power within the league.

While the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 and were bounced in the first round in 2006, Shaq was vindicated when he and Dwyane Wade, with Pat Riley as coach, led the Heat to a title in'06.

Served Kobe right.

Stuck in a predicament he engineered, Bryant spent last offseason whining about his teammates and pushing for a trade. He couldn't win in L.A., so it was time to move on.

The bull's-eye on his back? The frosty glances from opponents? The boos at Staples Center? Kobe earned them.

This, then, is his chance to redeem himself. He is coming off his best season, an MVP season. He reduced his shots, increased his influence. And his impact. Kobe became a bona fide leader.

Which is why L.A. is the team to beat. It can be argued that Kobe is the league's best player, Jackson is its best coach, a healthy Lakers starting five is as good as any in the NBA.

And that the Lakers, New Orleans Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets represent the deepest eight-team playoff collection ever. There is not, on paper, one lopsided series.

May the conference finals deliver Kobe's Lakers and Shaq's Suns.

The Celtics, in contrast to the Lakers, have only two challenges, one real and the other imagined. Detroit, fearless and experienced in the postseason, is the only Eastern Conference team capable of holding back Boston. A false case can be made for Cleveland ... only because it has the magnificent LeBron James.

And please don't bring up the Washington Wizards, who in the regular season won three of four against Boston, as a real threat. The playoffs are a different game. The playoffs are for finishers, and the Celtics realize their time is now.

Garnett is the most complete active veteran without a ring. Pierce wants to shed a rap for selfishness. Allen is in line for the kind of lifetime achievement award Alonzo Mourning received two years ago in Miami.

After six weeks of furious action, featuring such marvelous youngsters as Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, such scrutinized veterans as Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki, may the Lakers and Celtics be left standing. May the hoop gods present a drama suited for Hollywood or Broadway, with pitch-perfect casting of lead characters.

We'd have Kobe as Muhammad Ali, the controversial figure with unmistakable magnetism, demanding our attention.

We'd have KG as Joe Frazier, the salt-of-the-earth, no-frills warrior yearning for respect.

We'd have a final act as good as any we've seen since the epic battles between Magic Johnson's Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics.

Monte Poole can be reached at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.