The apparent heir to the crown is ...

The stakes are higher than you think in these NBA playoffs. The rewards are greater; the windows are shorter. This isn't just one championship we're talking about. It very well could be two or three.

Sometimes all it takes is that one breakthrough to grant stars and their teams ownership of the league. They go from heir to the crown to a minidynasty. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen & Co. did it in 1991, when they quickly turned the first championship in Bulls history into the second and third in as many years. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant went home early in their first three years together, then went parading down Figueroa Street in their next three years.

Once they "got it," they had it locked down.

"There's a big difference," Pippen said. "When you know you can win, you feel good about yourself and feel good about the people around you. You feel that you are the team to beat. Thinking you can win is just hoping you get lucky. Knowing you can win is about confidence."

That's why it's a race to get that knowledge first, like something out of an Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movie. That's why if Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks don't win a title this year, it will never happen. And it's why if LeBron James wants to win multiple championships, he'd better get this one.

Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are 22 years old. Regardless of what happens this year, they'll be back here, on the brink and beyond.

Nowitzki has outlasted the Lakers and Spurs in the Western Conference for only the second time in his career. But he's 32, his point guard is 38 and his sixth man is 33. Compared to the rest of this final four, the Mavericks are older than a Super Bowl halftime act.

And if LeBron lets Rose or Durant run off these next three championships, it would take him to age 29, right on the doorstep of the drop-off for players who entered the NBA straight from high school. (As I covered in the middle of this column, the extra wear and tear of playing in the NBA while others are living in college dorms shows up when they hit 30, bringing a 10 percent statistical drop from their peak seasons.)

It's not just LeBron's decline. Does he really want to chase his first championship after three more years of wear and tear on Dwyane Wade? At some point Wade, 29, won't be able to stand up that eighth time.

If the Heat can win this time, however, they'll be poised to come back for more, just like the Bulls and the Thunder.

Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City all have a player who finished among the top five in this year's MVP voting and a core of players who are under 30 years old. They're in just as good a shape in the front office: Miami's Pat Riley and Chicago's Gar Forman shared the Executive of the Year award, and Oklahoma City's Sam Presti tops the list of new-era general managers. (Those are big reasons that the Bulls, Thunder and Heat rank 1-2-3 in ESPN.com's Future Power Rankings.)

The No. 1 way we'll be able to distinguish among LeBron, Rose and Durant is which one will be the first to be transformed by the championship experience.

We've come to associate Jordan so closely with winning that we forget the narrative of his career before 1991, when some thought of him as a selfish gunner who didn't make his teammates better, a player who would never win it all. The conventional wisdom was you couldn't lead the league in scoring and lead your team to the championship. After all, it hadn't been done since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged almost 32 points per game in 1970-71. Jordan pulled off the double in all six of his championships. After 1991, one thing held true for the rest of the 1990s: Every time Jordan showed up for training camp, he ended the season smoking a cigar in his champagne-soaked jersey.

Before 2000, Shaq had been swept in the playoffs five times. That's why tears streamed down his face when he finally won, because, as he said, "I took a lot of bashing," but then, there was nothing left to bash.

After that, O'Neal went from never having won a playoff series in which he trailed to overcoming deficits in the 2001 NBA Finals and 2002 Western Conference finals.

"I think the fact that you know you can is what changes," said Derek Fisher, who arrived in Lakerland the same year as O'Neal and Bryant. "Because you've spent so many years not maybe knowing, not fully understanding the level of sacrifice and commitment and discipline that it takes to win. And then once you do, you feel like you have these things in the palm of your hand. You feel like you can utilize them when you see fit."

Pippen said of his Bulls teams: "We had confidence in our play, we had confidence in our teammates and in our coach. We felt like we were dominant."

Confidence in the coach. That's the other factor. Before Phil Jackson got started on the largest ring collection in NBA coaching history, he was an unproven second-year coach who'd made his bones in the Continental Basketball Association, a guy with big hair and a big mustache spouting Zen philosophy and using a triangle offense that some deemed archaic.

"When Phil first came in and implemented that offensive system, there was a little doubt," Pippen said. "We didn't think he could get through and be successful in running the offense. We were finally able to break through that."

Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Dallas' Rick Carlisle already have Coach of the Year awards, but we've seen that's hardly a deterrent from a pink slip; the six previous winners are no longer employed by the teams with which they won it. Only winning a championship can provide that instant credibility boost.

Whoever wins the award this year will become only the third active coach with championship cachet. With a ring to wave in his team's faces, a coach's words are more like a 250-pound weight stack instead of a 15-pound dumbbell. There's a little more reason for his players to believe in the plays he diagrams during timeouts, a little more willingness to put up with the yelling.

It's a bit much to process in the middle of the conference final with so many other things to worry about. LeBron woke up in the early-morning hours before Game 1 and studied tape of the Bulls rather than ponder the greater things at stake.

"We're just focused on winning one game at a time," LeBron said.

After the Bulls took Game 1, Rose stood by his locker room and ever so briefly allowed himself to let the scenario I laid out happen to the Bulls in his mind.

"That would be crazy," Rose said, which was his same response throughout All-Star Weekend whenever someone asked him about winning the Most Valuable Player award.

You can tell that LeBron feels closer to a championship than he's ever been -- even when he reached the Finals with Cleveland in 2007, only to be overmatched by San Antonio. He listened to a recap of how the Bulls did it, how the Lakers did it. Who knows, maybe his Heat could do it.

"I hope so," he said.

For now, that's all any of them have. Hope, not knowledge.