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Being a basketball fan felt very different a year ago.
Actually, scratch that. Being a Celtics fan felt very different a year ago.
Being a fan of basketball felt very similar to the way it always does this time of year: Chock-full of excitement.
But with the beloved Celtics not only involved for the first time in three seasons but favored to win the East, well, color me as stoked as I've ever been for the playoffs.
And an excited Steve Weinman is usually one primed to start making wildly dopey predictions. So let's get out the match-ups and crank up the dial for our Eastern Conference first-round preview:
[Note: Rumblings of a CB staff round-table may be coming to fruition soon as well, but for now, you remain stuck with my extended thoughts.]
(2) Detroit Pistons vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers
The skinny: The second half of the season has featured quite a resurgence in Philadelphia, with the Sixers recovering from an 18-30 start to get to 40-42 and earning a playoff berth long before just about everyone expected them to in the post-Iversonian era. The Sixers have excelled on the glass at both ends of the floor, and it has played a big role in their rise to ninth in basketball in defensive efficiency. Steady leadership from Andre Miller, continued solid work from Andre Iguodala and development of Sam Dalembert and a host of young players (Louis Williams, Thaddeus Young and Willie Green in particular) have all contributed to the Sixers' surprising run. Whether or not he comes off as the world's best tactical coach, Mo Cheeks seems to have gotten through to his players and has them gunning hard for him all the time. The Sixers have also given the Pistons a handful this season, losing games by margins of five and eight before winning their last two against Detroit to split the season series.
But they may simply be in over their heads now. The Sixers cooled off to end the season (after a 19-5 run, they won three of their last ten and one of six to end the season), and no matter what happened in the regular season, and no matter how surly they are, this is a very good Detroit Pistons basketball team. The Pistons play excellent team basketball on both ends of the floor, and for all their nonchalance, there is certainly a chance that they will be hungrier than ever this season after the implosion against Cleveland in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Point guard Chauncey Billups is most notable in this regard, as he completely fell apart down the stretch and has responded with an excellent 2007-08 campaign. He'll be looking to make sure his title of Mr. Big Shot is safely back in his hands. Flip Saunders doesn't exactly engender fear in coaching staffs around the league, but that's a weakness that likely won't manifest itself until later rounds for this team. These fellas won nearly 60 games this year for a reason -- or several.
The X-Men: It's going to be all about the point guards -- especially if the Sixers are to have a chance in this series. 'Dre Miller has been a rock for them all year, putting up 17 points, 6.9 assists and 4 boards per game while providing invaluable veteran leadership. If he can cause Chauncey Billups any sort of reversion to Billups' struggles last year, it will be a huge morale shot to the Pistons. But if Billups can continue to be the player he has been all year (the guess here is that he will, at least for this round), and if he can stifle Miller, the Sixers could be all but finished right from the start.
The Pick: Pistons in 5
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(3) Orlando Magic vs. (6) Toronto Raptors
The skinny: It's a match-up of two teams whose principal incumbent players got their feet wet in playoff debut defeats last season. The Magic got bopped in four games by Atlanta, and the Atlantic Division champion Raps were upset by New Jersey in six. For two teams that looked at times this season like they were both set to make further leaps forward, we're quite non-plussed.
It's been a year of runs for Orlando, who opened the season 16-4, barely played .500 ball from December through February and then ran off a 10-4 March to put the Southeast Division in the bag and accelerate its push toward a 50-win season. But Stan Van Gundy has questioned his team's effort on several occasions throughout the season, and it really seems like this Orlando team still has quite a ways to go.
Meanwhile, after a solid start to 2008, the Raps had gone just 9-15 over March and April prior to last night's finale in Hicag. All-around good guy Chris Bosh has seems to have called out just about everybody even remotely associated with the Raptors organization, most notably with his implication that he doesn't trust his teammates and that he expects more of the Air Canada Centre crowd in Toronto.
For all of Van Gundy's complaints -- and for the fact that it feels like Dwight Howard quieted down a bit in the second half of the year -- it still has been an excellent season in Orlando. The Magic sit at sixth in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and after some rough times in his first playoff experience last year, Dwight Howard could be ready to blow up this spring. Hedo Turkoglu has become a valuable cog as head play-maker and a sort of 'point forward' for this team, and Rashard Lewis enters his first playoffs in blue and white. Meanwhile, the team is as well-coached as its been in years with SVG at the helm.
The Magic took two of three from Toronto this season, and with Toronto playing as poorly as it has for the last two months -- and Orlando being the only team in this series with Howard on its roster -- it seems reasonable to expect that they will take the upper hand in this one.
The X-Men: We really should just change this feature to "The Point Guards." Orlando has gotten suspect play from their court generals all year, with Jameer Nelson failing to take the leap forward that could have helped put this team over the top as an Eastern Conference contender this year. Though Turkoglu has done an admirable job of helping with the play-making duties for the Magic this season, the team is clearly out-classed at the point in this series against Toronto's two-headed monster of T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon. It's with good reason that John Hollinger salivates over Calderon, as he has played extremely efficient basketball all year -- averaging 11.3 points, 8.3 assists and 1.6 turnovers per game on better than 50 percent shooting from the field, better than 40 from deep and better than 90 from the charity stripe -- and T.J. Ford's 12 points and 6 dimes in 23.7 minutes per game haven't been too shabby either. Ford and Calderon's ability to frustrate a likely over-matched Nelson-Carlos Arroyo tandem could throw a major monkey wrench into the proceedings here.
The Pick: Magic in 6
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Washington Wizards
The skinny: As we discussed earlier in the week, the Cavs and Wiz are going to be Brett Favrin' it out there (or in words Pops will comprehend, they'll be having a lot of fun). The Cavs looked decent throughout the first half of the season and have appeared wholly unimpressive since the trade deadline, while the bizarre Wizards have survived injuries to two of their best three players and a mid-season eight-game losing streak to win 19 of their last 31 and nearly nab home-court advantage in the first round.
It's a simple formula here: The Wizards love playing together and have the weapons to beat you in a number of ways. Meanwhile, though Danny Ferry did a wonderful job of utilizing the classic "make a move just for the sake of making a move" tactic with the trade for Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Delonte West at the deadline, he didn't do such a wonderful job of putting help around LeBron James. This team's calling card last season was its defense, and the Cavs have fallen from fourth to 11th in efficiency. On the offensive end, it's all about one man.
All the signs point to the Wiz taking this series. They are peeved after consecutive eliminations at the hands of these Cavs. They have a returned and rejuvenated Gil Arenas, and they are playing cohesive team basketball -- something that can't be said for Cleveland right now...
The X-Men: ...but that "one man" for Cleveland is too scary to overlook. We got a taste of what that individual could do in last year's playoffs when he tore apart a team that has spent most of this decade as one of the best defensive units in basketball. LeBron James took this team on his back to the Finals last season, and at 30 points, 7.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds per outing, he has followed the Finals appearance up with another monstrous year of his own. If his back is feeling good enough -- and perhaps even if it isn't -- we would be fools to write any team off so long as said team features this guy. There are only two players in all of basketball that engender this sort of fear right now, and fortunately, LBJ is the only one in the East.
The pick: Wiz in 6
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks
The skinny: Hard to imagine this one is going to require to much explanation for the readership of this site.
Resurgence. Renaissance. Revitalization. Revival.
Yep, those are all words that can be used to describe this season in Atlanta. The Hawks are in the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and they have a vibrant young core that includes the likes of Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia and Josh Childress along with veterans Joe Johnson and mid-season acquisition Mike Bibby. They don't always play the most disciplined basketball in the world, but the Hawks are incredibly athletic and have one of the league's best weakside defender-gamblers in Smith. They have played particularly good basketball at home this season, where they have posted a 25-16 mark. The Hawks put together a big 9-2 run at the end of March to take control of the race for the final seed in the East, and these guys seem to genuinely enjoy playing with each other and for coach Mike Woodson, who is shaving his head to make good on a promise he made contingent on the team making the playoffs. But it's worth remembering that this is ultimately 37-win team that isn't particularly efficient on either end of the floor (16th on offensive, 18th on D).
And it's also worth remembering that those four 'R' words might just apply even more strongly to the other team in this series. The one with the best defense and record in all of basketball. The one that just completed the greatest single-season turn-around in league history. The one with a psycho-intense leader who is licking his chops for what could be just the second truly legitimate shot at an NBA title in his 13-year career. The one with the deep bench and the exciting young point guard. The one that many believe is a team destined to pay tribute to the legendary Red Auerbach with a championship in the season after his passing. You might have even heard of them already.
The Boston Celtics have been the best team in basketball all season and have cruised to a 3-0 mark against the Hawks. If they stay focused on playing one game at a time and conducting business just as they did all season, they will win this series.
The X-Men: Bibby. He is the one guy on this Atlanta team with truly extensive playoff experience (Johnson was there for one season with Nash in Phoenix) and has a history of not being afraid to take the big shot. That said, his game has deteriorated markedly in recent years, and he is going to need to take a step forward in order to give this Hawks team a fighting chance. But going against a point guard making his maiden playoff run in Rajon Rondo, Bibby has the advantage of veteran savvy and the pressure of playing under the bright lights of the postseason. If he can find it in him to raise his game, he could provide the C's some unexpected trouble. This isn't to say that it will happen, merely that it isn't impossible.
(But here's guessing it won't be the case. We're expecting big things from Raj this spring.)
The pick: Celtics in 4