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THE PLAYOFFS [part 1 â€" or apparently there are only three good teams in the Eastern Conference]

THE PLAYOFFS [part 1 â€" or apparently there are only three good teams in the Eastern Conference]

After watching our Boston Celtics play meaningless games for most of the season, the playoffs came in like a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, the three of the four first round series in the East were about as competitive as pick-up games at the gym when players are allowed to choose sides on their own. The Southeast Division went 0-12 as all three of its representatives were swept and, yes, it actually was as bad as it seemed.

The Magic were clearly outclassed by the Pistons. Jameer Nelson looked as if he studied tape of Sebastian Telfair to learn how to play defense. The only way he was going to stop Chauncey Billups from getting whatever he wanted was with a loaded gun, which he might have been able to borrow from Telfair’s arsenal. Detroit certainly looked like the best team in the East but has two distinct disadvantages to overcome on their return trip to the Finals. One is a lack of depth and two is a coach who does not inspire confidence. I mean, how does Joe Dumars put together a serious team with two guys named Flip, both of whom seem to dislike each other? Nevertheless, if they can get away with playing their starters 40-plus minutes, then they have a chance against anybody.

The Bulls-Pistons matchup contains the Ben Wallace saga to add some extra drama to what should be a stellar series. Wallace is starting to look like a reasonable facsimile of his Detroit years after a rather mediocre first season in Chicago. Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon gave the Miami defenders fits and have likely precipitated big changes to the supporting cast for Shaq and Wade next season. I’d advise Antoine Walker to keep his bags packed, and Jason Williams can drive him to the airport. Would the Bulls have stomped all over the Heat if Dwyane Wade had been at 100 percent? Wade, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, are probably good for at least one win in a series strictly from the favorable foul calls these players seem to get. Now, that would have been a topic for those independent researchers at Bumpkin U. to address rather than trying to prove black players get less fouls called for them by white referees and vice versa. The Bulls lack of interior scoring may turn out to be their undoing against the Pistons. They’ll need to get more out of Tyrus Thomas. We’ll see if Deng is able to light up Tayshaun Prince with the same regularity as he did the Heat defenders.

If the Bulls are not ready to take the big step to the conference finals this year, their fans won’t be waiting long. Brandon Roy may have won Rookie of the Year but I wouldn’t even think about swapping Thomas for him. Also, they have the Knicks #1 in the upcoming draft. I’ll slit my throat if they get lucky and land Oden or Durant. John Paxson has resisted all trade overtures to date for his young bucks since unloading Curry and Chandler. How they fare against Detroit will have plenty of bearing on the direction he takes in the off-season.

The Wizards were decimated by injuries to their two best players at the absolute wrong time of the year. Subsequently, the LeBrons had a tough time maintaining interest in their series. They probably would have beaten a healthy Washington team in no small part due to James getting more questionable calls in his favor than any other player in the league since Michael Jordan. If Jerry West had ever received as much charity as Jordan, the Celtics might have had a couple fewer championships. The league wants more of LeBron on the big stage (and in your homes). I’m not saying the final regular season game between the Bulls and Nets was rigged with second seed at stake for Chicago, but it sure looked to me like New Jersey got every single call. No, I don’t like the LeBrons even a little bit but chances are they are headed for a date in the conference finals.

Before they get to a rematch with Detroit or a joust with Chicago, however, they’ll have to put way the Nets (most likely) or the Raptors. They young Raps were playing so poorly, Sam Mitchell had to dust off Mo Peterson in game five. It looks bleak with Toronto going back to the swamps for game six. Chris Bosh is playing nowhere near All-Star level. T.J. Ford may be hurt. And, most importantly, Jason Kidd is making New Jersey fans wonder why he was ever offered to the Lakers in February. Is there any question who is the best point guard in the East? It helps him, of course, to have Richard Jefferson finally playing up to his ability. Plus, Mikki Moore has been a revelation to everyone except me. That’s right, back when Mikki was working on a 10-day for the C’s I was screaming (on another blog) for them to sign the guy to a contract. A lot of teams said thanks but no thanks to Mikki â€" perhaps it was his deodorant â€" and are now kicking themselves for it, or should be if they had any sense. I will admit to being wrong about Josh Boone. Based on what I saw during his career at UCONN, I figured this was a wasted pick. But he looks like he will fit in nicely on the Nets frontline when pared with centers that can score like Krstic and Moore. Boone’s college teammate, Marcus Williams, is going to be a wonderful point guard. As much as I like Rajon Rondo, I wish Williams was a Celtic.

The Raptors will be alright â€" next year. They’re young and talented with two highly-skilled bigs in Bosh and Bargnani. If they exit in the first round, what will become of free agent coach Sam Mitchell? Coach-of-the-Year or not, I’m unimpressed with Mitchell at the helm. Toronto’s future is going to be very appealing to any coach looking for work should Mitchell not be able to reach an agreement on a new contract.

In the New Age NBA of David Stern, small ball is in along with slashing, run-and-gun offense. Despite the best efforts of the commish to give the offense every conceivable break, it’s still defense that wins series and ultimately titles. Scoring has dropped in the playoffs and there’s not much that can be done about it short of outlawing defense altogether. Let’s not give Stern any big ideas. The Bulls are a much better defensive team this season and that gives them a great shot at upsetting Detroit. The Cavaliers and Nets I’d rate about equal as to their team defensive abilities. If Larry Hughes has a great series, Cleveland will win as he’s the player who’ll be asked to slow down Kidd.

As I watched the Eastern Conference playoffs, I did so with an eye on which of the eight teams might be vulnerable next season. We’ve all heard the words of Paul Pierce, Wyc Grousbeck and other members of the Celtics organization saying how the playoffs are no problem next year. Of course, Telfair said pretty much the same thing before this season got underway. Now he’s a goner. I’m hoping Pierce and the rest don’t have to eat their words, but look at it this way:

You can pencil in Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland for next year’s playoffs. No, put it in indelible ink. Washington had one of the best teams in the East before Arenas and Butler got hurt. They’ll be back. The Raptors are young and talented and won the division this year. Count them in no matter who coaches them. Is there any doubt Pat Riley will make enough moves to appease Shaq and Wade? Not in my mind. The Nets have to re-sign Vince Carter but everything you read from Carter gives the impression he’s staying in Jersey. They’ll be in the mix. That leaves Orlando, which could go after Carter, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Grant Hill might very well return to Detroit to finish his career. The Magic will be hard-pressed to get back to the playoffs unless they score with an off-season move or two (I keep hearing Gerald Wallace’s name mentioned as a potential signee).

But not so fast Celtics fans. There are a couple of other squads with designs on a playoff spot in ’08. First and foremost would be Milwaukee, which has a pretty fair team when most of its components are not on the IL. Start with Redd and Mo Williams in the backcourt along with a front line of Bogut, Villanueva and Bobby Simmons. Ruben Patterson and Charlie Bell then become quality reserves, and lest we forget they have the third most ping-pong balls in the draft. The Bobcats are another team with a good share of the ping-pong balls not to mention plenty of cap room to attract a free agent.

The playoffs next season will not be a slam dunk for the Celtics even if they land Oden or Durant. I do feel they are headed in the right direction. Whether or not they arrive by this time next year is another matter.