CLEVELAND -- The question asked of Mike Brown during pregame had to do with what kind of questions he still has about his team, and he was so flummoxed by the question that the first response that came out of his mouth was: "Man, that's a good question."
Never in our wildest dreams or nightmares did we ever think we'd start a column by using the same word four times in the same sentence, but this was the type of Sunday -- the Cavaliers crushed the Celtics 107-76 -- that ended the type of week that had us questioning everything we've assumed in the recent past, especially when it comes to the state of the Eastern Conference with the postseason about to begin.
Such as: The defending champs will be there when it counts, once they have Kevin Garnett back at 100 percent, right?
Problem is, Boston coach Doc Rivers is keeping No. 5 under wraps until Wednesday night, meaning he'll have seen Garnett play about 80 minutes of total floor time over the final 26 games to get himself prepared for the postseason.
Or: The Orlando Magic are going to be a heckuva matchup for someone, especially the Cavs, with their deadly inside-outside game anchored by Dwight Howard and all those shooters. The problem with that one (aside from Jameer Nelson's absence) is that the school of thought that produced those kinds of pronouncements underwent a curriculum change when Hedo Turkoglu's ankle crumpled Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J., on the same night that Brook Lopez was outplaying Howard. This came one night after David Lee of the Knicks outplayed Howard, and the Magic's dreams of the No. 2 seed began to die a quick death.
Anyone want to buy into the premise that the Cavs might have their hands full if they meet up with the Chicago Bulls in the first round? That's about the only pre-weekend thought that endures even a little.
"The teams at the bottom, that's where you have to look who's surging," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "Chicago is playing really well, and if that's who you have to face, so be it."
The identities of the teams in three of the four playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference are still not known, nor has it been determined yet (that'll come Wednesday) whether the Cavs will match the 1985-86 Celtics for the best home record in NBA history (40-1), nor whether they'll earn home-court advantage over everyone through the NBA Finals (they need one more victory of their own, or one loss by the Lakers).
So there still remain quite a few unknowns, which brings us back to where we started this column -- with the query of what types of questions Brown still has about his team.
"I was concerned about out interior defense for a while, but I think it's better," Brown said. "Our transition defense wasn't good for a stretch, but it's better. Our ball reversals, even if we come down and play random offense, we have to continue to get ball reversals, we have to make sure we try to get easies, but they don't come along much in playoffs. The guards have to run out ahead so we can get throw-aheads, and then just competing -- competing for the loose balls that are going to be 50-50 in the playoffs. So, yeah, all the little things."
And then we have the Celtics, whose little issues have grown into big ones as the months have passed. Weren't some asking if they had peaked too early when they went into their Christmas game against the Lakers with a 27-2 record? Turns out that was a legit question at the time.
And what about that sore knee of Garnett's? You know, the one he hurt right after the All-Star break to begin what has now become a nine-week-long pain that shows no sign of fully healing. Anyone who was wondering back in late February whether that injury would be a lingering concern, well, let's just say you have your answer.
Then there are the tangential questions, like how the Celtics' mojo is doing, how their chemistry is evolving, how their bench matches up against Cleveland's -- they're all important, too, and there was nothing Sunday to indicate anything other than the notion that the Celtics are in a fade, the Cavs are continuing to rise, and prospects of Cleveland having an undefeated run through the conference portion of the playoffs (the Lakers were the last to do it, in 2000-01) is not all that far-fetched.
Then again, great athletes have the ability to come back (anyone who switched the channel from this blowout to the dual charge of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the Masters knows what we're talking about), plus the course knowledge to know that one lost Easter afternoon does not define a month, a season or even a week -- unless that team lets that one particular loss suck the life out of them, which is exactly the kind of thing Boston must fight against.
"They played great, give them the credit, they attacked us early and we didn't have great focus," Rivers said. "The thing that's upsetting to me is it's a trend now for four or five games; the first quarter we're getting smashed and the second unit bails us out. Well, against a team like the Cavs, on the road, that ain't going to happen. But we'll be all right."
In Rivers' defense, the Celtics had nothing to play for, having locked up the No. 2 seed by virtue of Orlando's loss the previous night in New Jersey, along with having no chance to catch Cleveland atop the conference -- nor a need to lock up home-court advantage for the NBA Finals if anyone but the Lakers emerges from the West.
It was a nothing game, really, as are the Celtics' next two, and Rivers said he was struggling with the thought of whether to rest his regulars against Philadelphia on Monday (he acknowledged it would be somewhat of an indignity to the sport) before judging how Garnett looks in the season finale Wednesday, then preparing for whatever awaits them in the first round.
And the Cavs? Boston can forget about them for now, leaving them to be reason for concern sometime around Memorial Day weekend -- if the Celtics can stay alive that long.
After seeing them Sunday, that is far from a sure thing.
"We played awful today, but you know, it'd be nice to come back here. As bad as things have been, we can look at no other place we'd rather be in the playoffs, because that would mean we're in the Eastern Conference Finals," Rivers said. "So as far as we're concerned, we want to come back to Cleveland. That's what we're looking at."
First, though, they have to stop looking like the fat and happy champs they seem to have become, and start looking more and more like the hungry, happy fellows in wine and gold who are showing all the signs that they -- not the Celtics -- will set the standard of excellence by the time the Eastern playoffs are finished.
No question about that. Not after seeing Boston massacred like this.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.
How many times have you heard it?
That's why they play the games.
A similar sentiment applies to year-award ballots.
This past weekend is why the league lets voters wait until the day after the season ends to turn in their votes.
Standard operating procedure at Stein Line HQ dictates that the final Friday of the regular season -- in the season's final around-the-league spin in the Weekend Dime -- is when we reveal our choices in the six races for which the league office kindly sends us a ballot. I don't remember many (if any) instances when we felt the need to make revisions based on what happens in the five days' worth of games after our selections are published, but the ever-crowded NBA Coach of the Year race has indeed been thrown into some 11th-hour chaos.
We're happily committed to our choices for MVP (LeBron James), Rookie of the Year (Derrick Rose), Sixth Man (Jason Terry), Most Improved (Devin Harris) and Defensive Player of the Year (Dwight Howard). Yet we feel compelled to re-examine our COY computations after the Stein Line pick -- Orlando's Stan Van Gundy -- saw his team lose at home Friday night to the nothing-to-play-for Knicks, effectively ending the Magic's bid to finish second in the East ... even though Kevin Garnett has missed 20 of Boston's last 24 games.
Portland's Nate McMillan, meanwhile, is making a more convincing late charge than even Blazermaniacs could have hoped for, with Friday's home victory over the Lakers making it eight straight home wins over L.A. The Blazers are suddenly a rousing 8-1 since an OT loss at home to Philadelphia on March 23, giving folks who actually like suspense in the playoffs some much-needed hope that there just might be one team in the West that can give the Lakers a series.
Van Gundy might still wind up as our COY choice when we wake up Thursday morning, but the way Orlando and Portland are finishing the season has forced us to put all the worthy names back on the board. What if the Blazers, in spite of all their inexperience, finish with a No. 3 seed out West? What would it do for George Karl's case if Denver holds off Portland? Or Rick Adelman's case in Houston if the Rockets can combine with the Nuggets and Blazers to keep San Antonio stuck down at No. 5?
In the interim, while we take all of our allotted time to make those rulings, here is our All-NBA ballot, which wasn't included in the Weekend Dime for space reasons:
STEIN LINE ALL-NBA BALLOT
Chris Paul (11 field goals, 17 assists) had a hand in 28 of the Hornets' 40 field goals in their victory over the Mavericks. Paul has either made or assisted on 51.3 percent of his team's field goals this season. Only two NBA players have ever had a higher percentage in one season: Tiny Archibald (53.5 percent for the 1972-73 Kings) and John Stockton (51.6 percent for the 1990-91 Jazz).
• The Cavaliers (65-15) may have set the tone for the upcoming Eastern Conference finals with a 107-76 romp over Boston. The 31-point margin of defeat for the Celtics (60-20) was the second-largest in NBA history for a team that had already won as many as 60 games that season. The Lakers finished the 1989-90 season with 63 wins and a 130-88 loss at Portland while resting Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Mychal Thompson.
Dwyane Wade, Heat: Even though he fell one point short of the franchise record for points in a single game, the guard put on a performance that will be talked about for years, scoring 55 on 19-for-30 shooting, including six 3-pointers.
Boston Celtics: Sure, the Cavaliers are a win away from tying the greatest home record for a season, but the defending champions were embarrassed, trailing 31-9 after one quarter on the way to a 31-point loss.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"It was just a bad call, period. I think at the end of the day, you've got to call the game the way it's supposed to be called. We fought ... and that's all we can do. It comes down to one last call, and it was in the refs' hands. That's how it goes sometimes."
-- Kings guard Bobby Jackson on the controversial game-winning 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left by the Spurs' Michael Finley
Victor Baldizon/Getty Images
When the MVP is announced in a few weeks, Dwyane Wade may not win it, but he gave the voters something to think about, scoring a career-high 55 points in Miami's win against the Knicks.
Currently 3rd: San Antonio Spurs (52-28)
Remaining Schedule: At Golden State, vs. Hornets
Currently 4th: Houston Rockets (52-28)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Hornets, at Dallas
Currently 5th: Portland Trail Blazers (52-28)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Thunder, vs. Nuggets
The Nuggets need only win one game to win their division. But if the Blazers, Rockets and Spurs win out, all four teams will be tied (the Blazers play their final game against the Nuggets). In that instance, both the Rockets and Denver would be division champs. Houston won the season series 3-1, so Houston would be the 2 seed and Denver would be the 3 seed. The Spurs would fall to fifth, having lost the season series to Portland 3-1.
The Spurs are currently in third because they possess a 9-6 record against the Southwest Division while Houston is only 8-6. But Houston closes the season with two division games. If both teams finish the year 10-6 against division opponents (as well as 36-16 against conference opponents), Houston will win the next tiebreaker, having won more games against Western Conference playoff opponents.
If the Rockets and the Spurs both go 1-1 over their last two, the key is which team the Spurs lose to: If the Spurs lose to New Orleans and both teams finish 53-38, the Rockets will still have the tiebreaker. If the Spurs lose to the Warriors but beat the Hornets, the Spurs will possess the better record against the division. (Remember, any Rockets loss from here on out is a division loss.)
If the Blazers finish with a better record than the Spurs and Rockets (and the Nuggets win the Northwest Division, as expected), they'll secure the 3-seed. But if they tie either, the highest they can finish is fourth. If the Spurs win the Southwest, they'll finish third despite having lost the season series against Portland (division winner is the first tiebreaker; head-to-head is second). If the Rockets lose the division but end up tied with Portland, Houston will still be the fourth seed, having won the season series 2-1.
To read more from Gordian, check out his TrueHoop Network blog, 48 Minutes of Hell.
As the regular season enters its final three days, the Western Conference playoff picture is anything but set, with seeds two through eight still in play. Though the race for seeds two through four and home-court advantage in the first round remains compelling, there is a drama developing at the bottom of the pack as three teams fight to stay out of the eighth and final seed and a first-round date with the powerhouse Lakers.
All three teams have exactly two games remaining, but the team at the top, New Orleans, has two tough road games against Houston and San Antonio remaining, while both Dallas and Utah have a somewhat easier pair of games left. Utah also owns tiebreakers against both teams above them, further complicating the picture. The teams in question:
Currently sixth seed: New Orleans Hornets(49-31)
Remaining schedule: At Rockets, at San Antonio
Wins tiebreaker vs. Dallas having won the season series 3-1
Loses tiebreaker vs. Utah having lost the season series 3-0
Currently seventh seed: Dallas Mavericks(48-32)
Remaining schedule: Minnesota, at Houston
Loses tiebreaker vs. Hornets having lost the season series 3-1
Loses tiebreaker vs. Utah by having a worse conference record (currently 32-18 to 27-23 with no way to make up the difference)
Currently eighth seed: Utah Jazz 47-33)
Remaining schedule: Clippers, at Lakers
Wins tiebreaker vs. Dallas by having a better conference record
Wins tiebreaker vs. New Orleans having won the season series 3-0.
Though the three teams only have two games left, the possible outcomes of those games combine to form 27 different final records for the three teams in question. In an effort to handicap the race, here's a fast and dirty breakdown of how each of those 27 scenarios treat each team:
The Hornets have a clear advantage, owning the tiebreaker over the Mavericks and a two-game lead over the Jazz. Out of those 27 possible combinations, only one ends with the Hornets in the eighth seed, and a mere four end with the Hornets holding the seventh seed. Really, all the Hornets have to do to avoid the Lakers is win one game -- or have the Jazz or Mavericks lose one.
The Mavericks, despite their one-game advantage over Utah, have to deal with the fact that they will lose the tiebreaker with either of their opponents. There are only three possible outcomes where they can take the sixth seed, 15 where they take the seventh, and nine where they fall to eighth. In the end, however, they can still control whether they avoid the dreaded date in Hollywood by simply winning as many games as the Jazz do this week.
The Jazz are in the unenviable position of not controlling their own fate. The only way they can gain ground is to have the Mavericks lose at least once, or the Hornets fail spectacularly. As a result, there are only two scenarios where they can take the sixth seed, eight scenarios where they can take the seventh seed, and 17 scenarios in which they remain an eighth seed.
One of the two best scenarios for the Jazz would be if all three teams ended with the exact same record of 49-33. Should that occur, the Hornets would win the tiebreaker over the Mavericks, the Jazz win the tiebreaker over the Hornets, and the seeding would end up with the Jazz in sixth, Hornets in seventh, and Mavericks in eighth. Based on the schedule, this outcome isn't even that far-fetched as the Hornets battle two tough teams fighting for seeding, the Mavericks could easily split games against the Timberwolves and Houston, and the Jazz may be able to take both games as the Clippers prepare to head home and the Lakers already have their seeding locked and may let the visitors steal one.
To read more from Schwan, check out his TrueHoop Network blog, Hornets247.com.