Writer roundtable: How will things shake out in the East?
Our NBA analysts tackle five questions facing KG, LeBron and the Eastern Conference.
So to avoid charges of West Coast bias, let's take a closer look at how things are shaping up in the Eastern Conference with just six weeks to go in the regular season.
1. What did Wednesday's game between Detroit and Boston tell you about the battle for East supremacy?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: I don't think it tells us all that much. Before, during and after this game we knew Boston was extremely likely to finish the season with the best record in the entire league. We knew they would be confident against any opponent. We knew they would perform at a high level.
What we still don't know is who would win a playoff series between Boston and Detroit, or Boston and Cleveland. Watching that will be the fun part.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Kevin Garnett can take over a game offensively. For a player with his credentials, he doesn't always dominate in that way.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: I don't want to make too much of a regular-season game, but I saw nothing to change my view that Boston is better than Detroit. For Detroit to have a chance versus Boston, Rasheed Wallace is going to have to play more offensively on the block.
I also saw that Rajon Rondo has the guts and confidence to take on the challenge of facing Chauncey Billups. While Rondo won't win that battle, his willingness to aggressively partake is huge for Boston.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I don't like to put too much weight on any one regular-season game. But between the hype, the crowd and the Pistons' melting down after a fourth-quarter technical, it felt just like June, didn't it?
Biggest impact is that home court is now settled in Boston's favor -- it will be tough for Detroit, or anyone else, to steal a win there this spring.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Read today's Daily Dime, and you'll see that I said it as declaratively as possible: The Celtics are better than the Pistons.
Detroit's lack of hunger has been its Achilles' heel for a couple years now, and I see no hunger pangs from it now.
The Celtics? They're only getting better, not just getting older like Detroit.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The Celtics were at home and the Pistons, unlike Boston, had played the night before. So you could say that they simply did what they were supposed to do in a game we won't even remember come May.
But I'm not saying that. All of the above also means Boston had a lot more to lose. Kudos, then, to the Celts for closing Detroit out pretty comfortably in what has to rank as the biggest game this group has played so far ... and clinching a playoff berth with a ridiculous 23 games to go.
2. Does Boston or Detroit have more to fear from Cleveland?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Detroit, it seems to me, wins when it plays well.
But sometimes, for whatever reason, the team seems to act a little bit "cool." The Pistons get a little impressed with themselves and their stature, and end up blowing a big defensive assignment or something.
The Pistons certainly can beat Cleveland, and could have last year. Boston, on the other hand -- I boldly predict -- will lose if it faces Cleveland.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Boston should be more afraid of Cleveland.
If you break down the scoring point for point, LeBron can get 40-50 himself and basically match Boston's Big Three on his own. Then you toss in some buckets by Wally Szczerbiak and a couple of 3s by Daniel Gibson and some big shots by Joe Smith, and they've got point production. On defense, they can throw Ben Wallace at KG. If the Cavs turn a game into a toss-up, it's LeBron's to take over.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: It should worry both, but Detroit more.
The Cavs clearly present matchup problems for Detroit. We've seen that the past two postseasons. And whatever mojo Cleveland has over Detroit will only increase now that former Bad Boy II ringleader Ben Wallace is a Cav. Detroit always thought Cleveland was soft, but with Big Ben aboard, the Pistons can't say that anymore.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Gotta be Detroit, because the past two years have proven that the Cavs match up very well against the Pistons and have little to fear against them, and because LeBron has been better than ever this season.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Tough question. A rematch with the Cavs might be the only thing that truly gets the Pistons fired up in the postseason, so I think the Cavs should fear them more than the other way around.
The Celtics are so good defensively that if they trust their coaches' schemes, they should have nothing to fear from LBJ and the Cavs.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: It's the same nightmare scenario for both. The Cavs are already in the Pistons' heads and I'm quite sure Boston is rooting hard for Cleveland to pass Orlando in the East standings, wanting no part of trying to contain LeBron in Round 2 having already struggled to do so in the teams' regular-season encounters.
It's hard to picture the Cavs beating both of those teams to get to the Finals, but you can be sure that whoever gets Cleveland in the second round will be bummed about it.
3. Besides the Cavs, which dark horse team is most likely to make a surprise run to the NBA Finals?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Orlando has the big man and the coach for the job. And it's easy to picture Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis having huge series. But it's tough to bet on a team with an uncertain point guard situation.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Why not the Magic? If their 3-pointers are dropping and Dwight Howard is dominating inside, they're a good team. Turkoglu is a tough matchup, too, because he can shoot outside and take defenders off the dribble.
Orlando was the first team to beat Boston. It's 2-1 against the Celtics and 2-1 against the Pistons. People limit the Eastern Conference discussion to three teams, but don't forget the Magic have a better record than the Cavaliers.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: I fully believe that Boston, Cleveland or Detroit will rep the East.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I don't think anyone is particularly likely in the East, but if forced to choose I still have to go with the Raptors. If Bosh and T.J. Ford are both healthy they're the best offensive team in the conference.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: For lack of a better candidate, I'll go with the Toronto Raptors.
I could see them upsetting Cleveland in the first round if the Cavs can't defend their point guards (remember what Tony Parker did to them in the Finals? Calderon and Ford could do something similar) and if Bosh gets to go one-on-one against Mr. Disinterest, Ben Wallace.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The instructions from our bosses were explicit: Don't answer "none." But I can't help it. I simply cannot even pretend to believe in any scenario in which Boston, Detroit or Cleveland doesn't wind up as the East champ. Sorry.
4. Who will represent the East, and will they bring home the trophy?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Against long odds, my best guess is that it will be much like last year, when the Cavs surprise everyone to squeak into the NBA Finals, and when they get there they lose badly to a titan of the West.
(For the NBA's sake, I hope it's not the same titan as last year.)
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Pistons are the team that's best equipped to both win the East and bring home the Larry O'Brien trophy. We keep hearing the team stat that matters the most is scoring differential, and Detroit's second in that category at almost eight points per game.
The Celtics are the leaders, but have less playoff history together than the Pistons. Give Detroit the edge in the East based on experience, and I still believe its defense can slow down whoever comes out of the West. Then they're the best in the league at exploiting favorable matchups on offense.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: I've said Boston all along, and I'm sticking with the C's.
And yes, they will get the ring.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: I'll go with Boston.
I still think it will come down to a six or seven-game grind between it and Detroit, but the Celtics look a little sharper right now and the pickup of Sam Cassell addresses one of their few concerns (backup point guard).
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: The Celtics will represent the East after knocking off the Pistons in six in the East finals, but they won't be able to get past the Spurs, whose experience will make all the difference in June.
Like Cleveland last year, Boston will be a little too happy just to be there.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I'm sticking with the fast-meshing, deeper-than-forecasted Celts to take the East (and then fall to the West winners). Love the Cassell and P.J. Brown signings, especially Sam I Am and the proven lift we know he gives KG.
But I'm also sticking with Boston because I'll always try to uphold my preseason picks. (Or else why make 'em?) It's impossible in the West because trades changed the landscape so drastically, but there's no need to second-guess my East pick from October given what the Celts have shown us to date.
5. Who are the three most important people in the East so far this season?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: LeBron James, LeBron James and LeBron James.
I have not always been a huge fan, I am aware of his ongoing shortcomings (particularly in the post), and I see no need to hype the guy.
But if he's healthy, rested and motivated, I honestly do not know what you're supposed to do to stop him. Unless that riddle is solved, nothing else in the East will much matter.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com:
1. The folks who ran the lottery machine: If the Celtics had landed one of the first two picks in the draft, they would be building their future around Greg Oden or Kevin Durant and would not be factors this season. Getting the fifth pick changed their entire outlook last summer.
2. Kevin Garnett: Once he arrived in Boston they started thinking about a championship immediately. He transformed the defensive mentality of the team, and holds everyone accountable for max effort every night.
3. LeBron James: If not for him, we wouldn't even be talking about Cleveland. With him on the scene, you have to give them a shot at winning the East ... unless you're pretending that last year's playoffs never happened.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag:
1. LeBron James: Does this even need an explanation? He's the most outstanding player in the league.
2. Kevin Garnett: He has become the backbone of the revitalized Celtics. While he's not their go-to guy, he's their inspirational leader.
3. Joe Dumars: The architect of the conference's most dominant team over the past five years. What changes will he make when the Pistons fail to reach the Finals this year?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com:
1. LeBron James: The best player in the league, the rightful MVP, and the reason you won't be able to take your eyes off the Cavs in the playoffs ... even if you'd rather not watch most of his teammates.
2. Rasheed Wallace: A walking time bomb, yes, but the one guy on the Pistons who can potentially neutralize Kevin Garnett. And for that reason, the key to a Celtics-Pistons conference finals matchup.
3. Doc Rivers: His willingness to set his ego aside and let assistant Tom Thibodeau scream the entire game has helped make Boston's defense the league's best; next test is his ability to slot new pickups Cassell and Brown into an already effective rotation.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com:
1. Kevin Garnett. He's intense, he's a great leader, he's still at the height of his career and he's had the Celtics atop the overall league standings since day one. Right now, he's my MVP.
2. Dwight Howard. It's easy to overlook Orlando's 40 victories and dismiss the team as a paper tiger, but it isn't. And the main reason is Superman, whom no one in the Eastern Conference can contain. If he ever could shoot FTs at an 80 percent clip, he'd win an MVP award or two.
3. LeBron James. The King keeps getting better and does something breathtaking every single night. How many players can you say that about? A big question for me: Which does he crave more, an NBA title or an Olympic gold medal?
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I'm going to cheat and give you four:
1. The Two Kevins: Kevin Garnett for his role in resurrecting the Celts and Kevin McHale for putting KG on Danny Ainge's doorstep.
2. Joe Dumars in Detroit for having the smarts and patience to react to last season's meltdown in the Cleveland series with the calm that kept a dangerous group together and then making it a younger and deeper group with some nice tweaks.
3. LeBron for giving us an epic MVP duel with Kobe and making two 60-win teams dread seeing him in the playoffs.
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