Commentary

Team-by-team look at the East playoffs

What to like and what not to like about the eight teams still standing in the East

Originally Published: April 16, 2009
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Mo WilliamsDavid Liam Kyle/Getty ImagesThe playoffs are where Mo Williams can prove himself to the hoops world.
With first-round matchups firmed up at last after a wild final night of the regular season, we can start your playoff preparations with a team-by-team spin through the Eastern Conference field.

One man's likes and dislikes:


No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers

What I like: Beyond the obvious -- LeBron James, home-court advantage for the entire playoffs and a suffocating team defensive scheme -- Cleveland is teeming with depth, focus and chemistry.

How much more do you need?

Depth example: Sasha Pavlovic, who had a real role with this team when it went to the NBA Finals in 2007, is rarely seen these days.

Chemistry example: Those intricate routines we see during pregame introductions are not the latest example of a generation gone awry, as closed-minded purists would have you believe. They give us a glimpse into what might be the league's most together locker room.

As Bill Simmons noted in his MVP column, one of the underrated reasons LeBron is the runaway favorite to win his first MVP award is because there hasn't been a superstar this good at making everyone feel like part of the team since Magic Johnson.

What I don't like: We tend to forget, looking at Cleveland's 66-16 record and ridiculous 39-2 mark at home, that Mo Williams is the Cavs' second-best player.

And that Williams needed an injury or two to make the East All-Star team and has never been the No. 2 option for a title contender.

There will thus be skepticism about Williams and the rest of the Cavs' shooters around LeBron, as good as they've been all season, until we see how they shoot it in the last two rounds.

Ben Wallace's health is another concern, because Cleveland would definitely need him in a series against the Celtics or the Lakers. I'm also rather curious about what happens to the Cavs' supposed home-court invincibility if Cleveland drops a home game or two on the way to the Finals. One of the Cavs' biggest advantages in a hypothetical Finals showdown with the Lakers might not have the same ominous feel six weeks from now.


No. 8. Detroit Pistons

What I like: They probably don't deserve it after the consistent lack of spark we've seen from these Pistons -- most recently in a home loss Monday to Chicago that represented their last opportunity to move up from the No. 8 slot -- but these guys will not be overlooked by Cleveland just because they're suddenly a sub-.500 team after seven straight 50-win seasons.

Not with Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace on the other side.

Not with a crowd back in Auburn Hills that we're guessing, if it digs deep to find its A-game noise, can still make things uncomfortable for LeBron's Cavs.

Not when the Cavs look it up and discover that Detroit has road victories this season over the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Spurs and Nuggets.

Knowing the Pistons' old guard like we do, Tay, Rip and Sheed are sufficiently proud/stubborn to believe that they can steal one of the first two games in Cleveland. Even if no one else does.

What I don't like: This series is bound to get away from the Pistons real quick if they don't get one of the first two games on the road. Unless you believe Sheed when he says that, in a snap, Detroit's "swagger will come with the playoffs." I don't. The season-long media focus on the Allen Iverson circus has masked how disinterested Wallace looked throughout his own contract year. Which is troubling because the Pistons, as we've so often been told, go as Sheed goes.

So, with free agency looming and given that Wallace has played in only eight games since March 9 because of a hamstring problem, you have to ask: Does Sheed even want to spark these Pistons anymore?



No. 2. Boston Celtics

What I like: The only positive you can conjure up now is that the pressure is all the way off the defending champs. They came into this season with the goal of doing what the Larry Bird Celtics were never able to do -- win back-to-back titles -- but just getting back to the East finals would be a serious achievement if we've seen the last of Kevin Garnett for 2008-09.

Boston's level of self-belief leads the league. It's a swagger that might have even jumped a notch or two after the Celtics managed to pass Orlando for the East's No. 2 seed even with KG missing 22 of the last 26 regular-season games. Yet even the Celtics' confidence has limits.

The proper course for the Celts is shelving KG for the remainder of the season, no matter how loudly he protests, since they've won a championship already and since they have three more years to go on Garnett's reworked contract. They need to get him as close to fully healthy as possible, if that's possible, with nearly $57 million left to pay him starting next season.

What I don't like: Garnett's unavailability makes them prone to a first-round upset, given that they're suddenly facing Chicago instead of a Philly team that Boston mentally crushed Tuesday night by beating the Sixers without Garnett or the suspended Ray Allen. And Leon Powe (knee), don't forget, is dinged up as well.

And even if KG's knee would have proved sturdier than panic-stricken Bostonians expect, three of the biggest weapons that helped the Celtics outlast Cleveland in their second-round showdown in 2008 are long gone:

1. P.J. Brown's length and savvy off the bench.

2. James Posey's presence on the bench as the natural counter defensively to Cleveland going small with LeBron James at power forward.

3. The priceless privilege of home-court advantage.

Without Brown, Posey and a full-strength Powe, Boston's bench might be shakier than Garnett's knee ... although I remain gullible enough to believe that Stephon Marbury is going to win a game for the Celts somewhere along the way.


No. 7 Chicago Bulls

What I like: I never understood what moved Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to brand this season as a "disaster" with Chicago at 19-27. What was he expecting with a rookie coach and a rookie point guard?

However ...

You also have to acknowledge that Reinsdorf did sanction the mid-February trade with contract-dumping Sacramento for Brad Miller and John Salmons, which probably saved this maiden season in the Windy City for Derrick Rose and Vinny Del Negro, largely because the trade meant the Bulls had Salmons to plug in for the injured Luol Deng.

What I don't like: I am sure the Bulls are trying to convince themselves that it's better to play Boston than Orlando in the first round because of KG's situation. I was not prepared to partake until the news broke Thursday morning that Garnett might miss the entire postseason, likely ruling him out for the first round.

After a monthlong rush to get into the playoffs -- Chicago was still eight games under .500 on March 13 -- losing at home to Toronto in Wednesday night's deflating season finale was an undeniable downer, especially since the Bulls had just won in Detroit two nights earlier after living off their United Center success all season. We'll find out quickly whether Garnett's absence gives them a shot to win this series, although it should be noted that the Celts have proved adept at beating teams of the Bulls' caliber without Garnett.

The Bulls should have the edge in athleticism if they can continue to depend on Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, but now Rose gets a matchup with Rajon Rondo in his first playoff series. And this is a series in which the Bulls will miss Deng, even if Salmons continues to score in his place, because Deng has always been their best option for checking Paul Pierce.



No. 3 Orlando Magic

What I like: The Magic avoided Detroit in the first round.

And that's no small trick, given how shaky Orlando has looked since throttling Cleveland and winning in Atlanta on April 3-4. After those big wins, Orlando blew its shot to clinch home-court advantage for its presumed second-round encounter with Boston -- when the Celtics were without Garnett -- by losing at home to New York and away to New Jersey one week later.

Then the Magic somehow managed to avoid Chicago as well, when the Sixers and the Bulls unexpectedly swapped playoff spots late Wednesday night, giving Dwight Howard some real comfort. Now he won't be seeing Sheed or Antonio McDyess or even Chicago's Brad Miller. Howard gets Samuel Dalembert, which is just one of the reasons Orlando should proceed to Round 2 with little obstruction.

What I don't like: Even after running through all the breaks they just snagged, I still can't like the way the Magic finished what for so long ranked as an extraordinary regular season.

So ...

There is bound to be fretting in Central Florida, even after the latest KG news, about the home-court advantage squandered in a potential Boston series, Rashard Lewis' sore knee, Hedo Turkoglu's twisted ankle and the heavy responsibility that will be shouldered by the up-and-down Rafer Alston in place of the injured Jameer Nelson.

And I would anticipate a heavy focus from here, fair or not and no matter how easily Philly is dispatched, on how Stan Van Gundy rallies the Magic from their late-season fade, courtesy of the bull's-eye affixed to Van Gundy by Shaquille O'Neal's loud rip job of his former coach in March.

As one veteran Eastern Conference scout cracks when asked to explain why the Magic failed take advantage of KG's absence to claim the No. 2 seed: "Their coach panics, man. Don't you read the Internet?"

It's a perception, fair or not, that Van Gundy's Magic can wipe away only by getting past the Celtics. Especially now if Garnett misses that whole series, too.


No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers

What I like: I love seeing the Sixers back in their old '80s uniforms, taking me back to my early teens every time they're on the TV.

What I don't like: Everything else.

I certainly couldn't like a matchup with Boston for the Sixers -- no matter how vulnerable the Celtics allegedly are with Garnett sidelined -- if Philly couldn't beat the champs with no KG and no Allen on the same night Thaddeus Young returned to the lineup.

Yet I can't say drawing Orlando works out any better.

The Magic obviously have a massive edge inside with Howard, who is unlikely to be led into foul trouble by the Sixers' offensively challenged big men. Orlando will also undoubtedly rain 3s on the Sixers, making Philly's lack of perimeter firepower even more glaring than normal.

There is only so much that the two Andres -- Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala -- will be able to do unless the Magic forget how to shoot.



No. 4 Atlanta Hawks

What I like: This isn't so much a Hawks thing as a series thing, because the matchup is, well, likable.

It's a series that the Hawks have a great chance to win -- which is always good for a franchise that last tasted the second round in 1999 -- after last spring's first-round baptism against Boston. Yet it's also a series that some of us know-it-alls will claim Dwyane Wade can win by himself, in spite of Atlanta's experience edge.

The Hawks have a healthy swagger at home, some recent defensive success against Miami's MVP candidate and a fast-improving big man in Al Horford. And if the prospect of watching D-Wade can pull in the locals anything like the presence of the Boston Celtics last spring, Philips Arena will be louder and fuller than you think.

As a bonus, Atlanta's perennially underrated Joe Johnson gets a fantastic opportunity to snag some spotlight for himself, thanks to all of the cameras pulled in by the big star.

What I don't like: The Hawks' margin for error might not be much wider than Miami's.

Not when Marvin Williams -- one of the eight players Mike Woodson is likely to rely on and one of the most important members of their D-Wade defensive cavalry -- is just returning from a back problem.

One Hawks expert I know insists that the mere presence of Josh Smith and Horford at the heart of the Hawks' constantly switching defense is enough to mess with Wade's finishing at the rim, thus forcing him into more jumpers than he wants to shoot.

We'll see.


No. 5 Miami Heat

What I like: Getting to the No. 5 spot was crucial. All of us media guys are grateful.

None of us would have the license to even toss out the idea that D-Wade could swing a series on his own if Miami had to face one of the top three teams.

Neither of these teams can have realistic aspirations beyond the second round. That's clear. But if you've enjoyed D-Wade's work this season, Heat-Hawks is the matchup you wanted.

What I don't like: I'm not worried about Wade. Not even when you remind me about how much trouble the Hawks have given him.

He has a history of getting to the free throw line, in case you've forgotten, and he's been finding ways to score all season when defenses haven't had to worry about too many other Heaters on most nights.

It's everybody else. The Heat need someone to emerge as a reliable second scorer, composure from the rookies (Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers) and a consistent presence inside from Jermaine O'Neal and Udonis Haslem. The pressure on Chalmers will be especially thick, going up against a playoff savant like Mike Bibby.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics