Friday March 6th, 2009

With All-Star Kevin Garnett and his power-forward counterpart, Ben Wallace, both nursing injuries, Friday's game between the Celtics and Cavaliers in Boston won't have quite the luster of the previous two meetings this season. But that doesn't make it any less critical.

Cleveland (48-12) has a one-game lead over Boston (48-14) in the race for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The first tiebreaker if the teams finished with identical records is head-to-head results; the season series is 1-1 with the final matchup set for April 12 in Cleveland. In other words, these two remaining showdowns could determine the location of a potential Game 7 in the conference finals.

With that in mind, here are 10 burning questions to consider about this budding rivalry and the Eastern race.

1. Who needs home-court advantage more: Boston or Cleveland?

The Celtics don't figure to be as inept on the road as they were during the 2008 playoffs, but nobody in Boston relishes the possibility of having to play a Game 7 in the ear-splitting environment of Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs are 27-1 this season. Also, the Cavs have been the stronger road team in the clubs' recent meetings. As one Celtics insider put it, "When Cleveland plays in Boston, we win. When Boston plays in Cleveland, they win big." The Celtics need home court more.

2. Which team has the tougher schedule down the stretch?

Forget about evaluating a schedule based solely on winning percentages, because that takes away too many variables such as matchups, recent injuries and back-to-back situations. After Friday night, Cleveland has a tough road game against Phoenix (middle game in a three-game trip), two matchups with Orlando (one of which comes on the second night of a back-to-back) and a Sunday afternoon game against San Antonio. Boston also has two games left with Orlando, a road game at San Antonio and two meetings with pesky Atlanta, which always seems to get up to play the Celtics. Philadelphia could play a big role in deciding the No. 1 seed: The Sixers play the Cavs (twice) and Boston in three of the last five games of the season.

3. Why is the No. 1 seed so important?

Besides securing the home-court edge, the winner avoids a potential second-round matchup with Orlando (44-16), which has the league's fourth-best record. It's hard to know exactly what to make of the post-Jameer Nelson Magic -- his replacement at point guard, Rafer Alston, is just settling in after arriving at the trade deadline -- but one thing is certain: Neither Boston nor Cleveland wants to run the risk of facing the hot-shooting Magic so early in the postseason.

4. So why aren't we talking about Orlando fighting for the top seed?

Maybe we should. The Magic are only four games behind Cleveland with 22 to play, and they have those two matchups with both the Cavs and Celtics looming. Orlando could sneak back into contention, though it faces the difficult task of leapfrogging two teams.

5. What's the outlook for Garnett?

If the Celtics know when Garnett will be back from his knee strain, they sure are hiding it well.

"I actually don't know the answer to that [question]," coach Doc Rivers told reporters Wednesday. "He was on the treadmill yesterday. I thought he was walking, for the first time yesterday, without a different gait. Hell, I don't know what that means. It's got to be better than when I saw him the other day and he was limping. But he did look better."

Expect the Celtics to take the cautious route with KG. Rivers has been channeling his inner Gregg Popovich recently, telling reporters he is more concerned with getting the team 100 percent healthy than claiming the top seed. Boston is 4-2 since Garnett sustained the injury Feb. 19 in Utah.

6. What about the recent acquisitions? Who made out better between Boston and Cleveland?

It's a wash. The Celtics really wanted Joe Smith -- Rivers acknowledged as much this week -- but in Mikki Moore (and to a lesser degree, Stephon Marbury) they got a pretty good consolation prize. Though not in Smith's class as a defender, Moore is only two years removed from leading the NBA in field-goal percentage with the Nets. While in New Jersey, Moore, a capable mid-range shooter, excelled in playing off Jason Kidd's and Richard Jefferson's post-ups and running the pick-and-roll with Vince Carter. Moore should have similar offensive opportunities in Boston, with Paul Pierce and Garnett posting up and Ray Allen patrolling the perimeter.

As for Marbury, the concerns here are the potential (however slight) that he'll disrupt team chemistry, and the uncertainty of where he'll get his minutes. Come April, Eddie House is going to play. Tony Allen, once he returns from a thumb injury, is going to play; his defense will see to that. And in the playoffs, Rajon Rondo will play more than his regular-season average of 33.2 minutes, just as his court time increased during last season's championship run. So where does Marbury fit in?

7. Can Tony Allen really make that much of a difference?

Absolutely. Allen is maddening sometimes. He's a bona fide chucker who is no threat to score from the perimeter. But defense is his hallmark. At his best, Allen is a rugged defender who can match up with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson in the postseason. That's a nice option to have.

8. Um, you forgot about the Cavs. What about their roster move this week?

Smith was a solid pickup. He has the trust of LeBron (no small factor) and is as comfortable playing five minutes as he is 25. Smith will stabilize the frontcourt in the short term and give Cleveland one extra big man to send out at Garnett and Kendrick Perkins (not to mention Orlando's Dwight Howard) in the playoffs. Be patient, though, because Smith may need some time to get back into game shape. Since Jan. 12, he played just four games with Oklahoma City.

9. Who has the coaching edge?

Mike Brown has fewer challenges to deal with at the moment. Smith is already familiar with the offense, having played 27 games with the Cavs last season, and besides Wallace, the rotation is healthy. Brown also has two excellent assistant coaches in de facto offensive coordinator John Kuester and defensive guru Michael Malone. The Cavs really are a well-oiled machine.

Rivers has a strong coaching staff, too, highlighted by defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau. But Garnett's injury and the Marbury/Moore incorporation suggest Rivers will have a tougher job down the stretch and into the playoffs.

10. Boston vs. Cleveland in a seven-game series. Your pick would be ...

Cleveland. LeBron trumps Pierce in an epic rematch.

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