They were 44-11 before Garnett was injured in February and since then they've gone 18-9 with him playing in bits of four games (3-1). They are a proud team that held off the Magic for the No. 2 seed, and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen aren't going to allow them to lose in the first round to the young Bulls. Neither the Magic (without Jameer Nelson) nor Celtics can be expected to advance past Cleveland in the conference finals, and so the anticipated second-round meeting between Orlando and Boston will be a showdown unto itself of two future Hall of Famers stubbornly trying to hold on against Dwight Howard, who is hungry for the extended playoff experience that could eventually help him reach the NBA Finals. In short: The Celtics won't win another championship, but they're still relevant.
4. Andrew Bynum's return. The first-round matchup against slumping Utah will provide Bynum with 10 days of games and practices to consolidate his promising reunion with the Lakers, for whom he has averaged 17.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 26.8 minutes since returning for the final four games of the regular season. Not only does Bynum need to regain his timing, but Pau Gasol also must become reacquainted with the demands of starting at power forward while the rest of the newfound rotation shakes itself out.
There is no small urgency to Bynum's mission because the next round will deliver either the highly physical Rockets or the spry Blazers, who have won eight straight at home against L.A. The Lakers are going to reach the Finals, but why take chances? They don't want to feel insecure about Bynum's role and then have those fears exploited in the second round by Houston or Portland.
3. Are the Blazers too young? Or will youth provide them with the energy to ultimately give the Lakers a second-round fight? This is the most intriguing team of the playoffs, a mystery of young talent and potential that is being realized much more quickly than anticipated. I share the conservative view that the Rockets will be too physical for Portland -- but I also admit to never having believed these Blazers could win 54 games and home-court advantage in the West while Greg Oden struggled. That's what makes this the first-round series to watch. Can the young Blazers exert their will against a Rockets team that can't afford to lose another first-round playoff series?
2. Who is No. 2 in the West? It's wide open now that Manu Ginobili is gone. How much better would these playoffs be if the following players were at full strength: Nelson, Garnett, Ginobili and a hobbled Tim Duncan? Their injuries have hamstrung three of the top five contenders and decimated the early rounds.
The obvious answer to this question is the Nuggets, who as the No. 2 seed hold home court through the first two rounds on the easy side of the draw (the side that doesn't involve the Lakers). Denver hasn't won a series in ages, but Chauncey Billups has. It's all set up for the Nuggets to reach the conference finals, with the goal of peaking in time to give the Lakers a good scare.
1. The inevitable Kobe vs. LeBron Finals. These playoffs may be more predictable than ever, but the NBA may ultimately view that is a positive trend. The league can spend the next six weeks drumbeating the approach of a dream matchup between the game's biggest stars.
Grand Slam tennis tournaments can anticipate with confidence that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will meet in their championship final. Wouldn't the upcoming U.S. Open love to forecast a Sunday afternoon with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the final group? The NBA can look forward to the launch of a new rivalry with dreams that it will be this generation's version of Larry vs. Magic. Health permitting.
I asked an NBA advance scout for his view of these intriguing showdowns.
4. Chauncey Billups (Nuggets) vs. Chris Paul (Hornets). "Chauncey is going to have to keep him out of transition. Denver sometimes is better off when they're getting the ball up and down the floor, but in this series they'll need to mix the game up defensively with some trapping. I'm sure going to try to get the ball out of Paul's hands that way, by getting an extra defender on him. I don't think Chauncey can guard him one-on-one. With Paul's quickness, Chauncey will struggle trying to stay in front of Paul. So I expect some junk defense from Denver that will make Paul give the ball up and have somebody else beat them."
In order to win the series, Paul likely will have to dominate this matchup -- but Billups isn't going to let that happen.
"I don't think Denver can run those traps in transition," the scout said. "So Paul will have to control the tempo, because if he lets Denver get back and set up defensively, then Denver will be effective defensively. The next thing for Denver is to make sure the Hornets are taking the ball out of the net -- that helps Denver get back defensively."
Which is to say that Billups needn't worry about matching Paul basket-for-basket. As long as Billups is running the Nuggets offensive productively, they can keep Paul out of the open floor and nullify him with trapping defenses.
3. Brandon Roy (Blazers) vs. Shane Battier (Rockets). "You can throw Ron Artest in there, too. I'm sure both of them will have a shot at guarding Roy.
"Brandon Roy has a lot of help, and they've got a lot more weapons than him. He doesn't have to dominate the ball as much as, say, Paul does for New Orleans. Roy can pick his spots more ... but in the fourth quarter they do look to him to take big shots.
"The Rockets will be very physical with him, and those two guys having 12 fouls between them to use on Roy is going to make it a long day for him. Can Portland win without him having a big series? I guess the answer is that I don't look for them to win. Houston has toughness and size. If the Rockets get [Carl] Landry back to go with what they get from [Luis] Scola, I think they've got the edge up front. They're the deeper team with more experience."
2. Rajon Rondo (Celtics) vs. Derrick Rose (Bulls). "Rose is so very strong on his drives, but quickness-wise, Rondo can probably stay with him. It's going to be interesting to see how much of a bigger role Rondo's going to have to play without Garnett as far as leadership on the defensive end and in making sure they're executing to get shots for Ray Allen in catch-and-shoot situations. It was so easy to throw the ball to Garnett in the playoffs and run offense through him, and don't forget that Garnett makes a lot of jump shots at the end of the shot clock -- they're going to miss that. I don't think Big Baby [Glen Davis] can be counted on to do that yet. So it will be a very interesting time for Rondo, to see him with a little more weight on his shoulders."
1. Dwyane Wade (Heat) vs. Joe Johnson (Hawks). "I don't look at Johnson as a shutdown defender, but on the other side of it, I think Wade's going to have his hands full because of Johnson's size. Somebody's going to have to defend that guy, and it's probably going to have to be Wade, which means he's going to have to play big at both ends.
"Atlanta is such a Jekyll-and-Hyde type team. They can beat anybody and then just look miserable and stupid the next time out. But I think Atlanta can win this series. They've got more weapons -- even Flip Murray coming off the bench is a big option for them. I think [Al] Horford can stifle [Jermaine] O'Neal, and [Mike] Bibby can make a big difference if he's hitting shots. I look at Johnson being a consistent threat offensively, which is going to put even more pressure on Wade to get shots. With his size, Johnson will go down and post Wade up, and if Wade has to use fouls, then his time on the floor will be in question."
According to Denver coach George Karl and New Orleans GM Jeff Bower, the prevalence of three-point shooting has led to new frenzy scenarios that we'll see in the fourth quarters of tightly contested playoff games over the next two months.
3. On defending the three. "I've heard the question, 'Coach, why do you let them have the three at the end of the game?'" Karl said. His answer is that he tries to close down the three-point line, but that the priority is to defend inside. "We get sucked in, we get tricked into hitting a screen, and it's hard to teach [players to defend the three-point line] when 99 percent of the time you're protecting the basket and 1 percent of the time you're protecting the line," Karl said. It's hard to change."
2. On rebounding the three. These often turn into all-or-nothing rebounds. "The rebounds are coming out longer nowadays, out to the dotted circle, and that generally is a more contested area between big guards coming in and forwards stepping back," Bower said. "Those are the rebounds that are starting your transition game and getting out into the open floor."
It's true that three-pointers lead to long rebounds that can be turned into easy baskets at the other end. But what if the defense can't control the rebound?
"The longer the shot, the more it's a 50-50 rebound," Karl said. "The further it bounces out, the more it becomes a toss-up. What I find is if you have five guys intently rebounding the three -- you're not thinking about [maintaining floor] balance, you're not thinking about get back [on defense], it's just all five looking to rebound -- then it's close to a 50-50 rebound.''
1. On setting up for threes. This is why so many coaches like their chances at the three-point line: You can usually create an open shot, and you have a better chance of recovering the offensive rebound -- which, in turn, leads to a shot at another three.
"That scramble rebound when you rebound the three makes it easier to find another three," Karl said. "When you rebound the three, everybody's thinking rebound -- they're not thinking, 'Cover your man' -- so if you get the offensive rebound and you move it quick, you can find another open three."
When you see players chasing long caroms that lead to unpredictable threes, understand that it's all part of a larger strategy.
"If you rebound the three offensively at, say, 40 percent,'' Karl said, "it's by far the best shot in basketball."
2. All-Derrick Rose Team. These guys are playing for tomorrow:
C -- Greg Oden, Blazers ... An opportunity to show how much he's learned this season.F -- Josh Smith, Hawks ... Disciplined shot selection in the playoffs would continue to enhance his national profile coming off a career-best 49.2 percent from the field this season .F -- Thaddeus Young, 76ers ... Will his breakout 15.3 points translate to the postseason?G -- Ben Gordon, Bulls ... His scoring could put pressure on the Celtics while creating a national reputation.G -- Mario Chalmers, Heat ... MVP of last year's Final Four, the rookie can hasten his growth with a big playoffs.
1. All-Kobe Bryant Team. These guys are playing for today:
C -- Yao Ming, Rockets ... Desperate to win a playoff series.F -- Lamar Odom, Lakers ... Can quickly erase his disappointing role in last year's Finals by contributing to a championship. F -- Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets ... Could transform his reputation by leading Nuggets to conference finals.G -- Ray Allen, Celtics ... Coming off one of his best years at age 33, he's hungry to extend postseason with or without Garnett.G -- Andre Miller ... A free agent this summer, he'll be auditioning his leadership skills in first round against Orlando.
1. The Lakers will win the championship. Bryant didn't have enough help last year in the Finals. This time he'll have a fully integrated Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whose interior presence will create open shots for Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and others. Gasol has been playing with more confidence in his first full year with the Lakers, and the addition of Bynum in the middle makes things easier on everyone at both ends.
It isn't a no-brainer -- the Cavs tend to elevate their play in the postseason, which would be especially impressive coming off 66 wins -- but right now I like the Lakers.