After last Thursday's heavyweight tilt between the Cavaliers and Lakers, the LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals hype is in full swing. Nike is manufacturing puppets, Shaq is testing out one-liners for Los Angeles and the world is bracing for the series that will ultimately determine the best player in basketball.
Not so fast, though.
While the Lakers are widely considered the class of the Western Conference, the Cavaliers are in for a dogfight in the East playoffs. Atlanta plays tough against them, and Orlando is largely the same team (sub in Vince Carter and a healthy Jameer Nelson in, sub out Hedo Turkoglu) that bounced the Cavs from the conference finals last year.
But if you ask NBA scouts, Cleveland's path to the Finals will be blocked by one long obstacle: Kevin Garnett.
"If KG is healthy, Boston is a better team than Cleveland, period," a West scout said. "That defense is light years better when he is in the lineup."
The Celtics and Cavaliers haven't seen each other since opening night, when a stifling Boston defense limited the Cavaliers to 89 points on 41.4 percent shooting. Garnett didn't defend LeBron much that night but he did, an East scout said, "coordinate the attack against him."
"Boston can score with Cleveland without Kevin," the East scout said. "And [Kendrick] Perkins is a very good interior defender. But KG is the guy who moves the pieces around out there. When he's in the game, Boston is rarely out of position. And you need to play smart defense when LeBron is in the game or he will carve you up."
(All stats and records are through Jan. 24.)
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