1. What are the Celtics' prospects if Kevin Garnett is unavailable for the playoffs?
Ian Thomsen: They were able to stave off Orlando for the No. 2 seed without Garnett, so at the very least they're still one of the top three teams in the East. At best, they can exploit the home-court advantage to win a second-round series against the Magic, who have no latter-round experience in the playoffs. But I don't see how they'll be able to win a game or two in Cleveland's building unless Garnett miraculously returns or the Cavaliers themselves are weakened by injuries over the month ahead.
Jack McCallum: Garnett is their spiritual leader, and not just because of his over-the-top primal screaming. Playoff series are always partly about defensive schemes, figuring out how to stop a big scorer, like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, over the course of five, six or seven games. Garnett keys the Celtics' schemes, and, without him, I don't think their defense is strong enough to get them to the conference finals. If he plays, I like them to beat the Magic and give the Cavs a test before going down.
Chris Mannix: I don't see how they can win a title. Garnett was many things to this team: quarterback of the defense, top low-post presence on offense and the loudest voice on the bench and in the locker room. Without him, Boston faces a first-round dogfight with a young, explosive Bulls team that has been one of the best in the NBA in the final month of the season. A team led by Paul Pierce and Ray Allen is still dangerous, but the things they lose without Garnett are just too much to overcome.
Steve Aschburner: I thought the Celtics were going to have trouble as it was in getting Garnett back into the flow and on a diet of regular minutes. Their most valuable intangible from last year -- that sense of urgency, laced with expectations -- no longer exists. Without him, the Celtics would be undermanned inside against Cleveland and Orlando in the East and they would miss his emotional jumper cables. If Boston reached the Finals, subtracting Garnett as the hated Lakers added Andrew Bynum to last June's mix would just about cinch things, since L.A. already is the better team.
Scott Howard-Cooper: That would mean moving from contender to long shot. Garnett is the star defender and an emotional leader, and that doesn't even get into the 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds. The Celtics can still beat the Bulls in the first round, but no Garnett means no real hopes for a repeat, or just getting to the Finals.
2. Who will win the NBA Finals?
Ian Thomsen: Lakers over Cavs. Given the injuries to San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and Boston's Garnett, it looks as if L.A. and Cleveland are set up for a Finals between the league's top two stars. Maybe Garnett can make it back to push the Celtics past Cleveland, but how often do you hear of a happy ending after an extended and murky injury like his? I'm not picking the Lakers in a blowout -- the Cavs definitely could beat them -- but L.A. has the advantage based on Bynum's return and the promise of three playoff series for him to be fully integrated before the Finals.
Jack McCallum: Lakers over Cavs. L.A. will toy with the West, going through Utah, Houston and San Antonio without much trouble. The Cavs, meanwhile, will have a slightly more difficult path. I can see the old-pro Pistons getting a game or two in the first series, and Wade leading the Heat to at least two wins in the second round, before the Cavs beat Orlando (assuming Garnett is out) in six in the Eastern finals. In the Finals, I see the Lakers over the Cavs in six. L.A. has the avenge-last-season motivation, the defense to stop LeBron in spots, the coaching experience and a guy named Kobe.
Chris Mannix: Lakers over Cavs.The return of Bynum and news that the Celtics could be without Garnett effectively locks in the matchup many have been expecting for months. Home-court advantage definitely helps the Cavs -- if you haven't been to Quicken Loans Arena recently, think Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium -- but I don't see 18,000-plus rabid fans derailing the Lakers this time around. The Lakers' only weakness is their vulnerability against teams that punch them in the mouth and bully them, but a healthy Boston was the only club really capable of doing that.
Steve Aschburner: Lakers over Cavs. The Lakers are more battle-tested as a unit and have a more wily big-stage coach. Then there's this: Kobe will take very, very personally his duel for supremacy with LeBron, and he'll have an easier time training his laser sight on one guy rather than, last year, Boston's three.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Lakers over Cavs. The path through the East figures to be a lot more interesting than what should be a smooth ride for L.A. in a conference with the wounded Spurs, the unproven Nuggets and Trail Blazers, the fast-fading Jazz and the undependable Rockets, Hornets and Mavericks. The Lakers are not only the best team, but they also won't have to face an opponent like the Magic (my preseason pick to win the East) or Celtics (if Garnett returns and is effective) before even reaching the Finals.
3. Do you see a potential sleeper team in either conference?
Ian Thomsen: Dallas and Houston are lower seeds that could win their opening series, based on the absence of Ginobili and the inexperience of Portland, respectively. But if Brandon Roy maintains command of Portland in his playoff debut, then the Blazers could put up a surprising fight in the second round because they've played well against the Lakers this season. Denver will have home-court advantage through the first two rounds while avoiding the Lakers, so maybe the Nuggets could be a "sleeper'' in winning a playoff series for the first time in 15 years. But the bottom line is that no team in either conference appears healthy, talented or committed enough to knock off L.A. or Cleveland.
Chris Mannix: The Blazers are shaping up as a dangerous opponent. After finishing 34-7 at home in the regular season, they get to host a first-round series against Houston. Also, they are the only team with two home victories this season against the Lakers, their potential second-round opponent. Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis said recently that Blazers coach Nate McMillan, an assistant with USA Basketball last summer, looks like he figured out a way to defend Kobe. That series could be interesting, but first Portland needs to beat Houston.
Jack McCallum: I'll choose fifth-seeded Miami as the sleeper team in the East -- do not use the word "upset" when the Heat beat No. 4 Atlanta in the first round -- and No. 7 New Orleans in the West. Why the Hornets? Well, six months ago I made them my preseason pick to win it all, so now is the time, fellas.
Steve Aschburner: I don't think any of the lower seeds are threats to win the title or shock a No. 1, even in the second round. But then, there's an evenness to Nos. 2-8 in the West that could stir up those results. For instance, if San Antonio is going to go down at some point this spring, Dallas is as likely to pull that off in the first round as Denver or New Orleans is in the second. In the East, I suppose a prolonged absence by Garnett could embolden Chicago, though I think the Celtics still will advance. Ditto Orlando, though Philadelphia might make the Magic labor some. But as far as the lowest seed most likely to reach Round 2, I like New Orleans, both for the opponent it's facing (Nuggets) and the talent level relative to its seeding.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I'm not sure a popular preseason choice to win the West can be considered a sleeper, but there's New Orleans in true sleeper position at No. 7. Despite a season that was disappointing on so many levels -- the standings, the awkward Tyson Chandler trade/non-trade, the looming threat of further salary cuts in the summer -- the Hornets still have a great point guard and a good defense. That's a combination capable of doing damage.
4. Who will emerge as the breakout star of the playoffs?
Ian Thomsen: If the Lakers win it all,Pau Gasol will be seen as a big-time star after being called soft during the Finals last year.
Jack McCallum: I'm assuming a "breakout" star should make it at least to the final four. I'll go with the Lakers' Trevor Ariza, with the caveat that he won't really be a star in the Kobe-LeBron-Dwyane sense. Most every championship series features some energy player who comes off the bench to give a team life -- remember last season when Eddie House and Leon Powe did so much for the Celtics -- and Ariza is the kind of battle-hungry and versatile player (8.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.67 steals) who will have a lot of casual fans saying, Hey, who's that guy?
Chris Mannix:Does Portland's Roy, a two-time All-Star, qualify? If he does, it's only because he plays for a team that is often overlooked. Roy is a dominant scorer with a first step you don't see coming. He's also a terrific fourth-quarter performer. All Roy has to do is play in the postseason the way he has performed in the regular season -- and help Portland win a series or two along the way -- to emerge as a national sensation.
Steve Aschburner:I could see a big man like Atlanta's Al Horford, Denver's Nene or Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge taking a big step up in status with strong play in one or maybe two rounds; we're always searching to fill the big-man void. If we're talking about someone who sticks around until the end, Ariza has the skills and would have the stage -- if he had some success chasing around LeBron -- to get into Bruce Bowen-Raja Bell territory as a defensive shadow.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Aldridge is far from an unknown. But he has never been an All-Star, has never been in the playoffs and is the second-best player on the small-market Trail Blazers, so this is the first step on an elevated platform for one of the league's promising young players. If Aldridge, a gifted offensive weapon, finally asserts himself on the boards, it will be a huge lift for Portland.
5. What series are you most looking forward to in the first round?
Ian Thomsen: Portland-Houston and Atlanta-Miami. The 4-5 series in both conferences will be intriguing. Can Wade outscore the Hawks? Will the young Blazers leapfrog the stronger, tougher Rockets? It will also be interesting to see if the Mavericks, who appeared irrelevant at times this season, can exploit Ginobili's absence to reach the NBA's final eight.
Jack McCallum: Portland-Houston. I want to see how the young Trail Blazers respond when Ron Artest and Co. get down and dirty. Also, Portland must get a reasonable effort against Yao Ming out of Greg Oden, who will be looking to redeem a disappointing regular season. But I like the Rockets in the series.
Chris Mannix: Boston-Chicago. Setting aside the Bulls' head-scratching loss to Toronto on Wednesday -- they could have earned the No. 6 seed with a victory -- Chicago has been playing well lately. Brad Miller has brought toughness to the frontcourt and John Salmons' scoring has eased the pain of Luol Deng's injury. The Bulls are still a young team at key positions (point guard, power forward), but if they can overcome the magnitude of the moment and steal a game in Boston this weekend, they could win this series.
Steve Aschburner: Denver vs. New Orleans. I like the matchup of point guards, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, for the way it breaks along experience, style and strength lines. Nuggets coach George Karl wears his emotions and desires on his sleeve, and both teams have front lines with lots to prove. There's a level of desperation, too, in both these teams that suggests a bloodier-than-usual atmosphere for a first-round series.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Portland-Houston. The Trail Blazers would be intriguing anyway because they're very promising and playing well, and the Rockets would be great drama anyway because it's Houston and it's the first round and, well, tick, tick, tick, tick. Put them together and there are nonstop storylines.