I’m gonna leave the Xs and Os and stats and in-depth analysis to the SLAM slate of experts covering each series. These are my umbrella thoughts on the East as we prepare to get things poppin’… (West preview coming later in the week)
BOSTON (1) vs. ATLANTA (8)
Most Compelling Storyline: This is where the book gets good, people. Of all the leaguewide storylines this season, the most consistently compelling has been the C’s resurgence buoyed by KG’s arrival. So now that we’ve spent the entire season marveling and obsessing and wondering about how this will end, the meat of the story-arch is upon us. A lot of teams have won 60-or-so games recently (’05 Suns, ’06 Pistons, ’07 Mavs) and none of them have any jewelery to show for it. And, despite all the Bostonian dominance, there’s still a level of intrigue that borders on skepticism with this squad. No one is picking them as runaway champs, even though their record (when given close inspection to both the quantity and quality of wins) would point to that direction. Unless the Hawks — a crumby playoff squad (word to Lang Whitaker) — give Boston trouble, we should all be looking for Boston to do one thing with these customers: sweep the Phillips Arena floor with Josh Childress’ ‘fro and get out the gate with some swag.
What Will Impact This Series: The fact that Boston is better than Atlanta in an “NCAA 1 seed vs. 16 seed” kind of way. There’s no need peering into this matchup, searching for some insightful edge or variable that could decide the outcome.
I’m Just Sayin’: Atlanta and Indiana should have a play-in game, similar to the scrubiest NCAA tourney squads. Except, the winner of the Hawks-Pacers play-in game should be playing for a spot in the WNBA Finals and give up their Eastern spot to the odd-squad-out in the West. The Hawks…in the playoffs…preposterous.
The Commish Pick: A C’s sweep.
DETROIT (2) vs. Philly (7)
Most Compelling Storyline: If we’re being honest, we can conclude that Detroit, in reality, has been the best squad in the East each of the past four seasons, right? But they always implode and underachieve at the most inopportune time, right? Neither Miami, nor Cleveland offered better or more experienced squads than Detroit in their Finals runs. But those two sqads did offer singular, transcendent talents (DWade and ‘Bron) that bish-slapped the Pistons Collective and kept them out of the Finals. After they snagged that ’04 trophy from the HOF Lakers, they were supposed to go on holding the torch for the concept of a team as a composite, right? So here’s what I’m looking at in ’08: If the Pistons lose in any other fashion besides to Boston in a Game 7, ECS epic, then they’re going down as the biggest underachievers of this decade. It’s that real. They remain the deepest, most talented and experienced squad in the East. Un-enthrall yourselves with Boston, for a moment, and recognize that, in reality, Detroit — just like in ’05, ’06 and ’07 — is the best team in the East. Whether or not that’ll translate to a trip to the Finals remains to be seen.
What Will Impact This Series: The Pistons like to navel-gaze and old habits die hard, which means Detroit will spend half of this series “getting ready” for the future-round wars. This should be a five-game series — max. But the Sixers are like a Destitute Man’s G-State Warriors, so they’ll give the Pistons problems and it’ll probably go longer.
I’m Just Sayin’: Does Mo Cheeks have “good hair” or is he rockin’ a perm.
The Commish Pick: The D in 6.
ORLANDO (3) vs. TORONTO (6)
Most Compelling Storyline: Remember my Franchise Player and Hater columns? They both included extensive Dwight Howard indictments. Well, this is where homeboy can show us something (OK, well, me). I’m talking about some serious, game-changing, impactful play from the manchild. To hear everyone tell it, Dwight is Moses Malone and Shaq — and not a Young Shaq or a Early Houston Years Mo’, he’s supposedly a full grown beast. (Some ESPN experts actually picked him ahead of Chris Paul as being the best player under-23, other than ‘Bron — which is so ignorant.) So, it’s show-n-prove time. This shine-time. He’s the supposed-Franchise Guy on the favored team. I want him to get his King Kong on and carry the Magic like the white girl in the posters. That’s right, I wanna see him pick up Arroyo, Hedo and the rest of the squad, beat on his chest and put-back-jam the Magic into the conference semis.
What Will Impact This Series: Not Bosh or the corny Raptor fans, that’s for sure. Softest superstar and fans in the league.
I’m Just Sayin’: You can’t win with all those Euros playing big minutes…not if Bosh is your pseudo-Franchise Guy. That’s not me being jingoistic. That’s me being factual and honest. This is not FIBA.
The Commish Pick: Orlando in 6.
CLEVELAND (4) vs. WASHINGTON (5)
Most Compelling Storyline: Was the LeBron Effect just a fluke? I remember kickin’ it with Khalid last Fall, rappin’ about the East. He called the Cavs appearance in the ’07 Finals “bullsh*t.” And who’d argue with that? Certainly not me. I still contend that they were the worse Finals squad in the modern era of the NBA. But the general consensus is that LeBron and a squad of schmoes could contend in the East, simply because of LeBron. In other words, every playoff game is a potential — maybe even probable — “Game 5” just waiting to happen. And it’s not just us scribes that echoe this sentiment. Even KG bestowed Contender status on the Cavs when he mentioned them along with Detroit and Boston as the three teams that were capable of winning the East. This is interesting because Cleveland features a far less talented, cohesive and experienced squad than the two real contenders. So we enter these playoffs and this series — one that features THE Eastern Darkhorse (the Wiz) — looking to solidify the notion that LeBron sports the broadest and most capable shoulders in the East (maybe league). My guess, though, is that homeboy and his squad are gonna get made for what they really are — D12 with Eminem.
What Will Impact This Series: Karma. I don’t believe in it, but I do believe in something more simple and less abstract; something like, “a squad can’t masquerade forever.” Cleveland has been prancing around like a light-heavyweight based on its BS run in ’07. This Wizards squad is the perfect team to show them what’s what. They have three legitimate All-Stars (Butler, Jamison, Arenas) and I’d even go so far as to predict that there will be one or two games when Holy Caron will be the best player on the court. The Wizards are deep, with Haywood playing very solid center, Blatche coming into his own and a number of perimeter wild cards (Mason, Stevenson, Young). And, the Wizards are motivated by a number of galvanizing emotions, like pride and vengence. This first round exit is what Cleveland deserves, after they made us suffer through last year’s Finals.
I’m Just Sayin’: Gil is not truly a superstar. I know we should commend him for coming back as a bench player, but there’s something odd about how he’s been marginalized in his return. There is no top tier player in the league, no matter how gimpy, that would still be riding the bench after eight games. This strikes me less as caution and more as a concession, like his comeback is welcomed but also conditional.
The Commish Pick: Wiz in 7.