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Posted: Thursday April 17, 2008 11:09AM; Updated: Thursday April 17, 2008 7:03PM
Marty Burns Marty Burns >

First impressions: Analyzing the East's opening-round series

Story Highlights
  • The Celtics and Pistons should roll through the first round
  • The Wizards and Cavs meet for the third straight year
  • Toronto will be a tough challenge for No. 3 Orlando
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(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks
Regular-season series: Celtics won 3-0
Boston Celtics
1st in Atlantic

Kevin Garnett

The Skinny: The Celtics have been the NBA's big story this season, recording the greatest turnaround in history (41 more wins than in 2006-07) while steamrolling their way to the best record in the league. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen lead the way, but they get plenty of help from a capable and deep supporting cast. Garnett anchors a Boston defense that led the league in opponents' field-goal percentage (41.9) and ranked second in points allowed (90.2). Under KG's leadership the Celtics have stayed focused all season, so a letup here is unlikely. Atlanta snapped an NBA-long eight-year playoff drought, but its record is the worst in the postseason since the '04 Celtics (36-46). The Hawks have some talent in Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and rookie Al Horford, but their offense is predictable and their bench thin. They probably will be happy just to make the playoffs.

Key Matchup: Ray Allen vs. Joe Johnson. This matchup of two All-Star shooting guards won't decide the outcome, but it will be fun to watch. Allen is one of the game's all-time sweet shooters, capable of getting hot and reeling off a slew of buckets. Johnson (right) has played extremely well down the stretch (23.2 ppg, 47.5 FG% after the All-Star break) but has a tendency to try to go one-on-one too much. He will need to keep the ball moving against the Celtics' stifling team defense.

X-Factor for Celtics: Rajon Rondo. Rondo has answered the critics all season, but the second-year point guard will be getting his first taste of the playoffs. Against the veteran Bibby, he can't try to do too much or let the pressure get to him.

X-Factor for Hawks: Al Horford. The rookie center from Florida has been solid all season, averaging a near double-double while holding the middle defensively. Horford must play aggressively without getting in foul trouble against Garnett (left) and Co. because Atlanta lacks depth behind him.

The Pick: Celtics in four.

Atlanta Hawks
3rd in S'east

Joe Johnson
(2) Detroit Pistons vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers
Regular-season series: Tied 2-2
11/23: Pistons 83-78  1/23: Pistons 86-78  3/12: 76ers 83-82  4/9: Sixers 101-94
Detroit Pistons
1st in Central

Chauncey Billups

The Skinny: The Pistons quietly racked up the second-best record in the league while being largely overshadowed by the Celtics' rise in the East. With an experienced core of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, Detroit boasts one of the best starting units. While that same Pistons core lost to the Cavs in last year's East finals, the emergence of Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey and the rest of their bench (a.k.a. the Zoo Crew) has made them a more complete team in 2007-08. The Sixers are perhaps the NBA's biggest surprise. Picked by many to finish at the bottom of the East, they blossomed just before the All-Star break (22-12 since Feb. 5, including wins over the Celtics, Spurs, Suns, Mavs and Magic, and two over the Pistons). Led by Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala, the Sixers defend, rebound and get out on the break well. But Philadelphia has no low-post game, and it ranked last in three-point shooting. As long as Detroit takes care of the ball and gets back on transition defense, the Sixers won't be able to score enough to pull off the upset.

Key Matchup: Chauncey Billups vs. Andre Miller. Two of the East's best and most experienced point guards go head-to-head. Miller was one of the NBA's most underrated players this season, racking up 17.0 points and 6.9 assists while playing solid defense. The 6-2 veteran, in his ninth season, runs a great fast break, makes excellent decisions and is lethal with the lob pass -- especially to Iguodala (right). Billups (left) had his usual outstanding campaign (17.0 points, 6.8 assists), orchestrating the Pistons' spread-the-wealth attack with uncommon efficiency.

X-Factor for Pistons: Overconfidence. Despite the 2-2 series tie (Detroit rested its starters more than usual in the final loss to Philadelphia), the Pistons are expected to breeze in this series. But Detroit has shown a disturbing tendency the past few seasons to play down to the competition.

X-Factor for 76ers: Louis Williams. The 6-2 guard, drafted out of a Georgia high school in 2005, has become a key spark plug with his ability to score in bunches and set up teammates. He had 12 points, five boards and seven assists in the win over Detroit on April 9. If Williams can get hot and provide that kind of boost off the bench, the Sixers might have a chance.

The Pick: Pistons in five.

Philadelphia 76ers
3rd in Atlantic

Andre Iguodala
(3) Orlando Magic vs. (6) Toronto Raptors
Regular-season series: Magic won 2-1
Orlando Magic
1st in S'east

Dwight Howard

The Skinny: It's a matchup of two similar teams seeking to make amends for disappointing first-round playoff showings a year ago. The Magic are vastly improved this season with Rashard Lewis and first-year coach Stan Van Gundy. A career year from Hedo Turkoglu and the sensational inside play of All-Star center Dwight Howard was enough for Orlando to record 50 wins for the first time since 1996, including an impressive 27-14 record on road. The Chris Bosh-led Raptors took a step backward after a 47-win season in 2006-07, losing 15-of-21 in March and early April. But the Raptors pose a serious threat to the Magic because they do a better job taking care of the ball and making their free throws. Also, Rasho Nesterovic has come on of late, giving Toronto another big body to slow Howard's power game. Both teams ranked in the top five in three-point percentage and finished in the top half of the league in points, so it should be a fun, high-scoring series.

Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Chris Bosh. These two All-Star big men are the centerpieces of their respective teams. Bosh (right) did not play in their last meeting, but the 6-10 forward had 40 points on 14-of-16 shooting to outduel Howard (37 points and 15 rebounds) in Toronto's victory in February. Afterward, Van Gundy said Bosh had "destroyed" Howard (left) and vowed to double-team him more next time.

X-Factor for Magic: Their point guards. Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo have their moments, but they are somewhat turnover-prone. Against Toronto's highly efficient pairing of T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, they must take care of the ball. They also are going to have to make plays, because Toronto figures to swarm Howard inside.

X-Factor for Raptors: Rasho Nesterovic. The 7-footer averaged 13.6 ppg/6.9 rpg in March and 16.3 ppg/6.6 rpg in April. His size inside should enable the Raptors to slow Howard, and when necessary put him on the foul line, where Howard shot just 59 percent in the regular season.

The Pick: Raptors in six.

Toronto Raptors
2nd in Atlantic

Chris Bosh
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Regular-season series: Tied 2-2
12/5: Wizards 105-86  1/23: Cavs 121-85  2/22: Cavs 90-89  3/13: Wizards 101-99
Cleveland Cavaliers
2nd in Central

LeBron James

The Skinny: It's the third straight first-round meeting for these Eastern rivals (the Cavs won the previous two), so emotions should be running high. Cleveland will rely on LeBron James to carry the load as usual, but the real key will be how much Cleveland's cast of big men (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao, Joe Smith) can take advantage of Washington's thin defensive interior. The Wizards counter with tremendous perimeter firepower, led by their Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Washington comes in hot, having gone 18-10 since Feb. 23, and believes it finally has the defensive mind-set to go deep in the postseason. The Cavs, meanwhile, seem to be out of sync after a disappointing season marked by injuries, holdouts and a blockbuster midseason trade. As great as LeBron is, he might not be enough this time against a Wizards club that seems to be peaking at the right time.

Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Caron Butler. Everybody knows what James can do, but Butler (right) is an All-Star in his own right who makes plays at both ends. His strength and defensive doggedness have given James (left) trouble in the past. He'll also get some help from DeShawn Stevenson, who boldly (or is it stupidly?) called James "overrated" after Washington's victory over the Cavs in March.

X-Factor for Cavs: Wally Szczerbiak. The veteran swingman has been mostly a disappointment since joining the Cavs (along with Wallace, Smith and Delonte West) in that big trade before the deadline. With Sasha Pavlovic (ankle) out, the Cavs desperately need Szczerbiak to provide a consistent outside shooting threat to help take some of the scoring load off James.

X-Factor for Wizards: Brendan Haywood. The oft-maligned center put together the best season of his seven-year career, averaging 10.6 points (on 52.8 percent shooting), 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Against a deep and experienced Cavs frontcourt rotation, he must continue to be a presence and not revert back to his soft ways or get in foul trouble.

The Pick: Wizards in six.

Washington Wizards
2nd in S'east

Caron Butler


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