The playoffs are entirely different from the regular season and, until a young team goes through it, it really doesn't know what to expect. Instead of 82 games spread across six months in a mostly random order, you get best-of-seven series against the same opponent, who gets uglier and less agreeable with each game. There are no back-to-back games scheduled anymore. But then, you almost never see the exact same strategy, especially defensively, from one contest to the next.
Teams that have dealt with that before, as a group, are better prepared to deal with it again -- better -- the next time. That suggests that the 12 franchises that participated in the 2007 posteason will have at least one significant edge over the four playoff teams that were counting Ping-Pong balls at this time last year. Boston and Philadelphia haven't been in the playoffs since 2005 and New Orleans has missed since 2004. Then there are the Hawks, whose drought stretched back to 1999, when they were led by Steve Smith (18.7 ppg), Mookie Blaylock (5.8 apg) and Dikembe Mutombo (pre-AARP card).
No one considers Atlanta or Philadelphia to be a serious title threat, not as lower seeds from the lesser conference. But what about Boston? Does NBA history argue against a Celtics championship run? Some folks, and the team itself, will try to liken Boston to Miami in 2006, Detroit in 2004 and San Antonio in 1999 -- three champions that won soon after being reconfigured around exceptional players and/or coaches. With the Heat, it was Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley. With the Pistons, Rasheed Wallace and Larry Brown. With the Spurs, Tim Duncan and, just getting going, Gregg Popovich.
The Celtics fit into that group since being rebuilt around Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and holdover Paul Pierce. But none of those stars has Finals experience, nor does coach Doc Rivers. Then there is the franchise's two-year absence from the playoffs; the Celtics truly are trying to do what only the 1977 Blazers did, winning without even qualifying the year before.
As for New Orleans, its top seven players in minutes this season have a combined 154 games of NBA playoff experience. Most of it, though, resides with Peja Stojakovic (59 games) and sub Bonzi Wells (36); the Hornets' two All-Stars, Paul (zero) and David West (seven), have little or none. Not one of the seven has caught a whiff of the Finals, though coach Byron Scott played in six and coached the Nets there twice -- including that 2002 team that went from lottery finish to Finals, one year to the next.
Miller, whose Pacers teams knocked on the East's door nine times before reaching the 2000 Finals, offered some positive spin on New Orleans.
"If you were constructing a team,'' he said, "you would want a great floor general, and you have that in Chris Paul. You would want outside shooting to spread the floor, and you have that in Mo Peterson and Peja Stojakovic. And you would need somewhat of an inside presence, and you have that in West. And you would need a defensive presence, and you have that in Tyson Chandler. And you need for that team to be well-coached -- you have that in Byron Scott.
"So if you were gong to put a team together with your wants and needs, the New Orleans Hornets have everything that you would want. Now the question is: Are they going to be able to parlay that into playoff wins? I'm excited to see, when the lights are on the brightest, when it gets hot in the kitchen, how is Chris Paul going to react?''
Knock, knock? That door isn't opening this year.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.