NBA Playoffs: Can the Weary Celtics Top Hungry Orlando?

by Phil Kehres

The second round of the playoffs for the National Basketball Association (NBA) is upon us. Despite a few upsets, things have shaken out rather uninterestingly in the Western Conference. It’s as if we’re all waiting for the inevitable: the Lakers’ champagne has been on ice since the first round began. The potential for drama in the Eastern Conference semifinals, however, is off the charts.

The number one-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers will take on the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta’s first appearance in the second round of the playoffs since 1999. The Hawks’ balanced attack — led by guard Joe Johnson, forward Josh Smith and center/forward Al Horford — presents a bigger challenge to the Cavs than a Miami team comprising Dwyane Wade and a bunch of scrap heap players. Cleveland has the upper hand by virtue of their depth — and some guy named LeBron — but expect the Hawks to give Cleveland more trouble than the flaccid Detroit team the Cavs whitewashed in the first round. For the Cavs, this could be an excellent tune-up for an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with Boston or Orlando. If Cleveland gets sloppy, however, don’t expect the Hawks to lie down like the Pistons did. (For more on Cleveland's chances, please see: "NBA Playoffs: LeBron vs. Kobe? Inevitable?")

The other semifinal matchup in the East has even more potential. The Boston Celtics are coming off an epic series with the Chicago Bulls. Even without superstar forward Kevin Garnett, Boston is widely regarded as the favorite against the young, green Orlando Magic. The Celtics are the defending champs, the battle-tested veterans who tasted glory last year and still hunger — or so they say. Conventional wisdom says they’ll easily dispatch the upstart Magic, but perhaps the champs aren’t what they once were. The Bulls/Celtics first-round series will go down as one of the greatest playoff series ever. Lost in the hullabaloo, however, is the fact that the Celtics should have dismantled the Bulls, with or without Garnett. That the series even went seven games — not to mention the way the Celtics had to cash in on miracle after miracle for their wins — is proof that this Boston team is not deep or talented enough to repeat without Kevin Garnett. Orlando center Dwight Howard and his supporting crew of sharpshooters are light years ahead of Chicago at this point. The Celtics are in for a rude awakening if they think they can waltz into Orlando lollygagging for three quarters and expect guard Ray Allen to hit game-saving three-pointers every night.

The only thing we can count on at this point is that whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference is going to be the biggest challenge Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers will face throughout the entire playoffs. Best get your game face on, Kobe, because none of these teams is going to go down easily.

(To see the schedule of NBA playoff games on various cable TV networks, please go here. To see official NBA highlights of the two playoff games from Sunday, May 3, please check below.)

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