While the Lakers are widely considered the class of the Western Conference, the Cavaliers are in for a dogfight in the East playoffs. Atlanta plays tough against them, and Orlando is largely the same team (sub in Vince Carter and a healthy Jameer Nelson in, sub out Hedo Turkoglu (!!!!!!)) that bounced the Cavs from the conference finals last year.
But if you ask NBA scouts, Cleveland's path to the Finals will be blocked by one long obstacle: Kevin Garnett.
"If KG is healthy, Boston is a better team than Cleveland, period," a West scout said. "That defense is light years better when he is in the lineup."
The Celtics and Cavaliers haven't seen each other since opening night, when a stifling Boston defense limited the Cavaliers to 89 points on 41.4 percent shooting. Garnett didn't defend LeBron much that night but he did, an East scout said, "coordinate the attack against him."
"Boston can score with Cleveland without Kevin," the East scout said. "And [Kendrick] Perkins is a very good interior defender. But KG is the guy who moves the pieces around out there. When he's in the game, Boston is rarely out of position. And you need to play smart defense when LeBron is in the game or he will carve you up."
Look, I don't deny that Boston is a great team or that their defense is superb. But "Boston is a team better than Cleveland, period" with a healthy KG? How do you figure? (and nevermind the whole "Orlando is largely the same team (sub in Vince Carter and a healthy Jameer Nelson in, sub out Hedo Turkoglu) that bounced the Cavs from the conference finals last year." Um, Turkoglu ran their crunch time offense and the Cavs had no way to defend. In no way are they close to the same team that knocked out the Cavaliers).
I could be extremely mistaken here, but I'm not worried about Boston at all. A worse Cavs team faced a more talented Celtics squad in the second round of the 2008 playoffs and still took them to seven games. This was a series where the home team won every game (the games were close in Boston, blowouts in Cleveland), LeBron was awful for the first two games and yet the Celtics still needed P.J. Brown to save their asses in Game 7.
Two years later, LeBron is better, the Cavs are improved, and the Celtics are older. Maybe I should be concerned with Boston but really, I'm not. I don't think anyone would argue that LeBron hasn't improved in past two years. I don't think anyone would deny that the Cavs are a better, more well rounded team with the additions of Mo, Shaq and guys like Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker. Meanwhile, KG has no knees and while Rondo and Perkins have improved, I'm really not sure if they actually expect Paul Pierce to check LeBron for a full seven games or not (remember, no James Posey to take that burden).
Yes, Boston's defense is really good... as is Cleveland's. But really, if you're taking anything away from their first meeting this year, you're an idiot. It was the first game of the season and at that point, the Cavaliers were still figuring things out (half their team was sick during the preseason and they didn't have a lot of on court time together). I'm not saying toss that game out completely, but you've got to take it with a pinch of salt, no? Hell, Coach Mike was throwing Shaq and Z out there together without practicing it beforehand. Things have improved.
The Cavs still have another month until they face the Celtics, when they travel to Boston on the 25th (my birthday. That'll be neat). Who knows what these teams will look like at that point (post-trade deadline) but I think it's safe to say that the February, March (14th) and April (2nd) matchups will tell you more about these teams than a game on October 27th.
Maybe I'm over confident. The Cavs have met nearly every challenge thrown their way and they still keep winning. They've beat the Lakers twice, they've won in Orlando, Miami, Phoenix, Portland and they have as many road victories as Lakers have road games. I feel really good about this team.
They're better than they were two years ago when they nearly stole the series from Boston while Celtics are worse (re: older). I don't want to come off as dismissing Boston, because they're really really good (I even respect Kendrick Perkins. This pains me) but if they were to meet up in a series, I don't see how the Cavs couldn't be favored (especially if they own home court advantage, as they currently do).