Eastern Conference Preview

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It starts with the Celtics. Most things do.

Sure, if you take a look at that roster, they seem more likely to sit you on their lap and tell you war stories than actually play basketball. But for this team, the war never ends. Maybe it gets put on hold from December to April. Maybe. If Kevin Garnett will let them again. But he won’t let them again.

And this team is so much deeper than they once were. Perk is injured? Enter O’Neal. Sheed finally bowed out? Enter the other O’Neal. Tony Allen went to play behind O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay? Delonte West is a far superior player. Avery Bradley hailed from Texas to shore up the back court with some younger blood. Heck, even Brian Scalabrine was replaced with a perfectly fitting lunatic of a red head – only one who can actually play basketball. Von Wafer hardly made the team, but can light it up the second he steps on the court. On nights when Semih Erden looks like more than a goofy Turk off the bench and Marquis Daniels looks more than … well … I honestly don’t know what that dude looks like (Ed note: Lil Wayne), this team could be a legit 15 deep.

And yet, barring a complete renaissance of Kevin Garnett’s unwillingness to tank the regular season, they will finish no higher than third in the conference.

You have the Heat, who could quite possibly, no exaggeration, play the best basketball ever. You know, having the two best players in the league together with a top 3 guy at his position does that for you.

You have the Magic, who could quite possibly, no exaggeration, play better. You know, having the best big man in the league to go with an incredibly deep roster tailor made for his many many strengths, and one of the game’s best coaches to boot does that for you.

The Bucks were probably the funnest team in the league last season outside of Oklahoma – and they got better. With Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Bulls had the a young inside/outside nucleus that GMs dream of at night – and got better. And those silly Hawks may have just spent $120 million just so they can stay the same – but what exactly isn’t there to love about the Hawks? The way they’ve improved internally every year since 2008? The two budding All-Stars (Josh Smith will be henceforth referred to one until he is rightfully selected to the game) who man the front court and who seem poised to be featured more prominently under a new coach?

And those six teams – those fascinating, mouth-watering, head-spinning, bombastic-adjective-inducing contenders for the Eastern Conference Finals – are just for all you little bandwagoners. The next nine teams will play lesser basketball as far as quality goes, but I assure you, every time they send ten laced up feet to step on the court will be a masterful symphony of basketball.

We have been awarded with the privilege of yet again watching Mike D’Antoni coach a group that matters. Of holding Darren Collison’s hand as we collectively squint our eyes at the sunlight present outside of Chris Paul’s shadow. Of staring at disbelief as Gerald Wallace anchors a league-best defense while somehow ignoring that his starting point guard is D.J. Augustin and his starting center is a pack of junior mints. Of trying to figure out how the hell Jrue Holiday can be so good when he can’t even spell his name. Of enjoying both Avery Johnson’s work and the fact that other people have to listen to his voice. Of John Freaking Wall. Of finally figuring out what the hell a J.J. Hickson is. Of watching a group of over-their-head youngsters and probably-want-to-be-somewhere-else veterans looking up to an Italian to lead them while simultaneously trying not to be the worst defensive squad ever. Of something related to the Pistons (seriously, anything interesting about the Pistons?).

Sure, this league has four, maybe five serious contenders for the championship. It might even be just 1. This entire conference could be rendered irrelevant once that familiar torrent of purple and gold confetti rains down, inside a basketball arena, on some warm night in June. But as you sit here, reading what some schmuck thinks about 15 groups of grown men throwing orange objects into 10 feet hoops, trying to burn those last few hours before you feel complete yet again, you also realize that you while pure logic dictates what should probably happen, pure logic doesn’t know the half of it. Because nobody ever does.

Nobody predicts Brandon Jennings scoring 55 in his seventh NBA game before the box score is printed in tomorrow’s paper. Nobody sees Larry Brown making the playoffs again when you thought he was just there for one last pay check. Nobody gambles in advance on Josh Smith suddenly deciding that he doesn’t feel like being crazy anymore. Nobody calls the Boston Celtics winning the East – again – after a season which saw their most famous fan on the web all but publicly disowning them. Nobody saw the Eastern Conference of 2009-2010 coming, and nobody sees the 2010-2011 equivalent. You think you’ve seen it all, but only until you open your eyes again.

Call me sappy. Call this a final cry of joy before the Lakers inevitably threepeat and my favorite league inevitably locks out its future. I don’t care. This conference is 50% of the NBA, and that 50% is back in business Tuesday night, with the other half following suit approximately 150 minutes later. And we have no idea what’s going to happen. We think Carmelo will join the East soon, but we might find out that Baron Davis moved instead. And it’s the best.

I’ve been starving since mid-June, and tonight night I get to eat again. In the wise words of Tas Melas (or somebody who looks extremely like him) – ball.

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