I was stunned like everyone else to learn that KG might miss the entire playoffs. It just makes a Cavs v Lakers finals seem all the more inevitable. But it also gives the Celtics a chance to test their championship resolve – I’m betting they won’t go quietly. Here’s my take on each of the East’s first round match ups, along with the X-Factor for each series and the reasons why you should care.

Cleveland vs Detroit
Who will win: Cleveland in 5 games. Ouch… that was hard. It’s pretty simple really – the only chance the Pistons have of pushing this series to 6 or 7 games is stealing an early one in Cleveland. That appears to be extraordinarily difficult the way the Cavs are playing at home. But just remember, the Pistons have a knack for low-scoring grind-it-out playoff games. It’s their specialty. And in low-scoring affairs anything can happen. I don’t foresee many Cavs blowouts, but I do foresee Lebron taking over late in games without much resistance.
Why you should care: This is the end of an era for Detroit. Love them or hate them, you have to respect what the Pistons have achieved the past six years. How the curtain closes is important for their legacy. Get swept and blown out and it will be an embarrassing, pride-swallowing exercise for these once mighty Pistons. But if they fight and make Cleveland earn every victory, as well as winning a game or two (or three?!), then Detroit can at least hold their heads high before the team is completely blown up by Joey D in the off-season.
The X-Factor: Rodney Stuckey. I was tempted to say Sheed, but it kind of doesn’t count when you spend your whole career as an X-Factor. Stuck has been struggling with the task of running the offense, forcing Curry to play Bynum at point guard which hasn’t been such a bad thing for Detroit lately. But if Stuck can get his team mates involved while being the scoring threat we know he can be, Cleveland might struggle to find answers for him. Last postseason Rodney Stuckey made a name for himself as a fearless big-game rookie. Can he back that up this year?

Boston vs Chicago
Who will win: Boston in 6. I know a lot of folks are tipping an upset here, and I do think the Bulls have the pieces to pull it off – namely athleticism (at the guard and forward positions), interior size (to exploit a lack of KG) and a game-closer (Gordon/Rose). But I think everyone is forgetting how good the Celtics are, even without KG. The Bulls have no answer for Pierce who will have to be heroic in this series to ensure a Celtics win. The Bulls, as demonstrating yesterday by a stunning brain-fart at home to Toronto that could have clinched the 6th seed, also have mental focus problems. That is a problem when you’re facing Boston who will mentally bully you better than any other NBA team.
Why you should care: In the first two games of this series we learn how seriously Boston can contend for a title without KG. Psychologically, those first two games are incredibly important for Doc Rivers and his crew, and for the rest of the East teams watching.
The X-Factor: The defense of Glen Davis/Leon Powe. The Celtics success depends on them stepping up and at least filling half the void left by KG. If Davis can continue his recent form – he’s scored 15+ points in 7 of his last 12 games – it at least plugs the hole on the offensive end. It’s the defense I’m unsure about.

Orlando vs Philadelphia
Who will win:
Orlando in 6. The Magic were lucky to draw the Sixers in the first round instead of the Bulls or Detroit, for a few reasons. 1) Philly have looked real shaky the last few weeks (lost 6 of their last 7), they won’t come into this series riding high on confidence (like the Bulls). 2) Philly do not have a lot of playoff experience and if there’s one thing the Magic lack, it’s poise in pressure playoff situations against veteran teams (i.e. Detroit). 3) Philly is not Detroit.
Why you should care: With KG injured, Orlando have as good a chance as they ever will at advancing to the Conference Finals. If they put in a dominating display against Philly and then handle Boston/Chicago convincingly, all of a sudden the East Finals isn’t a forgone conclusion. Everyone forgets how good the Magic are at their best (even post-Jameer).
The X-Factor: The health of Hedo and Lewis. Right now they are not 100%, and if they can’t contribute the Magic will lose this series. Orlando will have enough trouble trying to slow down Iguodala with them, let alone without them.

Atlanta vs Miami
Who will win:
Atlanta in 7. This is the hardest series to pick out East. The Heat are a popular upset pick because of Wade, but lets not forget that Atlanta are clearly the better, more complete team. The Hawks grew in testicular fortitude after their last playoff encounter with Boston, and that experience should provide them with the resolve and confidence to get past this Miami team. Unless Wade averages 40-10-5 the entire series. And I know what you’re thinking. Dwyane Wade could do that.
Why you should care: Because we might be looking at Wade vs Lebron in the second round, and that has not yet happened in their six year careers.
The X-Factor: Joe Johnson. I know the team’s “star” can’t really be called an X-Factor, but hear me out. With the Heat’s success in this series directly dependent on the output of Wade, the importance of Joe Johnson becomes multiplied, tenfold. Not only does Joe have to chase around Wade and cut his production, but he needs to ensure Wade is kept busy on the defensive end. If Joe goes quiet in this series it opens up the door for Wade to go atomic, and while that could be wildly entertaining for the rest of us, it will end nasty for Atlanta.

West picks coming tomorrow. Also, keep your eyes tuned for the final round of the Blogger MVP/ROY rankings. I’ve submitted my ballot, and the results will be announced next Monday and Tuesday.


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