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NBA Stretch Run: The Best of the East

   by Jim Feist - 04/14/2010

It's been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the NBA title? The most talented team? The luckiest? The favorites? We all know the favorites don't waltz to the NBA Finals. We just watched tiny Butler, a fifth seed, advance to the NCAA Championship game. They were joined in the Final Four by Michigan State, another fifth seed. Three No. 1s were long gone. There's another factor that stands out, best summed up in a famous quote: "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat." The speaker? Not a famous coach, but Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. The quote was from his speech "Citizenship in a Republic," but the hard work he was describing about the man "In the Arena" could apply to any NBA star pulling on sneakers and battling for the right to advance to the championship over the next two months. It takes teamwork and effort, lots of effort, to hoist the crown at the end of a long season. In 2004 and 2008 the Lakers appeared to be the most talented team in the NBA Finals, favored each time, but were knocked around by the hard working Pistons and Celtics, both of whom really earned their rings. Next week I'll take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won eight of the last 11 NBA titles. This week, it's the best of the East. Cavaliers: The Beasts of the East! The Cavaliers have the best player in the game in 25-year old, 6-8 LeBron James, averaging over 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. They were in the NBA Finals just three years ago, but that team was a one-man show. This time LeBron has an excellent supporting cast, with Mo Williams (15.5 ppg) and recently acquired Antawn Jamison. Thrown in 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O'Neal, who is expected back for the postseason, and the Cavaliers are hungry, big and talented. Cavaliers coach Mike Brown did not rest his starters against the Toronto Raptors last week, even though they have already secured home-court advantage throughout the postseason. Interesting, because a year ago he was going easy on the team in practice. That team got upset by Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. They really have no excuses outside of injuries in 2010. Is this the year we finally see a Kobe/LeBron Finals? Magic: Orlando flopped in the Finals again and some thought they were one-year wonders after playoff hero Hedo Turkoglu left town. The Magic added 33-year old Vince Carter (16.6 ppg), their second leading scorer, and haven't missed a beat. They have a superstar at center in Dwight Howard, averaging 18 points and 13.3 rebounds. This impressive frontcourt sports power and finesse with Howard and 6-10 Rashard Lewis. They can play defense, as well, allowing 43% shooting, second best in the NBA. The backcourt was a weakness last season when All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson was lost in February and didn't return until the Finals, playing only briefly. This season the 28-year old Nelson is healthy and playing well. Perhaps getting their defense ready for the playoffs, Orlando has been on a 15-7 run under the total. Hawks: Atlanta is the prototypical team that stockpiles young, athletic players through the draft then becomes the team no one wants to play, with talents Joe Johnson (21.2 ppg), Josh Smith and Al Horford (14 ppg, 9.7 rpg). They have been hot the last month, on a 9-5 SU/ATS run. However, they are not a dominant defensive team, 17th in defensive field goal percentage allowed, 10th in points allowed, plus have the common thread young teams have: great at home, lousy on the road. They started 32-7 at home, 17-21 away. Over the last month they beat the Lakers and Spurs, but lost to the Cavs. Too bad they weren't in the West. Celtics: What to make of the aging Celtics? This team won the title two years ago, looks healthy in 2010 and added Rasheed Wallace off the bench. The talent is there, with Paul Pierce (18 ppg), 34-year old Ray Allen (18 ppg), Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. After a great start, however, this team has been erratic since Christmas. They beat the Cavaliers last week, but blew a 22-point lead at home before rallying. Then Earl Barron, a Miami Heat castaway that the Knicks picked up just days earlier, made his first three shots en route to a 17-point, 18-rebound outing in a 104-101 loss. Boston has been huge money-burners, on a 9-25-2 ATS run.

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