One year ago, the Cavaliers and Celtics each lined up in the Eastern Conference semifinals against teams they were supposed to beat. Cleveland drew upstart Atlanta, a team pleading its presence among East's elite. The Cavs made quick work of the Hawks, but the ailing Celtics weren't so fortunate, losing in seven to the rising Magic. A Cavs-Celtics rematch would have to wait.
Meanwhile, Orlando beat up Cleveland and won the conference's Finals berth. This season, Orlando -- not Boston -- was the team hanging around the Cavs at the top of the conference, signaling a clear shift in the Eastern power structure. While the Celtics struggled to stay both healthy and motivated, Cleveland clinched the league's best record early, the Magic tuned up for a hopeful return to the Finals and even those Hawks leaped up over the once-feared Boston.
Many observers even pegged the Celtics to lose in the first round to Dwyane Wade and the Heat. Instead, the Celtics made quick work of Miami, giving Wade just one win in the series. Cleveland, the title favorite coast-to-coast, had more trouble with the Bulls, but, thanks to the greatness of LeBron James, still managed to win in five. That set up the series which begins today: Cavs-Celtics, do or disappear.
The teams met in the 2008 conference semifinals, with Boston taking the series in seven on its way to the championship. Neither team lost at home in that one, with the Celtics closing out the series 97-92 in a Game 7 in Boston which saw LeBron (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41) duel to the finish. It was one of the most thrilling playoff games of the decade, which is saying a lot.
That's the series we wanted to see again, but these teams have changed too much to expect a repeat. The Cavaliers have added some remarkable depth up front -- so remarkable that Cleveland's Leon Powe, the former Celtics power forward who averaged 12 minutes a game in the playoff during Boston's title run, didn't play a single minute in the Cavs' first-round series. J.J. Hickson, who started 73 games for the Cavaliers this season, played all of 22 minutes in the first round.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are still hurting. Kevin Garnett, the heart of the 2008 championship, averaged less than 30 minutes a game this season for the first time since his rookie year, and played only 15 minutes a night in the first round. Boston relied more on Glen Davis, a skilled power forward who has no shot at defending Cavs like Antawn Jamison or Anderson Varejao as well as Garnett can. The Celtics rely on Pierce (who had a great series against Miami), Ray Allen (ditto) and Rajon Rondo. The trio is great, but can it be counted on to overcome a team as superlative as Cleveland?
Game 1, today at 8 PM Eastern on TNT, should give us a clue.