They will see it every night. In The Swamp of New Jersey. In the Rose Garden. And Madison Square Garden. Home. Away. East. West.
Every team will bring its best for the Celtics. It's a fact of life. Water is wet. Pain hurts. Champions get challenged nightly. So the Celtics have a target on their backs as big as the 25-game lead they held over the Atlantic Division last year en route to their first NBA championship since 1986.
"You're going to get attacked every night," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
But the Celtics, champs until dethroned, remain the odds-on favorites in a vastly improved division.
The 76ers leaped into the playoffs last season, then added stud Elton Brand. The Raptors acquired Jermaine O'Neal to complement Chris Bosh. The Nets blew it up and have star Vince Carter leading a cast of kids.
The Knicks hope a management change -- president Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D'Antoni -- alters on-court fortunes that, without a winning record since 2000-01, have been as appealing as the city during a sanitation strike.
Titanic Division? Not anymore. The Celtics, Sixers and Raptors all could win 50 games.
Winning is tough. Defending is tougher. But Boston is the clear Atlantic favorite with a defense that stifled (first in field goal percentage, second in scoring) in the regular season, then bullied (ask Kobe) in the Finals.
GoHornets21: "Man I'm so hyped right now! Anything's possible!"
Amidst the crying, yelling and screaming that followed, we were able to distinguish Kevin Garnett above it all. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen more subdued, and we may have been able to make out what they were saying. After years of those three superstars wasting away in mediocrity, they were able to come together and give one of the greatest single-season performances in NBA history.
It's amazing what a couple of deals can do to the face of a franchise, and all of the teams in the Atlantic Division can attest to it. The Atlantic Division teams are all brand new, except for the Celtics, and nobody can blame them for staying put. But, all of the other teams did make moves. The 76ers acquired Elton Brand. The Raptors rolled the dice on Jermaine O'Neal. There was a "Firesale For LeBron" in New Jersey. And, a brand new regime arrived in New York.
Yes, change is abundant in the Atlantic, but as the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
No team will challenge Boston. Here's the outlook: Read more
Yes, the Celtics still have the Big Three of Kevin Garnett (32), Finals MVP Paul Pierce (31) and Ray Allen (33). But all are a year older for a season in which they will face a wire-to-wire challenge where even dreg teams get psyched to play them.
They have terrific quality and versatility starting in Garnett, Pierce, Allen, ever-improving point guard Rajon Rondo and tough, role-playing center Kendrick Perkins (who underwent summer shoulder surgery). They avoided debilitating injuries last season, and a significant injury to a starter could bring Boston back to the pack.
The bench was re-stocked but will miss defender and 3-point specialist James Posey. Indications are Tony Allen, two years after ACL surgery, and Leon Powe can fill the void. Tony Allen was Boston's best player when Pierce was down two years ago, pre-K.G. They have a useful specialist in shooter Eddie House and two big bodies in Glen Davis and Patrick O'Bryant.
|Elton Brand (Getty Images)|
The Sixers bet $79.9 million over five years that Brand could make a very good team an elite team. Brand is a pure thoroughbred fetched to anchor a stable populated by underrated point guard Andre Miller, All-Star-in-waiting Andre Iguodala, potential star Thaddeus Young and shot-blocking center Samuel Dalembert.
The bench has a blend of youth and experience among its role players. The Sixers brought in minimum-wage types in Kareem Rush and Donyell Marshall to upgrade the 3-point shooting; Royal Ivey to support the point; and 35-year-old Theo Ratliff for middle help after an ACL injury to Jason Smith.
Human blur Louis Williams is only 22 and still learning. Reggie Evans will beat people up inside, Willie Green can be explosive and play both ends, and the Sixers like burly rookie Marreese Speights. So the bench has quality. The Sixers are a nice blend for now and later, a legit threat in the East.
|J. O'Neal and Chris Bosh (AP)|
The Raptors can be elite if O'Neal is the former All-Star interior force, not the aging, ailing player of recent vintage; if Jose Calderon flourishes with extended minutes minus T.J. Ford and the two-headed point guard show; and if Andrea Bargnani ever resembles a No. 1 overall pick.
Toronto gambled O'Neal will provide the legit, double team-drawing interior presence to free up Bosh and his inside-outside skills. The underrated Calderon lacks Ford's overall offense, but he's a strong, unselfish playmaker. Bargnani showed he can shoot -- and shoot with range -- in his first season. And second season. They want more. Like rebounding. Like using his 7-foot size as a presence inside. Like living up to No. 1 stature.
Another All-Underrated, Anthony Parker, shoots, runs and defends at the two. Jamario Moon leaped out of nowhere with freakish athleticism at small forward. The bench has Bargnani, 3-point specialist Jason Kapono, shooting point Will Solomon, rebounder Kris Humphries and former starter Joey Graham.
|Yi Jianlian and Vince Carter (Getty Images)|
They are young. They are athletic. Just how good the rebuilt Nets are will be answered as the season unfolds -- but they're probably not good enough for the playoffs. They have seven players with two years' experience or less, including three rookies: center Brook Lopez, power forward Ryan Anderson and wing Chris Douglas-Roberts.
For leadership, and lots of scoring, the Nets look to Carter. Doubters predict he'll bail if it gets bad. He says no way and hopes to combat the certain double-teams with proven scoring and underrated passing.
The Nets have entrusted their dribble-drive attack to Devin Harris, whose quickness and penetration are vital. They believe they have enough shooting in Yi Jianlian, Bobby Simmons (expected to be the No. 3 scorer), Anderson and Jarvis Hayes.
The hope is the 7-foot Yi, acquired for Richard Jefferson, becomes Dirk Nowitzki East. He can shoot, but rebounding, defending and avoiding fouls are all a concern.
Returning bigs are center Josh Boone, who is athletic but needs defense and range; Sean Williams, a shot-blocker needing a position; and Stromile Swift, a former No. 2 overall pick. Two-spot reserve guard Keyon Dooling is the Nets' key to pressure. Eduardo Najera was signed for size, defense and experience.
|Chris Duhon (Getty Images)|
New president, new coach, new system. Too bad there are so many of the same old players, making the playoffs a long shot.
There's a ticking time bomb in Stephon Marbury, now a bench guy who thinks he should start. He won't. D'Antoni is handing the job of directing the run-and-gun offense to Chris Duhon, a floor leader who passes the ball instead of pounding it like Marbury. Early previews showed improving offense, still porous defense. And the style could tax shallow depth. Range shooter Quentin Richardson had one of his finest years for D'Antoni in Phoenix. There are nice pieces (although maybe not enough) for the up-tempo style, such as scorer Jamal Crawford, who gets on unconscious shooting rolls; greyhound-quick 5-9 Nate Robinson; and on-the-verge Wilson Chandler. Mardy Collins will find a place with his defense.
Up front, hustling rebounder David Lee has improved his shot and Zach Randolph is a potential double-double, but how center Eddy Curry fits is guesswork. First-round pick Danilo Gallinari already has back problems. Athletic defender and possible starter Jared Jeffries broke his leg in preseason.