If they can maintain the level at which they are playing, the Boston Celtics could quite possibly wind up taking another trip to the NBA finals.
In Boston's way will be several teams as thirsty as they are for another shot at a championship.
The select teams that have the talent to challenge the Celtics will attempt to defeat the defending eastern conference champions by not only outplaying them, but exploiting their weaknesses.
Here are ten matchups that could have a hand in stopping the men in green.
Not only is Dwight Howard far-and-away the league's best center, he has also managed to find what what he had been lacking in his first six seasons: drive.
Whether it was a coming-of-age situation, mentoring from Patrick Chewing or a combination of both, Howard is a man on a mission. Mix this with the fact that he has suddenly begun doing a half-decent Tim Duncan (OK, nobody does it like Timmay) imitation with the addition of his bank shot and you have Howard at his most dangerous.
Although Howard's points are at a career high (22.4/gm.), he has improved his passing abilities. With the additions of Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas, the Magic have surrounded Howard with an arsenal of shooters that cater perfectly to the inside-out game.
The Magic will likely be one of the Celtics' most fearsome opponents and Howard ranks atop the list of players that could threaten the pursuit. Fortunately, the Celtics will have a plethora of big men to sub in and out to handle the load.
With the addition of Richardson and Turkoglu, the Magic filled out their starting lineup early this season. Brandon Bass has emerged as a reliable threat doing his best mini-Howard. But it was the trade that the Magic conducted with the Wizards that may cause the Celtics the most matchup problems in the postseason.
Although Gilbert Arenas has accepted his duties coming off the bench, he has yet to fully hit his stride. If he does, he could cause major issues for the Celtics bench.
Arenas being the Magic's sixth man might be the best part of their new formula. Even though Agent Zero has lost a step, he still has the type of scoring ability that can take over a game.
It is obvious that Arenas is not the player he used to be, and he may be one of the one of the Celtics lesser worries while Boston concentrates on stopping Howard. Regardless, Arenas is undoubtedly and x-factor. (Unless, of course, he decides to fake an injury to give a teammate some much needed playoff experience...)
Anderson has emerged as one of the NBA's bigger surprises this season.
Anderson's game has progressed tremendously since being selected out of California two years ago, and the Magic have taken notice.
Now averaging 19.5 minutes, Anderson is posting 10.8 points and 5.0 boards per game this season. He is shooting a career-high 39.6% from three and relentless on the boards – a rare quality in any player.
Anderson's unique skill-set creates matchup problems for any team, but more so for the Celtics. Lacking versatile height off the bench, Anderson can cause inside-out issues, stretching the Celtics defense, potentially leading to more scoring opportunities.
At 6'10”, Anderson has flexibility rarely seen in a power forward. Consistently hitting the outside shot has led to more minutes for Anderson, and may lead to him becoming a more noticeable threat come playoff time.
Dynamic and inconsistent as hell.
Deng can be the extremely effective or nonexistent. Deng's downfalls are his lack of intensity and randomly awful shooting nights. He is, however, always a threat as a 6'8” forward with a massive wingspan.
Like Ryan Anderson, Deng's greatest asset is his length, but his minutes/skill-level makes him much more problematic.
With Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah filling up the big man spots for the Celtics to defend, Deng will have height on anyone Boston can put in to defend him. In two games against the Celtics this season, Deng has posted a 20/6/2 line and a 15/4/1 line.
Deng has the ability to contribute to the Bulls rebound totals and can easily fly under-the-radar with the Celtics concentrating on preventing Noah and Boozer from attacking the boards.
Unfortunately, Noah does more than whine about how much of a mean guy Kevin Garnett is.
The advantages that Noah has over the Celtics are both youth and quickness. As a center, Noah is faster than any big the Celtics can offer up, making him an absolute menace on the boards.
Noah gave the Celtics all they could handle in his second season (2008-09) in the first round of the playoffs. Granted, Garnett had been injured for the remainder of the season, but that can't be completely to blame for the 10.1 points and 15.6 rebounds Noah averaged in the series.
I can't stand looking at him or listening to him, but I can't deny the fact that he doesn't let up.
Boozer will cause the Celtics additional trouble, taking some of the pressure off Noah on the glass. If Noah can successfully come back from his broken hand, he will be a much greater threat than the player that menaced the Celtics two years ago.
Is anyone more annoying to guard than LBJ?
James is a nuisance in almost every facet of the game. He shoots like a guard, is strong like a power forward, and can rebound like a center. Add that to the fact he plays with “no regard for human life” - ranks in Celtics' fans top ten most hated broadcast calls.
If the Celtics should meet the Heat in the playoffs (I am counting on the Magic knocking them out first) then LeBron will be a constant annoyance. The Celtics will likely put Pierce on LeBron with Allen guarding Wade.
The addition of Shaq will help clog the lane on LeBron's drives, but LeBron's vastly improved supporting cast should help to offset that.
Many people thought Dwyane Wade and LeBron would lose suffer in the stat columns by being forced to share the ball. Well, as the year has progressed, that thought has quickly vanished.
Wade and LeBron seem to have now fully meshed, and just .3 PPG separates the two (25.7 and 26.0). The pair take advantage of which player the defense chooses to lean their focus on by exploiting it. This can occur game by game and even quarter by quarter.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra has put critics to sleep with the success of the Heat. Is it really that hard? Props must be dished to Spoelstra for his end of quarter fluctuation of the two stars, with LeBron finishing out the beginning of halves and Wade leading the next period.
LeBron's number increased during Wade's absence in all formats but Wade is most often the scoring leader when he is at his best. His abilities as a pure scorer are a match-up issue for any team and having LeBron and Bosh around only makes dealing with him a bigger problem.
The bottom line is that both players have the ability to take over a game and whichever player the Celtics lean their focus on, the other will attempt to take over.
Wade will most often be the Heat's hottest hand.
There are many types of power forwards: the Love type; the Nowitzki type; the Griffin type (est. 2010); the Odom type. OK, Nowitzki may stand alone in his style category as well.
However, it is hard to say that Odom doesn't deserve a class of his own.
Odom is one of the most versatile and effective power forwards in the league. Over the last eight seasons, Odom has consistently hovered around a double-double. He has 20 double-doubles so far this season. All this while assuming a sixth man or starting role based on Andrew Bynum's health. He flourishes in both circumstances.
With Bynum expected to be at full health, Odom will once again become the league's most dominant sixth man. His talents are a constant threat to the Celtics championship hopes, as they have been for the last two Lakers-Celtics finals duels.
Odom creates all sorts of matchup problems for the Celtics bench and can only be contained once he gets on a roll.
Who would have thought Odom (shooting the best FG% of his career) would be having his most efficient season after marrying a Kardashian? Maybe a reality TV series will break his stride? Maybe?
The Celtics rebounding woes are no more apparent than when they play the Lakers. The loss of Kendrick Perkins in game seven of the NBA finals last season is (yes, I am certain of it) what led to Boston's demise. Lakers fans would have a similar argument for an injured Andrew Bynum in the Celtics 2007-08 championship.
Perkins does an excellent job of disrupting the rebounding disparity, but the combination of Pau Gasol and Bynum can prove absolutely lethal.
Bynum is as strong as any big man in the league and holds a two inch height advantage over Perkins. His game has improved drastically in the last few years, averaging 15 points and 7.3 rebounds last season.
Gasol did a better job of adapting to the Celtics physical style of play in last year's finals, putting stipulations of softness to rest.
A healthy Bynum and a healthy Perkins would lead to one of the most interesting matchups of the finals. The Celtics have little chance of out-rebounding the Lakers, but Perkins' presence, along with Boston's new additions, could certainly thin the gap.
Bryant may be 32, but like the Celtics, Bryant is proving that he is not willing to led age slow him down. He is still the league's best and like the other players that fall into his historical category, he fails to lose a smidgen of drive.
Bryant is one of the few players in the league that can't be stopped, only slowed down.
Bryant scored 41 points in the latest Celtics-Lakers contest and yet it was hard to not give Ray Allen credit for doing a great job in limiting Bryant.
In many cases, the Celtics will do their best to limit Bryant while assuming that he will inevitably get hot and post big numbers. The Celtics primary goal will be to take Bryant's supporting cast out of the game which is no easy task.
Bryant is still arguably the most clutch player in the league and will always have the ability to break hearts with a single shot. The Celtics have proven they can stop Bryant, but excellent defense from Pierce and Allen will, once again, be a must come postseason.