The Miami Heat have been ordained as the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2011 NBA Finals, but their journey will be anything but simple.
Standing in Miami's way will likely be the defending Eastern conference champion, Boston Celtics, and relegating the men in green to underdog status could be a scary proposition.
Last season, the Celtics entered the postseason as the East's fourth seed, and their playoff run didn't end until a Game Seven loss in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Miami's free agency coup, which landed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade, has captured all of the offseason headlines, and an energized Miami fanbase has basked in the glow of attention.
Heat fans have been extremely vocal in support of their newfound status as contenders, and most have dismissed the Celtics as too old to disrupt their march to the Finals.
That sounds a lot like last season.
Boston was an afterthought during much of the 2009-10 regular season, and many observers felt age had finally caught up to the veteran team.
Those feelings increased after a late season swoon that saw the Celtics drop an important home game to the woeful New Jersey Nets, and an early playoff exit seemed certain.
Miami was the Celtics' first round opponent last season and Boston's five game series victory served as an omen to the rest of the East, as there were quite a few pundits who had predicted an upset by the Heat.
But Boston raised eyebrows when they gained a 2-1 series lead over James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished the regular season as the NBA's No. 1 overall seed for the second consecutive year.
Boston went on to defeat the Cavaliers in six games and reached their second Finals' series in three years by disposing of second-seeded Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was a surprising turn of events for some people, but it should serve as a lesson for this season because the Celtics proved it's much more important how you finish, as opposed to the path you took to get there.
Maybe the Celtics' fans have been less vocal than Miami fans, in their defense, because they have a clear understanding of their team's potential, and realize the gossip only matters in the postseason.
Boston sure wasn't quiet during the free agency signing period, and although the Celtics' moves would hardly register as a whisper compared to Miami's, they did manage to improve their team.
Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal bolster a group of post players that includes Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis.
This may be Shaq's last legitimate shot at a title, and for the first time since he left Miami, he just might have found a scheme that actually works for him.
The Celtics' deliberate pace caters more to the few skills Shaq has remaining, and playing with an elite power forward in Garnett should help him on the defensive end.
If Perkins is able to fully recover from a knee injury suffered in Game Six of the Finals, the Celtics will have one of the biggest, and most experienced front courts in the East.
Miami's post players rarely receive the credit they deserve, but I'm not convinced their primary group of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, and Chris Bosh wins the interior battle with the Celtics.
Anthony is one of the players most mentioned by Heat fans as proof positive their post players are undervalued, and they rave about his incredible wingspan, leaping ability, and tendency to block shots.
In reality, Anthony is a decent player and, considering he is only entering his fourth professional year, there is room to grow, but he is only a 2.6 points per game scorer, and a 3.2 rebounds per game player in his career.
It's fair to assume the Celtics' experience in the post would give them a slight advantage over Miami, but any series between the teams would likely be decided on the perimeter, where James and Wade roam.
Wade and James are simply two of the top three players in the game of basketball, and although Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are a formidable tandem, they lose the head-to-head matchup in every category.
Both James and Wade are quicker, stronger, and younger than Pierce and Allen, and finding a way to slow the duo down would be the best Boston could hope for.
But, the Celtics are defined by their defense and the one advantage they hold on the perimeter, lies in the hands of point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo's defensive talents, and his ability to attack the basket with strength and quickness could pose problems for the Heat, unless Miami guard Mario Chalmers is really as good as advertised.
A series between Boston and Miami would be a great prelude to next season's NBA Finals, and, if health permits, there is a reasonable chance that it could possibly happen.
Miami is not guaranteed a place in the Eastern Conference Finals, but they look like a good bet to make it. However, remember that the Celtics didn't advance to the NBA Finals last season by mistake.
When Boston defeated Cleveland last season the issue of age, which was viewed as one of the Celtics' weaknesses, became one of their biggest strengths, and they rode that experience into June.