Familiar foes face off Friday night. First up is Celtics-Hawks (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), which could be a preview of a first-round matchup in the East. Then it's Lakers-Spurs (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET), two West teams that need no introduction. Let's break down the four contenders:
1. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics are title contenders.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fiction. The Celtics can beat anyone in a series. I just don't think they'll wind up beating everyone. They'd likely have to go through Chicago and Miami to get to the Finals, and how much would that leave them with? And Boston's at the bottom of the rebound stats. No team lower than 19th in rebounding has won it all since Pat Riley's Lakers, who coined the "no rebounds, no rings" phrase when he became a coach in 1981.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Fact. Would you honestly be surprised if the Celtics made a run to the Finals? While their offense is miserable, they still possess arguably the league's toughest defense and some of the most clutch scorers in the game. After their somewhat unexpected run to the Finals in 2010, I'm not counting them out.
Rob Peterson, ESPN.com: Fiction. I know more arcane trivia about Doc Rivers than any person outside of his family has a right to know (he wore pink Chuck Taylors at his wedding -- see?), so I know Doc will have the veteran Celtics ready for the postseason. But I don't think they have it in them any longer to get past either Chicago or Miami in the East. The 2010 Finals may have been their last best chance.
Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: Fact, but only if they can remain healthy. The C's turned around their season to go 22-9 since the All-Star break against an incredibly difficult schedule. With Derrick Rose banged up in Chicago, and Boston showing it can beat the Heat, the Celts have to be in the conversation for contenders.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Fact. The Celtics have an elite defense, a core with a championship pedigree and a great head coach. In the playoffs, those are ingredients that can carry a team to the Finals. Getting past the Heat and/or Bulls may not be likely, but it wouldn't surprise me either.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Hawks will handle the Celtics in the playoffs.
Adande: Fiction. This isn't like 2008, when the Celtics' core was playing its first series together and needed home-court advantage for each of its playoff victories against the Hawks. Yes, both regular-season games have been close, but one came the day after the Celtics won in Miami, the other in Atlanta after Boston had five West Coast games in seven days.
Gordian: Fiction. The Hawks could certainly beat the Celtics, but "handle" is too strong a way to put it. I think what we're more likely to see is a reprisal of the classic seven-game first-round series the two teams played in 2008.
Peterson: Fiction. I think it's the other way around. I don't think the Hawks -- or longtime observers of the Hawks -- ever know what they're going to get from game to game, or from quarter to quarter. What I do know is that the Celtics have more of a killer instinct than the Hawks, and Boston is not afraid to act on that instinct.
Robb: Fiction. I expect any series between these squads to be extremely competitive, with the core players from both squads remaining intact from their seven-game battle in 2008. Atlanta may have home-court advantage, but I expect the determining factor to be defense, and almost nobody has been playing D better than Boston this season.
Soriano: Fiction. This may be the best Hawks team of the past several years, but even if Al Horford can return in time for the playoffs, Atlanta will have trouble scoring against Boston. Its defense can likely hold a pedestrian Celtics offense in check, but I don't trust the Hawks to win a defensive series against the C's.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers have the NBA's best Big Three.
Adande: Fiction. I like the Thunder's three the best because James Harden flourishes in that third spot, while Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh have to give up too much of their games. Notice how much more comfortable Gasol is when Andrew Bynum is out, or how Bynum became more vital when Kobe Bryant was hurt.
Gordian: Fiction. Although Bynum is having his best year to date, the best Big Three in the league is still Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Even if the average fan's opinion of Bosh has decreased since he moved to the Heat, Wade and James, at this point in their careers, are still superior to anyone on the Lakers.
Peterson: Fiction. This may have been true the last two seasons, but with Kobe injured and Bynum inconsistent and still, at times, immature, it's tough to give the Lakers' Big Three the nod here. I'd have to lean toward Miami with LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh, and Oklahoma City next with Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Robb: Fiction. They may be the toughest Big Three to match up against, but I would hesitate to call them the best, especially with Kobe Bryant currently on the mend. The offensive domination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden makes them the trio that scares me the most right now.
Soriano: Fact-tion. As individuals, I'd take the Heat trio as the most talented. But the Lakers' Big Three is only slightly less talented, meshes better than the Heat's and plays more cohesively on a night-to-night basis. So from that perspective, give me Kobe, Pau and Bynum.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Spurs are the best team in the West.
Adande: Fiction. Although they do match up well with my pick to win the West, the Thunder, I think San Antonio's depth will be mitigated by the ample rest opportunities and shorter rotations brought on by the playoffs. And while the Spurs are not as Manu-dependent as they used to be, I'm still not sure how much Ginobili can give them on a nightly basis these days.
Gordian: Depends. Oklahoma City is the most talented team in the West, but the Spurs play high-quality basketball more consistently than any other team in the conference. San Antonio is the most disciplined team in the NBA, and Gregg Popovich expertly utilizes every ounce of talent his players have.
Peterson: Fiction. I'd like to say fact, because they've clinched the Southwest and Tony Parker is playing out of his mind. But last season they had the West's best record and Memphis bounced the Spurs in the first round. Gregg Popovich & Co. won't let that happen this year, but I still think the Thunder are the team to beat in the West.
Robb: Fiction. They certainly have the deepest team in the Western Conference and the ability to bounce back from their early exit from the postseason last year, but I hesitate to call San Antonio the best. For that, I'll go with the younger and more explosive Thunder.
Soriano: Fiction. I still have the Thunder as the best team in the West, even though the Spurs currently hold the top seed. Oklahoma City's combination of talent, youth and depth gives them a leg up on the conference. That said, the Thunder are probably the most vulnerable "best team" in several years, and they could be eliminated before the conference finals given the wrong matchup.
5. Fact or Fiction: One or more of these four teams will make the Finals.
Adande: Fact. Simply because I've just spent all this time laying out the reasons they won't. Something tells me these playoffs will be very contrarian. Order usually prevails in the NBA playoffs, but not after this chaotic season.
Gordian: Fact. It's not likely that the Hawks or Celtics will take out both the Bulls and the Heat, which will likely be needed. But San Antonio and Los Angeles match up well with the Thunder, and if they don't beat each other up too much in the second round, I'd bet on the Western Conference's old guard this postseason.
Peterson: Fiction. I picked Miami and Oklahoma City before the season and I see no reason to change now.
Robb: Fact. Even though none of these teams are top contenders, they all have a strong foundation of guys who have played together for years. With no clear-cut NBA Finals favorite from either conference, I like the odds of the Spurs, Lakers or Celtics breaking through.
Soriano: Fact. While almost everyone has had the Thunder and Heat on a Finals collision course all year, I think an upset will occur, with either the Spurs or the Lakers making the Finals from the West. OKC is a fantastic team, but I think one of the old dogs has one last run in them.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Rob Peterson contributes to ESPN.com. Graydon Gordian, Brian Robb and Darius Soriano cover the NBA for the TrueHoop Network.