The Celtics and Lakers might as well get down to the business of the NBA Finals now, so exquisite has their march been in the first quarter of the season. The Cavaliers and Spurs possibly would object to the inevitability of a Celtics-Lakers showdown in June. That is understandable given the physical toll the 82-game schedule exacts on the practitioners of the hardwood.
All it takes is one dislocated ankle to subvert the best-laid plans of an NBA team. That, of course, leads to the long-term viability of the revamped Rockets, desperate enough to add the volatile Ron Artest to the mix.
Either Tracy McGrady or Yao Ming will succumb to a quality-of-life issue at some point in the season, and that will be the end of the Rockets.
That is Houston's curse, as pronounced as the one that has the Wizards in its grip.
McGrady and Yao form the most intriguing inside-outside combination in the NBA. Yet they have nothing to show for it other than a succession of first-round exits in the playoffs.
That was the condition of Kevin Garnett in Minnesota until he landed in Boston before last season. Now Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are threatening the 72-win Bulls of 1996.
The Celtics, who entered Friday night with a 24-2 record, are on an unthinkable 76-win pace. A statistical correction is expected because of a beastly travel schedule that overwhelms even the youngest legs.
The 30-something legs of Garnett, Pierce and Allen will be challenged anew in the postseason, as was the case last spring, when both the Hawks and Cavaliers stretched them to seven games in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
That is one of the doubts before the Celtics. The other is LeBron James, the 23-year-old, would-be king threatening to make the NBA his private kingdom.
James is having his most efficient season while averaging the fewest minutes of his career. He is posting career highs in both field goal and free throw shooting and had the Cavaliers on a 69-win pace entering Friday.
James has become the immovable force of the NBA, with the opposition all but reduced to imploring him to take open shots from the perimeter.
The other defensive options are unacceptable, for James is able to absorb the most prejudicial hits before completing the play at the basket. That is the linebacker in him. There is no one else like him in the NBA, what with his unique combination of size, skill and strength.
Kobe Bryant, who aspired to be the so-called man in Los Angeles, has shown he needs gifted pieces around him. He has them now in Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, a far more formidable cast than what James has in Cleveland.
The Celtics and Lakers represent the best of the NBA, with the Cavaliers and now-healthy Spurs looking to close the gap on them. The rest of the leading teams are so many championship pretenders. That includes the Magic, Pistons, Nuggets, Suns, Mavericks and Jazz.
The Pistons, Suns and Mavericks in particular are in various stages of age-induced decline, their championship window all but closed. That reality is especially painful to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, whose championship hopes were vanquished in the last six minutes of Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals.
The ascendancy of the Celtics and Cavaliers, if not the growing relevance of the Magic and Hawks, has completed the transformation of the Eastern Conference. The conference no longer is the junior-varsity circuit of the NBA.
And it all starts with the Celtics, who embrace the tenets of defense. Entering Friday, these Celtics were allowing the second-fewest points in the NBA at 90.26. Their point differential was 10.03, the third-best mark in the NBA behind the Cavaliers and Lakers. And they were holding opponents to a league-leading 41.3 shooting percentage.
If the Celtics, Lakers, Cavaliers and Spurs can maintain their health the rest of the way, the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs will be mostly suspense-free.