Wednesday, April 18, 2018

J-Speaks: The Passing of a Sixers Great

After winning Game 1 of their First-Round series versus the Miami Heat 130-103, hitting a franchise playoff record 18 three-pointers, the Philadelphia 76ers, making their first appearance in the postseason since 2012 came back down to earth on Monday night with a 113-103 setback in Game 2 on Monday night that tied the series 1-1, it pails in comparison to the loss of a Sixers great over the weekend. 
On Saturday night, for Sixers guard Harold Everett “Hal” Greer, who spent his entire career with the Sixers, where they began as the Syracuse Nationals passed away on Saturday night in Arizona from a brief illness. He was 81 years old. The 10-time All-Star and seven-time All-NBA Second Team selection is survived by his wife Mayme and their three children, one son and two daughters. 
The Sixers made the formal announcement of the passing of Mr. Greer on Monday and prior to the start of Game 2 versus the Heat, he was honored by the fans at Wells Fargo Center with a moment of silence. The team also said that for the remainder of the playoffs, the Sixers players will wear a black armband on the sleeve of their jersey that will also have a small patch with Mr. Greer’s number he wore during his career, the No. 15. 
The Sixers said in a statement about the passing of Mr. Greer, “The Philadelphia 76ers organization mourns the passing of Hal Greer, an NBA champion, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and team legend. Throughout his 15-year career with the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers, Greer solidified his place as one of the greatest basketball players ever. An NBA champion in 1967 and 10-time NBA All-Star, Greer’s legacy includes being the 76ers’ all-time leader in points, field goals, field goal attempts, games and minutes played, culminating in him being named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996.” 
Born on June 26,1983 as mentioned in West Virginia, Greer attend the all African American Douglas Junior and Senior High School in Huntington, where he played guard for the men’s basketball team. 
He played collegiately for the Marshall University Thundering Herd Men’s Basketball team, where he became the first African American to play for a public college in West Virginia. 
Mr. Greer scored 1,377 points in his collegiate career with the Thundering Herd on 54.5 percent from the field, which set a new school record. He led Marshall to the Mid-American Conference title in 1956, which earned the school their first NCAA Tournament appearance. 
When the dust settled on Mr. Greer’s career on the collegiate hardwood, he was named All-Mid-American Conference in 1957 and 1958. He was also named an All-American as well in 1958, his senior year where he averaged 23.6 points per contest. Mr. Greer finished his run at Marshall with averages of 19.4 points and 10.8 rebounds. 
He was drafted No. 13 overall in the 1958 NBA draft by the then Syracuse Nationals. In each of his first five seasons with the team, Mr. Greer raised his scoring average to where his highest was 22.8 in 1961, where he made the first of his as mentioned 10 All-Star selections. 
When the team moved to the city of “Brotherly Love” in 1963 to become the Philadelphia 76ers, Mr. Greer teamed up with the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin on the 1966-67 team that won the second of three titles in franchise history by beating the San Francisco Warriors in The NBA Finals 4-2. Greer averaged 27.7 points in those 15 postseason games, a team-high. 
The Sixers got to the precipice of winning their second of three NBA crowns in franchise history by defeating the mighty Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in five games. It was the only time that a team led by the late Wilt Chamberlin got past Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s squad.
In his eighth All-Star appearance one-year late, Mr. Greer earned game MVP honors with 21 points on 8 for 8 shooting, with then a record-breaking 19 points in one period as he led the Eastern Conference to a 144-124 win over the Western Conference in the game played in New York, NY. 
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Mr. Greer’s career of 15 seasons with the Nationals/Sixers was being the first player in franchise history to have his jersey retired 32 years ago. On top of that, the Sixers honored Huntington, WV native with a sculpture of him on 76ers Legends Walk at the team’s training complex in 2017. 
Mr. Greer finished his 15-year career with the Sixers after the 1972-73 campaign with a then franchise record 21,586 points scored. Today he still leads the Sixers in points scored while also finishing as the Sixers career leader in as mentioned earlier in field goals made and attempted, games and minutes played. 
At the 1996 All-Star Game in Cleveland, OH, Mr. Greer earned a position on the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) All-Time Team. 
As much as he was respected by fans, the Sixers organization and around the NBA for his play on the hardwood, Mr. Greer even more admired and remembered for being a true gentleman that used his platform of basketball to inspire and uplift others. 
Former Sixer, fellow Hall of Famer and now NBA on TNT studio analyst Charles Barkley said on the pregame show prior to Game 2 between the Heat and Sixers said that he met Mr. Greer on the number of occasions he did said the one word that many described him was a “gentlemen.” 
“Just a wonderful person,” Barkley, who played for the Sixers from 1984-92 said. “Probably got overshadowed in Philadelphia history because of Wilt [Chamberlin], Billy Cunningham and guys like that. Like I said, I got to meet him quite a few times. Just a great person, and it was an honor and privilege to get to know Mr. Greer.”
Pregame lead studio host Ernie Johnson said of Mr. Greer on Monday that what jumped out to him when he got to see him play as a kid when the Sixers came into town to play the Atlanta Hawks back in the 1960s and 1970s that he shot the equivalent of a mini jump shot from the free throw line. 
Hall of Famer and four-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and Heat Shaquille O’Neal said the first time he met Mr. Greer was at the 50 Greatest celebration 22 years ago. He knew who Mr. Greer was, but O’Neal was amazed that he knew who he was. When Mr. Greer asked O’Neal if he could sign a poster with all the 50 Greatest players on it, it took him by surprise. 
“My condolences go out to his family. We lost a great one today,” O’Neal said on the passing of the Sixers legend.
Fellow TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith made the most important point about Mr. Greer’s impact during his career when he said on Monday is how Mr. Greer paved the way for this generation of NBA players from the money they get paid, to how they travel first class, to even the fact that the National Basketball Association is as inclusive when it comes to the amount of players from not just different states here in the U.S., but different countries. 
There was a time where that was unthinkable, to where African American players and their Caucasian counterparts could not even eat in the same restaurants on the road, or even stay in the same hotels. All that changed among many other things thanks to the sacrifice and commitment to a better future from the likes of Mr. Greer.  
The 1967 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers had great players, legendary players, and even Hall of Famers just like many others that came before and after them. Names like the previously mentioned Chamberlin, Chet Walker, Wali Jones, Billy Cunningham, Lucious Jackson. Hal Greer was the lead guard on that team and was just as great as his teammates. 
As good as Mr. Greer was on the court, he was as mentioned equally that impressive of a man off the court and had a serious impact on everyone from NBA greats that came after him to fans that saw him play in person to those that watched on television. 
Speaking of having an impact on those that love the game of basketball, Mr. Greer in 1980 coached the Philadelphia Kings of the Continental Basketball League (CBL), which was founded in 2009. He also coached the basketball team for Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, PA.  
Along with having a serious impact in Philadelphia, Mr. Greer’s hometown of honored his success in 1966 when West Virginia held “Hal Greer Day” by renaming 16th Street, which carries West Virginia Route 10 as the main artery that lies between the campus/downtown area and Interstate 64 as “Hal Greer Blvd.” in 1978. 
Seven years later, Mr. Greer was inducted into Marshall University Athletics Hall of Fame for not only his career in basketball, but also in baseball where he played first baseman as a sophomore. 
He was a great player on the hardwood both in college and in the pros. He was equally as good a gentleman. Harold Everett Greer left a legacy that has had a lasting impact on not just NBA, but all of humanity in a unique way. He had a unique way of being a great player but found a way to fit in with the team and had an impact on winning a title 51 years ago and showed the true value of being a gamer and leader on-and-off the court. He was able to be a great player and even a greater person.
Information, statistics, and quotation are courtesy of 4/16/18 5:30 p.m. of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” with Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser; 4/16/18 8 p.m. edition of TNT’s “NBA Tip-Off,” presented by Autotrader with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal; 4/16/18 story, “Philadelphia 76ers Hall of Famer Hal Greer Dies at 81;”; Sporting News “2006-07 Official NBA Guide;”; and

Saturday, April 14, 2018

J-Speaks: 2018 NBA Playoff Preview

The 2017-18 National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) regular season was one of the most dynamic, electric, talked about and tweeted about in recent memory. The attention now turns to the 2018 NBA Playoffs where there is a plethora of juicy storylines that from will we get Chapter Four of the defending NBA champions versus the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions? Will their arch nemesis in their respective conferences, who enter this postseason as the No. 1 Seeds deny that moment from happening? What will last season’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft and this season’s No. 13 pick, who are in race for this season’s Rookie of the Year do in their first appearance in the NBA’s second season? Also, what other talented team in this year’s field make an impact in the postseason. These are the questions that will be tackled in the 2018 NBA Playoff preview. 
Abbreviation Key: which represents statistics from this season: ppg-points per game; rpg- rebounds per game; spg-steals per game; bpg-block shots per game; FG%-field goal percentage; 3-Pt.%-three-point percentage; opp.-opponent’s, mpg-minutes per game and T-tied. 
Eastern Conference

(1)   Toronto Raptors versus (8) Washington Wizards

     -Season Series: tied 2-2. 
Three years ago, the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards met in the opening round of the playoffs with the Raptors having homecourt advantage. The then three time defending Atlantic Division champions were swept by the team they dominated in the regular season. In their second installment, the Raptors, who won the Atlantic Division for the fourth time in the last five seasons enter their second postseason tilt as the No. 1 Seed in the East and look as ready to vanquish their postseason demons while the Wizards enter this matchup with a lot of questions. 
The Raptors put together the best season in franchise history going 59-23 in the regular season, with 34 of those wins coming at the Air Canada Centre, tying the Houston Rockets, for the best home mark in the league at 34-7. Their 25 road wins are the best in franchise history, as was their 40-12 mark against the rest of the East. 
This stellar record is due in large part to a marked improvement on both ends of the court. At the offensive end, the Raptors relied on more ball movement, ranking No. 6 in assists this season at 24.3 per game. They shot more three-pointers this season, ranking third in attempts at 33.0, and finished tied with the Dallas Mavericks in makes from distance at 11.8. 
The All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan (23.0-Leads team, 5.2 apg, 45.6 FG%) and Kyle Lowry (16.2 ppg, 6.9 apg-Leads team, 5.6 rpg, 39.9 3-Pt.%) made it happen by involving the rest of the Raptors cast to make their own contributions at the offensive end. 
That trust is why the Raptors had one of the best benches in the NBA led by sharp shooter CJ Miles (10.0 ppg, 36.1 3-Pt.%), guards Fred VanVleet (8.6 ppg, 41.4 3-Pt.%), Norman Powell (5.5 ppg) and Delon Wright (8.0 ppg, 46.5 FG%, 36.6 3-Pt.%), forward Pascal Siakam (7.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 50.8 FG%) and center Jakob Poeltl (6.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 65.9 FG%). 
The other starters alongside DeRozan and Lowry in forward Serge Ibaka (12.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 48.3 FG%, 36.0 3-Pt.%), center Jonas Valanciunas (12.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg-Leads team, 56.8 FG%) and rookie forward OG Anunoby (5.9 ppg, 47.1 FG%, 37.1 3-Pt.%) have been solid. 
The question for head coach Dwane Casey’s team is can they finally put it all together and finally make it to The Finals for the first time in franchise history. 
In the last four seasons, they have lost twice in the opening round, once as mentioned to the Wizards when they had homecourt advantage and the past two seasons have lost in the Conference Finals and last season in the Semifinals to four-time league MVP LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. 
The other big hurdle the Raptors have not gotten over is not winning Game 1 of a series, where they have lost their last 10 attempts, including 0-7 in the Lowry/DeRozan and Coach Casey era dating back to the 2013 postseason. 
“We’ve lost a lot of Game 1s. Lost a lot of Game 1s,” Lowry said a couple of days ago. “So, we got to play like Game 7 and that’s the mentality we have to have.”
It almost appropriate that the Raptors first test of this postseason comes against the Wizards (43-39), who this season have been the greatest example of Dr. Jekyll versus Mr. Hyde. 
While they still have the same core of talented players like their starting quintet of All-Star backcourt of John Wall (19.4 ppg, 9.6 apg, 37.1 FG%) and Bradley Beal (22.6 ppg-Leads team, 4.5 apg, 4.4 rpg, 46.0 FG%, 37.5 3-Pt.%), center Marcin Gortat (8.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 51.8 FG%), and forwards Markieff Morris (11.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 48.0 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%) and Otto Porter, Jr. (14.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.5 spg-Leads team 50.3 FG% 44.1 3-Pt.%-3rd NBA), the team was never cohesive on either end of the floor the entire season, as evidenced by their 14 losses over the final 21 games of this season. 
After their fourth straight loss versus the struggling Atlanta Hawks (24-58) 103-97 last Friday night, their 14th of 15 this season to the 12 teams with a below .500 record head coach Scott Brooks did not hold his frustration with his team’s play overall this season. 
“If we’re going to talk about doing things, we got to do it with our actions. We got to guard somebody,” he said. 
“Our perimeter defense is poorest. It’s embarrassing to get beat by back doors after back doors. But I got to do a better job, and I have to figure it out going into the playoffs who’s going to be able to not make mistakes as many times that we do, and regardless of what they think they should play, there not going to play.” 
“We got to start guarding somebody and we got to start moving the basketball the way we’re capable of doing it. If we’re not going to do that, I’ll find five guys that do that. I don’t care how small we are, or how big we are.” 
“It’s embarrassing that we don’t play with the passion we need to play at. It’s time. We’ve been saying that for a while.”
It did not help the Wizards that Wall played in just 41 games this season because of injury, with 28 games of those absences following knee surgery on Jan. 31. When he did come back, Wall played in just four of the team’s final 17 games. 
In the first 13 games without their starting lead guard, the Wizards went 10-3, where they shot 49 percent from the field; averaged 30.2 assists in those games with a point-differential of plus-five. 
The next 15 games of that stretch when the competition got tougher, the Wizards were just 5-10, shooting a respectable 46 percent from the floor and averaging 26.9 assists, but their point-differential was a -3.9. 
“Let’s face it, anytime you lose one of the best players in the league it puts your team in a tough position,” coach Scott Brooks, whose team lost at the Orlando Magic (25-57) on Wednesday night said. “We’re a different team with him, like any team would be. He’s dynamic, he’s explosive, gets easy points for all of us.”
Another reason for the Wizards inconsistency has been their bench play. Reserve forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. (11.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 34.1 3-Pt.%), who has had a breakout season off the bench for the boys from the nation’s capital has averaged just 10.2 points on 27.1 percent from the field the last 10 games, which includes an eye-closing 10 for 53 from three-point range. 
The Wizards’ will be even thinner without guard Jodie Meeks (6.3, 34.3 3-Pt.%) and his three-point shooting off the bench as the NBA suspended him for 25 games for violating the league’s and the NBA Player’s Association’s Anti-Drug program when he tested positive for Ipamorelin and Growth Hormone Releasing Reptide-2. 
This puts more pressure on Oubre, Jr. Wall’s understudy Tomas Satoransky (7.2 ppg, 3.9 apg, 52.3 FG%, 46.5 3-Pt.%), sharp shooting forward Mike Scott (8.8 ppg, 52.7 FG%, 40.5 3-Pt.%), center Ian Mahinmi (4.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 55.6 FG%) and guard Ramon Sessions to perform along with Gortat, Morris, and Porter Jr. 
If that was not enough, Porter, Jr. is questionable for the start of the series because of a lower right leg strain he sustained in the team’s 113-101 win versus the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.
There are a few of things in the Wizards favor as they enter this series. For starters, they defeated the Raptors twice this season, 107-96 on Nov. 5, 2017 at Toronto, and 102-96 on Mar. 2 in D.C. Wall did not play in any of the four meetings between the two squads, so he adds a new wrinkle, a very important one. 
Perhaps the biggest reason for hope that the Wizards have a chance in this series is the fact that there have been several teams over the years that have had the kind of talent the Wizards have pulled the upset of beating the No. 1 Seed in the postseason.
Since the NBA went to a 16-team format for the postseason in 1984 five No. 8 Seeds did the unthinkable and upset the No. 1 Seed. The 1994 Denver Nuggets beat the then Seattle Supersonics 3-2 in the then best-of-five opening round. The 1999 New York Knicks knocked off the Heat in five games. The 2007 Golden State Warriors sent the Dallas Mavericks home for the season in six games. The 2011 Memphis Grizzlies upset the San Antonio Spurs in six games, and one-year later the Philadelphia 76ers knocked out the Chicago Bulls in six games. 
Of all those team though, only the Knicks advanced past the Semis, where they lost in The Finals in 1999 to the Spurs in five games.  
That said, the Raptors have their best chance to get to The Finals. Truly the only team that can beat them and no one would bat an eye to that are the Cavs. So, for the Raptors, Lowry, DeRozan, and Coach Casey, it is now or perhaps never, especially with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers showing this season they will be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come. 
“As long as you have that continuous opportunity, you got to understand, you know they don’t come around too often,” DeRozan said to ESPN, “NBA: The Jump” host Rachel Nichols earlier this week. “That we have another opportunity. This could be our last, we got to treat it like our last.”
Series Prediction: Raptors in 5 games.

(4) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (5) Indiana Pacers
     -Season Series: Pacers won 3-1. 

The three-time defending Eastern Conference champions begin their quest to reach The Finals for a fourth straight season against a familiar foe, who many thought would have fallen off the cliff this season after trading away their perennial All-Star swingman to the West, for what was the equivalent of an Arizona ice tea and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. What the Indiana Pacers got back is a guy who became a first time All-Star and the person who came along in the trade did a complete 180 from his rookie season in OKC. Their reward, a rematch with their arch nemesis whose ended their season quite a few times in recent years. 
Because the Indiana Pacers (48-34) took three of the four games from the Central Division champions, it is conventional wisdom that the outcome would be a lot different than last season, where the Cavs swept the Pacers 4-0 in the opening round. 
History though is not on their side as in the four prior meetings against James whether he was with the Miami Heat and last season with the Cavs were sent home for the summer in the Semis in 2012 4-2; twice in the Conference Finals 4-3 and 4-2 in the Conference Finals respectably in 2013 and 2014. 
The simple fact that the Pacers are even in the playoffs is one of the feel-good stories for head coach Nate McMillan’s squad this NBA campaign. 
Guard Victory Oladipo (23.1 ppg-Leads team, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg, 2.3 spg-Leads NBA, 47.7 FG%, 37.1 3-Pt.%), who came over in the trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with second-year forward Domantas Sabonis (11.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg-Leads team, 51.4 FG%, 35.1 3-Pt.%) played big roles in turning the Pacers from a lottery team into a playoff team. 
Center Myles Turner (12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg-3rd NBA, 47.9 FG%, 35.7 3-Pt.%) and forwards Thaddeus Young (11.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.7 spg, 48.7 FG%) and Bogan Bogdanovic (14.3 ppg, 47.4 FG%, 40.2 3-Pt.%) performed as well as any starting front court trio in the league. 
The additions of veteran guards Darren Collison (12.4 ppg, 5.3 apg49.5 FG%, 46.8 3-Pt.%) and Cory Joseph (7.9 ppg, 35.3 3-Pt.%) brought veteran savvy and great play to the lead guard spot. 
Along with Joseph, reserves Lance Stephenson (9.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Al Jefferson, recent addition Trevor Booker and the late return of Glenn Robinson III from injury have provided solid play off the bench for the Pacers. 
What really gives the Pacers a chance against the mighty Cavs in this series is the fact that they were ability to close games as evidenced by their 41-4 mark when leading after three quarters and an 11-2 mark in games decided by three-points or less, which includes a 97-95 win versus the Cavs on Jan. 12. 
The Pacers also won three of the four tilts against the Cavs thanks to hitting 46 percent of their three-pointers, making an average of 13.5 per game, while the Cavs made just 28 percent of their triples, with an average of 9.5 makes. 
Even with those great numbers, the Pacers are dealing with a team that has the great LeBron James, who still averaged 28.8 points, 10.3 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals against the Pacers this season in the postseason. 
For the as mentioned three-time defending East champion Cavs (50-32), this season has had more twist and turns than a soap opera from the injuries, to the overhaul of half their roster at the Feb. 8 trade deadline, to having their head coach Tyronn Lue missing time because of health issues.
The one constant for the Cavs this season has been James (27.5 ppg-3rd NBA, 8.6 rpg, 9.1 apg-2nd NBA, 54.2 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%) who in season No. 15 was out of this world. 
In the Cavs 110-98 loss versus the New York Knicks (29-53) in the regular-season finale on Wednesday night, James had 10 points in 11 minutes of work scored in double-figures for the 873rd straight game, adding on to the NBA record. He also played in all 82 games for the first time in his career, while logging 3.026 total minutes, which led the league.
His 18 triple-doubles, which were a single-season career-best and second in the league this regular season were the most by a player in their 15th season or later. James’ 52 double-doubles in the regular season are the highest of his career. 
Thanks to James the Cavs won 50 games for the fourth straight season and the 11th time in franchise history and captured the Central Division for the fourth straight season and James going back to his time with the Miami Heat won his 10th straight Division crown, an NBA record. 
Things really changed for the Cavs at the trade deadline back on Feb. 8 when General Manager Kolby Altman acquired guards Jordan Clarkson (13.9 ppg, 45.1 FG%, 35.2 3-Pt.%) and Larry Nance, Jr. (8.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 58.1 FG%) from the Los Angeles Lakers; Rodney Hood (14.7 ppg, 38.1 3-Pt.%) from the Utah Jazz and veteran George Hill (10.0 ppg, 46.0 FG%, 41.5 3-Pt.%) from the Sacramento Kings. 
The Cavs finished 19-10 after the trade, which included a 12-4 mark to close the season.  They also went 8-1 without head coach Tyronn Lue, who took a much needed late-season sabbatical to get a handle on his health.
He was absence for nine games and the team under interim head coach Larry Drew went 8-1 in Lue’s absence.
“I mean it’s something different every year,” Lue said earlier this week. “You know, just, ‘As the ‘Land Turns’ is what I call it. Just something every year. Three or four things every season. We always come together, we always find a way, and that’s the biggest thing.” 
The one something that has been an issue for the Cavs and what might prevent them from making it back to The Finals is their play defensively, where they finished the regular season No. 28 in opponent’s field goal percentage surrendering 47.4 percent. The Cavs finished 22nd in rebounding differential at -1.5; 24th in steals at 7.1; and tied for 28th in block shots at 3.8. 
Along with playing better defense, the Cavs will need to have Kevin Love (17.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg-Leads team 45.8 FG%, 41.5 3-Pt.%), who was shelved for six weeks from Jan. 31-Mar. 19 with a broken left hand to emerge as the team’s second-best scorer. They will need Hood, Clarkson, and Hill, will have to emerge as guys who can make shots, especially three-pointers when James penetrates to the basket. 
Speaking of Cavs needing to make shots, if the Cavs have any plans on making it back to The Finals again, they will need JR Smith (8.3 ppg), who has been in a serious shooting funk all season, making only 40.3 percent of his shots overall, but 37.5 of his threes to find his stroke like he did in the playoffs two seasons back when the Cavs won it all. 
That along with the re-emergence of center Tristan Thompson as a rebounder and interior defender are also a necessity for the Cavs. 
The Pacers will put up a fight in this series, but in the end James and the Cavs will emerge victorious. James is on a mission to get back to The Finals for his eighth straight time. 
To put that into context, James would tie former Boston Celtic greats K.C. Jones and Frank Ramsey with eight appearances in The Finals. Only Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn with nine and 10 by the legendary Bill Russell have more. 
The other reason the Pacers should proceed this series with caution is that James is 20-0 in the Quarterfinals the past five seasons, with his Heat and Cavs teams sweeping those series 4-0 from 2013 to 2017. 
Series Prediction: Cavaliers in 6 games.

(2)   Boston Celtics versus (7) Milwaukee Bucks

     -Season Series: tied 2-2. 
This tilt features one team that features one of the Top 10 players in “The Association” against a team that will be without its two All-Stars, but has used defense, three-point shooting and team work to reach this point where they are still confident they can go far in this postseason.
For the Celtics (55-27), this has been a season of major resiliency. It began on opening night in October 2017 where they lost prized free agent in All-Star Gordon Hayward just minutes into their season with a serious ankle injury. 
After losing their first two games of the season, head coach Brad Stevens teams responded with 16 straight wins and never looked back from there, clinching a playoff berth on Mar. 8. 
They C’s lost their other prized new addition in All-Star starting lead guard Kyrie Irving (24.4 ppg, 5.1 apg, 49.1 FG%, 40.8 3-Pt%) for the postseason due to a second surgery on his left knee last month. That is on the heels of losing rookie backup center Daniel Theis to shoulder surgery, and guard Marcus Smart (10.2 ppg, 4.8 apg) is likely out for the opening round with a torn UCL tendon in his right thumb, that has had him on the shelf since Mar. 11. 
What has kept the Celtics upright entering the playoffs is that they have played well without their floor general during the regular season going 14-8, including a 6-5 mark against playoff teams. One big reason for that has been the play of Irving’s understudy Terry Rozier (11.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 38.1 3-Pt.%), who averaged 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 16 starts. 
The two other things that give the Celtics a serious chance of advancing in the postseason is their ability to play defense, their ability to make threes, as well as defend the three-point line and all the players know their roles and the team will play with effort and energy no matter who is on the floor for head coach Brad Stevens. 
The young core players that will headline the team in the years to come in the previously mentioned Rozier, Jaylen Brown (14.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 46.5 FG%, 39.5 3-Pt.%), rookie Jayson Tatum (13.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 47.5 FG%, 43.4 3-Pt.%) have grown each game on both ends of the floor. 
The veteran leadership and front court presence of Al Horford (12.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 4.7 apg, 48.9 FG%, 42.9 3-Pt.%), Greg Monroe (10.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 56.5 FG%) and Aron Baynes (6.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 47.1 FG%) has been invaluable. 
The injuries have also given an opportunity to the likes of Abdel Nader, Shane Larking, Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele and they have made solid contributions on both ends, especially in recent weeks.
“When you got guys that care about winning as much as you do, it takes a lot of weight off your shoulders,” Rozier said about replacing Irving. “We all got the same goals. We’re not counting ourselves out. So, when you got a lot of guys that’s doubting if we can win, then it’s a problem but we all have the same goals, and that makes me feel more comfortable about myself.”  
When you think of the Celtics under Coach Stevens, they as mentioned will play as a unit; will shoot threes and play defense. 
Only the defending champion Golden State Warriors shot better from distance than the 37.7 percent the C’s shot in the regular season. They were tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for 10th in triples attempted at 30.4 and were tied with the Denver Nuggets in makes at 11.5. The Celtics were one of two teams with two players in Horford and Tatum in the Top 10 in three-point percentage amongst individuals. 
The Celtics were as good at defending the three-point line as they led the NBA surrendering just 33.9 percent to the opposition from distance. This was the 11th consecutive season the Celtics ranked in the Top 5 in opponent’s three-point field goal percentage. 
The Celtics finished the regular season second in opponent’s shooting percentage allowing just 44.0 percent. 
“I just think it’s anytime your holding your ground. Your rebounding with all five guys. Your back in transition,” Stevens said during a press conference about what a team playing great defense looks like. 
Stevens added, “That doesn’t change. I think sometimes we get caught up in adjustments and everything else in playoffs like. It’s the compete level on every play and the desire to do your job on every play that actually add up.” 
The main objective for the Celtics’ defense against the Bucks (44-38) is to slow down the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg-5th NBA, 10.0 rpg-Leads team, 4.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 52.9 FG%), who averaged 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, five assists and 1.8 steals, on 53.2 percent against the Celtics in the regular season. 
He was one of three players to score at least 40 points against the C’s, where he had 40 in the Bucks 111-100 loss at the Celtics on Dec. 4, 2017. 
As good as the fifth-year player from Greece has been for the Bucks this season, the team was just 23-22 before the organization fired head coach Jason Kidd, replacing him on an interim basis with assistant Joe Prunty, who went a decent 21-16. 
One of the biggest differences between the Bucks and the Celtics is that we know that the boys from “Beantown” will bring it night-in and night-out on the hardwood. 
For the Bucks you just do not know for sure. They have a plethora of talented players in starting lead guard Eric Bledsoe (17.7 ppg, 47.3 FG%, 34.7 3-Pt.%), who should be averaging more than five assists per game. 
Swingman Khris Middleton (20.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.0 apg, 46.6 FG%, 35.9 3-Pt.%)), has the skills to be one of the best two-way players in the business, has shown at times he can be the second best Buck on the floor, but has not shown it enough at times. 
Starting center John Henson (8.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 57.2 FG%) has shown flashes he could be a serious presence on both ends, but he really does not have the knack of finding his own offense and there are times he gets lost defensively. 
The one player who could be a real difference for this team is Jabari Parker (12.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 48.2 FG%, 38.3 3-Pt.%), but two serious ACL injuries, especially his last one set him back where he played just 51 games last season, and just 31 games this regular season. 
Parker in recent games has shown he could be the second banana on offense next to Antetokounmpo and if he can be anything close to the player that was putting it all together prior to the injury last season, the Bucks have a chance to win this series. 
What would also help is if the likes of Tony Snell (6.9 ppg, 40.3 3-Pt.%), Thon Maker, Shabazz Muhammad (8.5 ppg, w/Bucks in 11 games), last season’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (13.0ppg, 48.5 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%) and his understudy Matthew Dellavedova and center Tyler Zeller can have the kind of impact at both ends that the Celtics other players provide consistently. 
Other than the 11-point win by the Celtics at the Bucks as previously mentioned back in December 2017, the other three games were decided by a total of 23 points. The Celtics calling card has been their defense and they will have to be at their best on that end if they want to move forward, especially without Irving. 
For the Bucks, if Antetokonumpo can get some help offensively from his teammates and they can put the clamps on the C’s offensively, they could win their first playoff series defeating the Charlotte Hornets in the 2001 Semis 4-3. Those 17 seasons since their last playoff series win is the longest drought currently in the NBA. 
Series Prediction: Celtics in 7 games.

(3)   Philadelphia 76ers versus (6) Miami Heat
           -Season Series: tied 2-2. 
The No. 3 versus No. 6 East postseason clash features one finally seeing the fruits of their so-called rebuild entitled “The Process,” while their opponent is in the postseason for the 20th time in their 30 seasons of existence and reached the playoffs after missing out by just one game a season ago. 
The Philadelphia 76ers (52-30) won 50-plus games for the first time since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson led them to The Finals in 2001, where they lost to Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers 4-1. 
Behind the talented young duo of leading Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons and dynamic center Joel Embiid, and head coach Brett Brown, the Sixers have shown that it will not be too long before they become a serious title contender, perhaps this season. 
Behind a franchise record 16 wins in a row to close the 2017-18 regular season, the Sixers moved up to the No. 3 slot overtaking the Cavaliers. 
The most impressive thing about the streak is they won the next eight games of it without Embiid (22.9 ppg-Leads team, 11.0 rpg-T-6th NBA, 1.8 bpg-4th NBA, 48.3 FG%) who sustained an orbital bone fracture of his left eye. 
“I don’t think I’m ready yet,” Embiid said on Wednesday. “It still doesn’t fell all the way right.” 
“I want to play but right now I feel like I’m not ready yet.” It’s getting there. I’ve got to keep working every day. With the way it’s been progressing. I’m hopeful I’ll be back soon.”
His absence gave room for Simmons (15.8 ppg, 8.2 apg, 8.1 rpg, 54.5 FG%) to really blossom, and he will have to continue his fine play as Embiid is out at least for Game 1 of this series recovering from as previously mentioned from injury. 
“We’re ready to go,” Simmons, whose 12 triple-doubles during the regular season are the most since the 26 by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson in 1960-61 said on Thursday of the Sixers mindset heading into the playoffs. “It’s going to be fun. It’s a tough team [Heat] to play against, but we got all the pieces.”
Besides Simmons, the Sixers have gotten and will need to continue getting solid contributions from Dario Saric (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 45.3 FG%, 39.3 3-Pt.%), JJ Redick (17.1 ppg, 46.0 FG%, 42.0 3-Pt.%), Ersan Ilyasova (10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 36.0 3-Pt.%), Robert Covington (12.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg 1.7 spg, 36.9 3-Pt.%), Richaun Holmes (6.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 56.0 FG%), TJ McConnell (6.3 ppg, 4.0 apg, 49.9 FG%) Amir Johnson and rookie No. 1 overall pick in 2018 draft Markelle Fultz (7.1 ppg), who in the Sixers 130-95 win versus the Bucks in their regular-season finale on Wednesday night had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, become the youngest player in NBA history at 19 years old to register a triple-double. 
While to most fans the Sixers get a lot of attention because of their play at the offensive end, where five players scored at least a total of 1,000 points during the regular year from their ability to pass, make three-point shots at a high clip and that their stars in Simmons and Embiid when he players are out of this world when it comes to putting the ball in the hole. 
What has gotten the Sixers over the top and into the playoffs has been their play at the defensive end, where they led the league in field goal percentage allowed during the regular season, giving up just 43.4 percent and were No. 1 in rebound differential at +5.2. Their No. 2 in three-point percentage allowed at 33.9; tied with the Knicks and the Jazz for No. 9 in blocks shots at 5.1; and No. 7 in steals at 8.3.
The one thing that the Sixers lack entering the playoffs is experience, and where that might hurt them is if the game is close, especially against their First-Round opponent in the Heat who grew very accustomed to playing games in the pressure cooker this season. 
The Sixers during the regular season were tied for the most defeats with seven after leading by 15 points or more and for the most setbacks with four after leading by 20 points or more. 
To illustrate this point further, the Heat (44-38) played a league high 53 games that were within five points in the last five minutes during the season and 27 of their games this season were decided by six points or less. 
One reason the Southeast Division champions played in so many close games is that they do not have that legitimate All-Star who can close games out offensively. 
For head coach Erik Spoelstra’s team, they handle their business by committee, beginning with first time All-Star Goran Dragic (17.3 ppg-Leads team, 4.8 apg-Leads team, 45.0 FG%, 37.0 3-Pt.%); center Hassan Whiteside (14.0 ppg, 11.4 rpg-Leads team, 1.7 bpg-Leads team, 54.0 FG%); guards Josh Richardson (12.9 ppg, 45.1 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%) and Tyler Johnson (11.7 ppg, 36.7 3-Pt%); forward James Johnson (10.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.8 apg, 50.3 FG%); forward/center Kelly Olynyk (11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 49.7 FG%, 37.9 3-Pt.%); sharp shooter Wayne Ellington (10.8 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%), who hit 227 threes on the season, a new single-season Heat record, with an NBA record 218 triples off the bench; and reserves Justise Winslow (7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and rookie Bam Adebayo (6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 51.2 FG%).   
The Heat while they played in a lot of close games, especially early in the regular season, they were coming up on the short end of a lot of them. 
To fix that, they acquired Mr. Miami himself in Dwyane Wade (11.4 ppg) to return the place he called home for 13 seasons at the Feb. 8 trade deadline. 
The return of Wade has been a major help in the Heat’s ability to close games, especially against the Sixers. 
In the Feb. 27 meeting that the boys from South Florida won 102-101, Wade scored a season-high 27 points, including 15 of the Heat’s final 17 points to overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. 
Thirteen days prior on Valentine’s Day, Wade was not a lucky as his three-pointer at the horn rimmed out as the Sixers overcame a 23-point halftime deficit to win the game 104-102. 
Simmons finished with a triple-double of 18 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists to pace the Sixers, who outscored the Heat 31-21 in the fourth period. 
The Heat turned the tables on the Sixers in the fourth, outscoring them 35-25 to win the Mar. 8 tilt in Miami 108-99. 
“This is great competition,” Spoelstra said about the four-game with the Sixers in the regular season. “We had some crazy games where both teams had big leads, lost the lead. This is what you want.”
In a series where it will be tightly contested, it is the little things that will make the difference. 
For instance, who will guard Simmons? The Heat likely will start off with James Johnson on him and go from there. 
If Embiid does comes back, can Whiteside contain him, and keep his composure? On many occasions this season, Whiteside has let his emotions get the better of him. If he can keep his cool, Whiteside can play a major factor in this series, with Embiid in the lineup or without. 
Series Prediction: Sixers in 7 games.

Western Conference

(1)   Houston Rockets versus (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
           -Season Series: Rockets won 4-0.

Back in the opening round of the 1997 NBA Playoffs, a veteran Houston Rocket squad led by Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley faced the Minnesota Timberwolves, led by future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. The Rockets won that best-of-five series in a 3-0 sweep. In their second meeting this weekend nearly two decades later a similar theme will take place where the boys of “Clutch City” are looking to make their first Finals appearance since 1995, while the boys from the “Twin Cities,” are making their first playoff appearance in quite some time. 
From the start of this season, the Rockets (65-17) had one goal, earn home court advantage over the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors to best position themselves to win it all in June. 
They took down the champions in their house on opening night, spoiling their ring ceremony, and it was a sign of things to come. 
What came was the best regular season in franchise history with 65 wins, surpassing the 58 wins by the 1994 title team of Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe, now TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell and head coach Rudy Tomjanovich. 
The Rockets thanks to their fantastic regular season might have another MVP in the fold in All-Star guard James Harden (30.4 ppg-Leads NBA, 8.8 apg-3rd, NBA, 5.4 rpg, 1.8 spg-7th NBA, 44.9 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%). 
The addition of perennial All-Star Chris Paul (18.6 ppg, 7.9 apg, 5.4 rpg, 1.7 spg, 46.0 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%); the emergence of Clint Capela (13.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg-8th NBA, 1.9 bpg-2nd NBA, 65.2 FG%-Leads NBA) into a serious rim protector and finisher at the rim has been a great aide the Rockets, who went 42-3 when Paul, Harden and Capela were in the lineup. 
The Rockets in their second season under head coach Mike D’Antoni shattered the record for three-pointers made in a single-season with 1,256. In fact, they became the first team in NBA history to attempt more three-pointers (3,470) than two-point field goals (3,426). 
Along with Harden and Paul, sharp shooters in forwards Ryan Anderson (9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 38.6 3-Pt.%), Trevor Ariza (11.7 ppg, 1.5 spg, 36.8 3-Pt.%), PJ Tucker (6.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 37.0 3-Pt.%) and Gerald Green (12.1 ppg, 36.9 3-Pt.%); guards Eric Gordon (18.0 ppg, 35.9 3-Pt.%) and Joe Johnson are a big reason the Rockets were such a prolific three-point shooting team, finishing the regular season No. 1 in connections at (15.3) and in attempts (42.3), even though they finished tied with the New Orleans Pelicans in percentage at 36.2.
The biggest difference in the Rockets this season from a season ago is they consistently play defense, where they finished tied with the Raptors and Detroit Pistons in points allowed at 103.9. The Rockets finished sixth in opponent’s three-point percentage, surrendering just 35.1 percent from distance; No. 5 in steals at 8.5 and tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for ninth in forced turnovers at 14.0 during the regular season. 
The toughness, savvy and all out focus that Tucker, Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute (7.5 ppg, 48.1 FG%, 36.4 3-Pt.), and late season addition of veteran Joe Johnson to go alongside Ariza and Capela have paid of big time for the Rockets at that end of the floor. 
“Whether it’s [playing against] bad record teams, or guys in or out the lineups, we just had a mindset all season that this year was going to be special,” Harden said after the team’s 105-99 win at the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night to NBA on TNT’s Kristen Ledlow. 
Harden in particular should be extremely motivated for this postseason considering his last contest in Game 6 of the Semis versus the Spurs he had just 10 points on 2 for 11 shooting in the 114-75 loss on Mar. 11, 2017.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on the 6 p.m. edition of “Sportscenter” on Thursday that Harden within a couple of weeks of that six-game loss that ended the Rockets season he was on the phone with Paul trying to recruit him to join the Rockets. 
To put into context how big of a postseason this is for the shoe in for league MVP, the Rockets in Harden’s six seasons with the team are 447-240, a .651 winning percentage in the regular season, where he has averaged 23.0 points and 6.1 assists on 36 percent from three-point range. 
The playoffs in contrast in those six seasons, the Rockets are 44-44, right at .500 and Harden has averaged just 20.7 points and 5.2 assists on 34 percent from distance. 
Harden if he wins league MVP when the NBA has its award show from Los Angeles, CA June 25 on TNT wants to accept that honor after leading the Rockets to The Finals and not being knocked out early in the postseason. 
The Rockets First-Round opponent the Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35) are making their first playoff appearance, ending the second longest postseason drought in league history at 13. 
It took a 112-106 overtime win on the Wednesday night versus the Denver Nuggets (46-36), the final night of the regular season to earn their ticket to the playoffs. 
All-Star forward Jimmy Butler (22.2 ppg-Leads team, 5.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, 47.4 FG%, 35.0 3-Pt%) led the way with 31 points, five boards and five assists. First time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns (21.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg-4th NBA, 54.5 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.%) had his league-leading 68th double-double of the season with 26 points and 14 rebounds, while Andrew Wiggins (17.7 ppg) had 18 points, including two clutch free throws in overtime to seal the win. Starting lead guard Jeff Teague (14.2 ppg, 7.0 apg-Leads team, 1.5 spg, 44.6 FG%, 36.8 3-Pt.%) had 17 points and seven assists. 
“The fans wanted their playoff chance and I’m glad we gave it to them tonight,” Towns said to NBATV via arena link after the win. 
“I remember when I got drafted I made a promise to ‘Flip’ [Saunders] that I would do everything in my power to bring this town, this state, this organization end the playoff drought, and I’m fortunate and blessed with the teammates I have here and the great organization here that I’m able to do that.” 
Their reward is the Rockets who dominated the Timberwolves in their four meetings in the regular season. 
In their first meeting on Jan. 18, the Rockets won 116-98 behind the 30 points of Gordon. The Rockets shot 17 for 39 from three-point range. 
Despite 35 points and 12 rebounds from center Karl-Anthony Towns, the Rockets won the second meeting in Minneapolis, MN 126-108 with Harden leading the way with 34 points and 13 assists. Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s team gave up 22 threes in 47 tries to the Rockets on that night, while the T’Wolves were just 6 for 23 from long distance. 
In their third tilt 10 days later back in Texas, Harden had 31 points and nine assists as the Rockets won again 120-102, behind 14 for 38 shooting from three-point range and holding the T’Wolves to 42.6 percent shooting. 
This was also the night that All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, the team’s prized acquisition during the off-season injured his knee that required surgery. He missed 15 games and the T’Wolves went 6-9 in his absence, which put them in the position where they had to win on Wednesday night to make the playoffs. 
While the fourth game on Mar. 18 seemed close in the final count, the Rockets dominated the T’Wolves on their home floor 38-23 after the first quarter and won the game 129-120. Harden had a game-high 34 points with 12 assists. While the home team shot 52.6 percent on the evening from the field, outscoring the Rockets 62-46 in the paint, and out-rebounded them 51-40, including 14-8 on the offensive glass, the Rockets still shot 55.1 percent and went 16 for 35 from three-point range. 
When the injury to Butler happened, the objectives of the T’Wolves was to just get into the playoffs, which they did accomplish. 
That win on Wednesday night though was more than just ending the longest current playoff drought in the NBA. It was the fulfillment of a promise made by Towns when he was drafted in 2015, and just two months after that promise was made, Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgins Lymphoma. Four months later, the last coach to take the T’Wolves to the playoffs passed away. 
In that time from the team’s last playoff appearance in 2004 led by Saunders, future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, and players have come and gone from the team, coaches have come and gone from the team. Promised of better days have been made and then broken. 
The only thing that the was broken on Wednesday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis, MN were the hearts of the Nuggets and it was the Timberwolves led by Towns fulfilled a promise of getting back to the postseason.
Their chances of winning this series against the Rockets is very slim, especially since Harden and Paul, who has never made it to the Conference Finals is on a mission to make not just there but The Finals, and hopefully he and Harden can lead them to the team’s first Larry O’Brien trophy since 1995. 
Series Prediction: Rockets in four games.

(4) Oklahoma City Thunder versus (5) Utah Jazz

 -Season Series: Thunder won 3-1. 
In one off-season one team went from a fringe playoff team into an instant contender with two key acquisitions. Unfortunately, that said team with the latest All-Star trio won just one more game then they did a season ago. Another team lost their best player in free agency, and everyone thought they were lottery bound before the season even started. That team went from a lottery team to home court advantage as the 2018 NBA Playoffs commence. They will meet to decide which story will continue. 
For the second straight season, Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star lead guard Russell Westbrook (25.4 ppg, 10.3 apg, 10.1 rpg,, 1.8 spg-5th NBA, 44.9 FG%) became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in back-to-back seasons. 
However, the reigning Kia MVP more than likely will not finish in the Top 5 in voting this season, meaning a guy who plays with as big a chip on his shoulder than anyone in the league goes into this postseason ready to make a serious point with fellow All-Stars Paul George (21.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.0 spg-2nd NBA, 40.1 3-Pt.%) and Carmelo Anthony (16.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 35.7 3-Pt.%). 
As important as the play of George and Anthony will be, how Westbrook plays may determine if the Thunder can get past a good Utah Jazz team, which will have its trademark defense ready against Westbrook. 
To put how the head coach Billy Donovan’s unit has performed when Westbrook has played well or not into context, they are 20-5 when he has registered a triple-double this season, where he led the league with 25. They are 20-2 when he attempts 18 field goals or less. They went 27-31 when Westbrook has attempted 18 shots or more. When he has taken seven or more three-pointers, the Thunder were just 3-12. They went 44-21 when Westbrook shot six or fewer triples in the regular season. 
For the Thunder to win this series, and possibly make it to the Conference Finals, it just cannot be Westbrook alone. 
They need production from George and Anthony. They also need great play from starting center Steven Adams (13.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 62.9 FG%-4th NBA), reserve forwards Jerami Grant (8.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 53.5 FG%) and guards Raymond Felton (6.9 ppg, 35.4 3-Pt.%), Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson and forward Patrick Patterson. 
The one constant for the Thunder this season has been their play at the defensive end, where they finished No. 10 in points allowed at 104.4; tied the Denver Nuggets for No. 2 in rebound differential at +2.9 and; No. 1 in steals at 9.1, forced turnovers at 15.1 and offensive rebounds per game at 12.5.  
If the Thunder however cannot get things together offensively, where they were just 13-15 in games decided by five points or less during the regular season, how well they play defense will not matter.
If the Thunder need an example of what true teamwork is on both ends of the floor, they can just look at their opponent in this series, who went from being on the outside of the playoff picture to a team that can make some noise this postseason. 
Back in the summer, the Utah Jazz (48-34) lost All-Star Gordon Hayward and starting lead guard George Hill in free agency, and then traded away Joe Johnson. 
After a 104-92 loss to the draft lottery bound Hawks on Jan. 22 put the Jazz at 19-28 and put any dreams of making the playoffs almost beyond reach in the eyes of many. 
Only the 32-5 mark by the Rockets was better than the 29-6 mark of the Jazz to close the season, which included a 15-2 mark on the road and they went from the outside of the playoffs to the No. 3 Seed in the rough and tough Western Conference. A loss on the final night of the regular season at the Portland Trail Blazers 102-93 on Wednesday night dropped them to the No. 5 spot. 
Three players responsible for the Jazz rising out of the cellar of the West are rookie Donovan Mitchell (20.5 ppg-Leads team, 1.5 spg, 3.7 apg, 3.7 rpg, 43.7 FG%, 34.0 3-Pt.%), center Rudy Gobert (13.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg-Leads team, 2.3 bpg-Leads team, 62.2 FG%) and lead guard Ricky Rubio (13.1 ppg 5.3 apg-Leads team, 4.6 rpg, 1.6 spg-Leads team, 35.2 3-Pt.%). 
In the early part of this season when the Thunder won three of the four meetings against the Jazz, all coming before Dec. 23, 2017, Mitchell, the No. 13 overall pick out of Louisville, whose draft rights were acquired by the Jazz was still just introducing himself to the league. 
He eventually played his way into being the Jazz top gun at the offensive end, and led all rookies in not just scoring average, but had 27 games in the regular season where he scored 25 points or more. His 187 connections from three-point range set a new single-season NBA record for a rookie, surpassing the 185 by Trail Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard had in the 2012-13 campaign. 
His great season put him in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, which at one-point Sixers sensation Ben Simmons was going to run away with it early on in the season. 
Whether he wins Rookie of the Year or not, one thing that Mitchell has done is ease the pain of the team as mentioned losing Hayward. 
“That point in time we didn’t know the fate of whether Gordon was going to leave or stay. Gordon did leave, and that kind of changed the dynamic of our team,” Mitchell said. “I just stepped up and filled the void anyway that I could.”
“Whether it’s a 40-point game or a game where I score two points, there’s something to learn from every game, and I think just being coached and be able to learn I think definitely helped me with the success that I’ve been having.”
When the Jazz acquired Rubio from the Timberwolves in the off-season, they brought in a guy who can defend and run a team at the lead guard spot as good as any floor general in the league. His biggest issue was his ability to strike a match from the perimeter. 
Rubio really developed his shot this season, especially from three-point range where he had several games where he knocked down three, four and on a couple of occasions five to six triples. 
That new dimension of knocking down threes added a new identity to for a Jazz team that has cut its teeth under head coach Quin Snyder at the defensive end, led by the league’s best rim protector in Gobert, who stellar play after coming back from two stints on the shelf because of a knee injury to be a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. 
Before the All-Star break, the tall Frenchmen was averaging 12.5 points and 10.1 rebounds. In the unofficial second half of the regular season, Gobert rose those averages to 15.0 points and 11.5 boards. 
The Jazz behind that rim protection of Gobert finished the regular season tied with the Sixers for ninth in blocks shots per game (5.1); tied with the Spurs in points allowed at 99.8; tied with the Raptors for fourth in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.9; tied with the Spurs for No. 7 in rebound differential at +1.7; fourth in steals (8.6) and tied with the T’Wolves for fifth in forced turnovers at 14.5. 
One big difference between the Thunder and the Jazz entering this series that the role players for the boys of Salt Lake City, UT were as much a part of the team’s success in the second half of the season. 
Starting forward Derrick Favors (12.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 56.3 FG%) was finally healthy and was a solid sidekick in the frontcourt alongside Gobert. 
Swingman Joe Ingles (11.5 ppg, 4.8 apg, 46.7 FG%, 44.0 3-Pt.%-T-4th NBA) ability to make threes, to play make for his teammates and the grit and focus he brought on both ends was worth its weight in gold. 
The acquisition of forward Jae Crowder (9.7 ppg) at the Feb. 8 trade deadline gave the Jazz another shooter and defender on the perimeter off the bench, which really complimented the likes of sharp shooting forward Jonas Jerebko, rookie swingman Royce O’Neale and guards Alec Burks (7.7 ppg) and Dante Exum (8.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 48.3 FG%). 
In as evenly a matched series as there is in this season’s opening round of the NBA Playoffs, the Thunder have more to lose than the Jazz, who season is a major success by just being in this position. 
The Thunder came into this season with the expectation of challenging for a championship and if they fall in the opening round, they could be sending George off likely to the Lakers as he is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Anthony could opt out of the final year of his deal to test the free agent market. 
If Westbrook had any incentive to bring a balance to his game during the playoffs, it is now because if he does not, he will be right back at square one with him being the lone star that puts up great numbers but does not win when it matters most. 
If Westbrook can play anything like he did in the regular-season finale, a 137-123 win versus the Memphis Grizzlies (22-60) on Wednesday night where he had just six points, but a career-high 20 rebounds and 19 assists, the Thunder will be in great shape. You can mark it in that he will have more than six points and won’t go 2 for 9 shooting like he did on that night.   
Series Prediction: Thunder in 7 games.

   (2)    Golden State Warriors versus (7) San Antonio Spurs

   -Season Series: Warriors won 3-1. 
This series between the defending NBA champions versus the five-time champs would have the makings of one of the most intriguing No. 2 versus No. 7 confrontations in the history of the NBA Playoffs. But that All-Star player and two-time Defensive Player of the Year is very unlikely to appear, even though he has not been ruled out of a series, where the defending champs are without their top player but still have three All-Stars available. 
For the Pacific Division champions, the Golden State Warriors (58-24), this will be the first time in four seasons under head coach Steve Kerr they will not be the No. 1 Seed in the Western Conference playoffs. 
They enter defense of their title not on the best of footings having lost 10 of their final 17 games where they were a shell of themselves on both ends of the court. On top of that, they will start the playoffs without All-Star lead guard Stephen Curry (26.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 5.1 rpg, 1.6 spg-Leads team, 49.5 FG%, 42.3 3-Pt.%), who has been on the shelf because of Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee. 
How valuable is the two-time MVP to them this season, the Warriors were just 17-14 without him and according to Coach Kerr, Curry will not play at all during the opening round. He averaged 31.5 points in the Warriors sweep of the Spurs in the Conference Finals a season ago on route to their second title in the last three seasons. 
Even without Curry, who is due for a re-examination of his knee this weekend, the Warriors still have All-Stars Klay Thompson (20.0 ppg, 48.8 FG%, 44.0 3-Pt%-T-4th NBA), Kevin Durant (26.4 ppg-6th NBA, 6.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.8 bpg-5th NBA, 51.6 FG%, 41.9 3-Pt%), and Draymond Green (11.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg-Leads team, 7.3 apg-Leads team, 45.4 FG%) to lead them, and they seemed recovered from the  bumps and bruises they had during the regular season and are ready for hopefully another run towards back-to-back titles. 
“This has been such a chaotic month with all the injuries and meaningless games,” he said. “We’ve been frustrated. We haven’t performed very well. But the good news is we have performed well for four years. We know who we are and what we’re about.” 
That is the same approach the San Antonio Spurs, who saw their 18-year run of winning 50-plus games end with their 47-35 record in this past regular season, and for the first time since 1996-97 had a losing record on the road at 14-27. 
One big reason for that drop off in wins is because All-Star Kawhi Leonard played in all but nine games this season due to tendinopathy in his right quadricep. 
Like the Warriors, the Spurs enter the 2018 postseason losers of five of their final nine games, which includes their 122-98 setback at the Pelicans in their regular-season finale on Wednesday night, that dropped them to the No. 7 position and earned them a matchup with the team that went 16-1 in the 2017 postseason. 
Even without Leonard, who has not been ruled out from the postseason, head coach Gregg Popovich’s squad brings into this matchup and healthy and focused All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge (23.1 ppg-Leads team, 8.5 rpg-Leads team, 51.0 FG%), whose more than eager to have a better showing against the Warriors than the dismal performance he had in the Conference Finals a season ago, where he averaged 15.5 points in the four-game sweep. 
Along with Aldridge, the Spurs feature two of the greatest winners in NBA postseason history in Manu Ginobili (8.9 ppg) and Tony Parker (7.7 ppg, 3.5 apg, 45.9 FG%), who combined for 131 playoffs wins.  
“We have got to play above where we have been playing. We really have to improve in many ways,” Ginobili said about what it will take to have a chance this postseason. “Hopefully, we do that, and we raise our game to the next level.” 
The one other constant that both these teams have had in their championships seasons beside the greatness from their stars has been the play of their role players. 
If the Warriors want to end this series quickly, the likes of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, ZaZa Pachulia, rookie Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook, who has been starting in place of Curry, Nick Young, JaVale McGee, Patrick McCaw, and David West have to perform. 
That is how the defending champions ranked No. 1 in the NBA during the regular season in points per game (113.5); assists per game (29.3); field goal percentage (50.3) and three-point percentage (39.1).  
Three of the Warriors eight games that they had 30 or more assists came against the Spurs during their four regular-season tilts.
If the Spurs want to make this a series, they need Rudy Gay (11.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 47.1 FG%), Patty Mills (10.0 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%), Danny Green (8.6 ppg, 36.3 3-Pt.%), Dejounte Murray (8.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Kyle Anderson (7.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 52.7 FG%), Bryn Forbes (6.9 ppg, 39.0 3-Pt.%) and Pau Gasol (10.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 45.8 FG%, 35.8 3-Pt.%) to play well on both ends.  
They will also need to play the kind of defense where they were No. 1 in points allowed (99.8); that was No. 6 in opponent’s field goal percentage at (45.3); fourth in opponent’s three-point percentage (34.8); and fourth in block shots (5.6). 
In their four regular-season matchups against the Warriors, Curry, Durant, and Thompson shot 23 for 42 from three-point range (55 percent), but the rest of the team shot just 14 for 62 from distance (23 percent).
The Spurs have a serious chance in the series, they will also need to get off to a strong start in each contest. In three of the four games against the Warriors, they won the first quarter by nine or 10 points. The boys from the “Alamo City” overall were a +21 in the opening period, but the defending champs were a +48 over the final three quarters in the four matchups. 
As good as the Warriors offense has been, especially this season, they are just as good themselves defensively, ranking No. 3 in opponent’s field goal percentage (44.7); tied with the Raptors for No. 9 in opponent’s three-point percentage (35.7); No. 1 in block shots (7.5) and tied with the New Orleans Pelicans for eighth in steals (8.0). 
The Spurs will be prepared to compete and will give the Warriors all they can handle, and that still might not be enough to slow down a team that feels geared up for the chase for back-to-back titles. 
Series Prediction: Warriors in 5 games.

(3)   Portland Trail Blazers versus (6) New Orleans Pelicans

 -Season Series: tied 2-2. 
I remember NBA on TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith saying that for all players that want to make names for themselves in the NBA, “The regular season is where you make your name. The Playoffs is where you make your fame.” That is where the stars of this series find themselves entering the 2018 postseason. The All-Star lead guard of boys of “Rip City” and the All-Star forward/center of the boys from “The Big Easy” have made a solid name in the regular season. They feel that this postseason is where they want to etch their names as players who can get it done and lead their respective teams to the top. 
Two years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) reached the Semis by taking down the Los Angeles Clippers in six games, thanks to injuries sustained by All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to injuries. 
This time around, head coach Terry Stotts squad faces the New Orleans Pelicans who are without All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. 
The team brings virtually the same squad from that 2016 but consists of a more motivated Damian Lillard (26.9 ppg-5th NBA, 6.6 apg-Leads team, 4.5 rpg, 36.1 3-Pt.%), whose post 28.6 scoring average with 6.6 assists since the All-Star break will get him some votes for Kia MVP. 
That being said and Coach Stotts are is more focused on getting the Northwest Division Champion Trail Blazers passed a Pelicans team that they split four games with in the regular season. Stotts did say though that winning their division is something they should be proud of but should also fuel them going into the postseason. 
“Like I told the team, winning the division is a big deal,” Stotts, whose team clinched the No. Spot in the West with a 102-93 win versus the Jazz in their regular-season finale on Wednesday night on ESPN said. “It’s always going to be there. It’s always going to be in the rafters, the banner will be in the practice [facility]. 
It’s been an up-and-down season, but I’m really pleased with the way we played tonight. We played well, and we have some momentum going into the playoffs.” 
Lillard, who had 36 points and 10 assists echoed those same sentiments to NBC Sports Northwest’s Brooke Olzendam after the win saying in the postgame interview, “I think we got a pretty good chance. I think we did ourselves a huge favor by locking down home court. Playing in front of the best fans in the league. So, hopefully we can start off right.”
Besides having Lillard, the Trail Blazers have another great offensive guard in CJ McCollum (21.4 ppg, 39.7 3-Pt.%) who continues to get better and better and is a great compliment to Lillard. 
Even with that dynamic backcourt, the Trail Blazers reached the heights they did because of their commitment to playing better defense, where they finished the regular season fifth in points allowed (103.0); tied with the Warriors for No. 4 in opponent’s field goal percentage (44.7); and No. 4 in rebound differential (+2.6). 
While they may not be household names when it comes to scoring consistently, the likes of forwards Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 36.9 3-Pt.%), Maurice Harkless (6.5 ppg, 49.5 FG%, 41.5 3-Pt.%) and Ed Davis (5.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 58.2 FG%) Evan Turner (8.2 ppg, 44.7 FG%) and guards Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier (8.7 ppg, 37.6 3-Pt.%) and rookie center Zach Collins do their part on both ends of the court. 
The wild card for this team, who will have to play big in this series if the Trail Blazers plan on advancing is starting center Jusuf Nurkic (14.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg-Leads team, 50.5 FG%). 
When he was acquired from the Nuggets a season ago, the “Bosnian Beast” had a huge impact, giving the team a low-post presents to compliment Lillard and McCollum as well as a consistent rebounder and an occasional shot blocker. 
He unfortunately got hurt right before the postseason a year ago, and only played one game in the four-game sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Warriors. 
If Nurkic can play to the level of the 14.5 points and 12 boards that he averaged the last two months of the regular season, that should give the Trail Blazers the edge over the Pelicans. 
Speaking of the Pelicans (48-34), they enter the playoffs for the first since 2015 having earned the third most wins in franchise history. 
There were many that thought they would not be in this position after All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins (25.2 ppg, 12.9 rpg-Leads team, 1.6 spg-Leads team, 1.6 bpg, 47.0 FG%, 35.4 3-Pt.%) was lost for the rest of the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in the Pelicans 115-113 win versus the Rockets on Jan. 26. 
Behind averages of 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks and 2.1 steals by All-Star forward/center Anthony Davis (28.1 ppg-2nd NBA, 11.1 rpg-5th NBA, 2.6 bpg-Leads NBA, 53.4 FG%) since Jan. 28, the Pelicans finished the regular season 21-13. 
“It’s been a good year so far for the New Orleans fans and we want to make sure to go and make noise,” Davis said to FOX Sports New Orleans’ Jennifer Hale after the Pelicans 122-98 win versus the Spurs on Wednesday night.  
When they lost Cousins, head coach Alvin Gentry’s team changed how they played going from a slowdown pace where they pounded the ball inside to Cousins and Davis, to more of an up-tempo attack at the offensive end. 
Leading the attack was veteran guard Rajon Rondo (8.3 ppg, 8.2 apg-4th NBA, 46.8 FG%) and his running mate Jrue Holiday, was moved off the ball and emerged as the team’s second scorer with career-highs of 19.0 points on 49.4 percent from the floor, with six assists and 1.5 steals per game. 
Another key part of the Pelicans drive to the postseason has been forward Nikola Mirotic (15.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 44.7 FG%, 37.7 3-Pt%), who has fit in like a glove since being acquired from the Chicago Bulls before the trade deadline. His perimeter shooting and rebounding complimented Davis well and provided another scoring threat for the Pelicans. 
Lillard and Davis have accomplished a great deal in the early stages of their basketball careers and seem to be just scratching the surface of what they will be in the future. Both players though see this postseason as mentioned earlier an opportunity to rise themselves and their respective teams into ones that can one day be in the conversation of championship contender. 
At first glance, the Trail Blazers seem to have the early advantage having home court advantage, the deeper team along with a true compliment to Lillard in McCollum. 
For the Pelicans to pull the upset, besides Davis putting up numbers like he had to close the regular season, they will need Mirotic, to score well, shoot the ball consistently, and rebound. Holiday will have to not only score but contain McCollum. Rondo will have to bring all his veteran savvy and knowledge on both ends to not only run the team, but to as well slow down Lillard. 
The Pelicans in the regular season did have success in slowing down the Trail Blazers guards as Lillard and McCollum. Even though they averaged 26.5 and 17.5 respectably, they only shot 42.7 and 35.1 from the floor respectably.
The Pelicans will also need solid production from the likes of E’Twaun Moore (12.5 ppg, 50.8 FG%, 42.5 3-Pt%), Darius Miller (7.8 ppg, 41.4 3-Pt.%), Ian Clark (7.4 ppg, 44.8 FG%), Solomon Hill and Cheick Diallo to match the supporting cast of the Trail Blazers. 
Series Prediction: Trail Blazers in 7 games. 
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 4/11/18 10:30 p.m. Utah Jazz versus Portland Trail Blazers on ESPN with Dave Pasch and Mark Jackson;  4/12/18 and 4/13/18 3 p.m. edition of “NBA: The Jump,” fueled by Marathon with Rachel Nichols, Brian Windhorst, and Tracy McGrady 4/12/18 6 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter” with Elle Duncan and Michael Eaves; 4/12/18 8 p.m. NBATV’s “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” for 2018 with Matt Winer, Steve Smith, Sam Mitchell, and Howard Beck of Bleach Report; 4/12/18 9 p.m. NBATV’s “Western Conference Playoff Preview” for 2018 with Jared Greenberg, Steve Smith, Sam Mitchell and Howard Beck of Bleacher Report; 4/12/18 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by Kia with Casey Stern, Dennis Scott and David Griffin;; 4/13/18 7 p.m. edition of NBATV’s “10 Before Tip: 2018 Playoff Preview,” presented by AT&T with Jared Greenberg, Sekou Smith and Howard Beck of Bleacher Report; 4/13/18 8:30 p.m. edition of NBATV’s “The Starters: The Playoff Preview,” presented by Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey with Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis and Trey Kerby; playoff preview by Shaun Powell, John Schuhmann, Sekou Smith and Steve Aschburner;;;