Saturday, April 27, 2013

J-Speaks: 2012-13 National Basketball Association (NBA) Playoff Preview

It is spring time and that means the temperatures are warmer. Flowers are blossoming and there are 16 teams that have battled through the 82-game grind of the regular season and only one of them will win 16 more games and claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy as the 2013 NBA Champions. Here is a breakdown as well as predictions of the eight playoff series in the Eastern and Western Conference Quarterfinals.

Abbreviation Key: ppg-points per game; rpg-rebounds per game; apg assists per game; bpg-block shots per game. spg-steals per game; FG%-Field Goal percentage; 3-Pt.%-three-point percentage.


Eastern Conference

(1)   Miami Heat (66-16) versus (8) Milwaukee Bucks; Miami won three of the four regular season meetings.

On June 21, 2012, the Miami Heat won their second championship in franchise history by defeating the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 to win The NBA Finals 4-1.

It was the first title for the “Big 3” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

This season, they showed that they have no plans of relinquishing their NBA crown as they won a franchise best 66 games. They won a franchise best 37 games at home, going 37-4 at the American Airlines Arena. Their 29-12 record on the road was the best in the league. They won 18 of their last 19 games on the road after splitting their first 22 games.

The team really hit their stride by winning 27 games in succession from Feb. 3 to Mar. 27, which is the 2nd best winning streak in NBA history. Only the 1971-72 World Champion Los Angeles Lakers had a longer winning streak of 33 games in a row.

James, who is on the verge of winning his fourth Most Valuable Player Award, had a stellar season averaging 26.8 ppg (4th NBA), eight rebounds-career best and 7.3 assists.

On top of that, he had career-highs in field goal percentage (56.5-5th NBA) and three-point percentage (40.6%).

He was especially impressive against the Bucks this season averaging 27.5 points, 8.3 boards and 7.3 assists on 55.6 percent from the field in the four games in the regular season.

Wade and Bosh were very stellar themselves against the Bucks scoring 24.0 and 21.3 points on 50.9 and 59.1 percent from the floor respectably. Bosh also averaged 13.7 boards against the Bucks in the regular season.

With all of that working against them, the question is how do the Bucks be competitive, let alone have a chance in this series?

For starters, they must rebound the ball well, which they have done all season long ranking 5th in the league at 44.0 caroms per contest.

The starting backcourt of Brandon Jennings (23.8 ppg, 5.8 apg, 2.5 spg vs. Heat) and Monta Ellis (19.2, 6.0 apg, 2.1 spg) must play efficiently. Shooting 41.6 and 39.9 percent, which Jennings and Ellis did during the regular season ware not cut it against Miami.

The supporting cast of Ersan Ilyasova (13.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 46.2 FG%, 44.4 3-Pt.%), Mike Dunleavy (10.5 ppg, 44.2 FG%, 42.8 3-Pt.%), J.J. Redick (12.3 ppg) and Larry Sanders (9.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.8 bpg-2nd NBA) must play big on both ends.

On paper, this series looks like a mismatch. Mainly because along with the “Big 3,” the Heat role players of Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem are better.  

More than anything, the Heat knows its championship or bust. None of their regular season accomplishments will matter if they do not capture their second consecutive title.

What gives the Bucks hope thought that they can compete is that they defeated Miami on Dec. 29 104-85 at home.

The Bucks outscored the Heat 35-14 in the fourth quarter. They outscored the Heat 21-14 in fast break points. They had 29 assists compared to Miami’s 18 and they scored 25 points off of 21 Miami turnovers.
Jennings had a team-high 25 points along with seven assists and four steals in the victory. Sanders had 16 points, 11 boards and four blocks.

The Bucks came close to defeating the Heat in their first meeting, a 113-106 setback in overtime in Miami on Nov. 21.  The Bucks overcame a 2915 first quarter to win the second and third quarters 58-42 combined, but were outscored 15-8 in the extra stanza.

The Bucks were led by Jennings, who had 19 points, seven boards, six assists and five steals, but he connected on 9 of his 25 shots, including going 1 for 8 from three-point range.

Rookie forward John Henson had 17 points and 18 boards off the bench.

Prediction: Heat wins series 4-0.

(2)   New York Knicks (54-28) versus (7) Boston Celtics (41-40); Knicks won three of the four regulars seasons meetings.
This is a series that features two teams that are in very different places than they were two seasons ago.

In the 2011 postseason quarterfinal match-up, it was the Celtics who had home court advantage and it was the Knicks with a whole lot of question marks. The Celtics swept the Knicks 4-0.

Fast forward to this season’s quarterfinal series it is the Knicks who have the home court advantage and all the momentum.

They won 54 games in the regular season, their most in 16 years. They won their first Atlantic Division title since 1993-94, where they made it to the Finals, falling to the Houston Rockets in seven games.

Forward Carmelo Anthony led the NBA in scoring at 28.7 points per contest, over taking Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who had led the NBA the past three seasons in that department.  

For the C’s, it has been a season of inconsistency and overcoming injuries. The acquisitions via free agency of guards Jason Terry (10.1 ppg, 43.4 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.%), Courtney Lee (7.8 ppg) have not panned out the way the team hoped.

They lost their floor general Rajon Rondo (13.7 ppg, 11.1 apg-led NBA, 5.6 rpg) to a torn ACL on Jan. 25, a 123-111 double overtime loss at the Atlanta Hawks. They also lost rookie forward Jared Sullinger (6.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 49.3 FG%) who had season-ending back surgery earlier this season.

With all the injuries, the Celtics went 21-17 and a big reason why is the play of forward Jeff Green (12.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 46.4 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%), who has averaged 16.6 points a game since the loss of Rondo.

While the Knicks are the higher seed and in some ways are the better team, the Celtics have experience and the toughness to win it.

While Anthony averaged 25.3 points in the four-game regular season series, he shot just 35 percent from the field.

On top of that, the Celtics are 17-7, including the playoffs since acquiring Kevin Garnett five seasons ago.

In looking at this series, it comes down to three main things.

First, can the Knicks shoot the ball well from three-point range? In the four games against the Celtics, they made 22 more trifectas than Boston. That difference amounted to the Knicks averaging 98.3 in the four games, while the Celtics averaged just 90.5.

In the regular season, the Knicks were 37-8 when they made 11 three-point shots or more and just 17-20 when they connected on 10 shots or less from behind the arc.

Second, which front line will outdo the other?

The Knicks have been pretty banged in the frontcourt late in the season. Starting center Tyson Chandler (9.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 62.5 FG% in two games against Celtics) has missed 16 of the last 20 to close the season with a bulging disc in his neck. The Knicks were 12-4 in the months of March and April without their man in the middle.

Forward Kenyon Martin, who the Knicks signed back in February, has played well, but he missed seven of the final eight games of the regular season because of a sprained ankle and sore knee.  

Rookie guard Pablo Prigioni, who has been starting late in the season injured an ankle in the regular season finale versus the Hawks last Wednesday and is listed as day-to-day.

Forward Rasheed Wallace, who had not played since December because of a foot injury announced early last week that he was retiring.

On top of that, the Knicks waived forward/center Kurt Thomas and there is no timetable for the return of forward Amar’e Stoudemire, who has played in just 29 games this season because of a knee injury.

Before their finale on Apr. 17 versus the Hawks, the Knicks signed center Earl Barron, who had 11 points and a career-high 18 rebounds in the 98-92 win. They also signed for his second stint with the team forward/guard Quentin Richardson, who had five points and 10 boards in the aforementioned contest.

For the Celtics, an important key to them making some noise this series is the health of Garnett (14.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), who missed 12 of the final 17 games of the season with inflammation in his left ankle and forward Paul Pierce (18.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.8 apg) missed three of the final eight games with sore ankles.

The third key is which role players will come to the fore front to tip the series in their team’s favor. Will it be Sixth Man of the Year candidate guards J.R. Smith (18.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Iman Shumpert (6.8 ppg), rookie forward Chris Copeland (8.7 ppg, 47.9 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.%) of the Knicks or guards Avery Bradley (9.2 ppg), Jordan Crawford (9.1 ppg) and forward Brandon Bass (8.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) for the Celtics.

This has the makings of a seven games and another one in this rivalry of Northeast coast teams, who have met in the postseason 13 prior times. The Celtics are 34-24 all-time in the postseason against the Knicks.

For the Celtics, this might be their last run with Garnett and Pierce. For the Knicks it’s now or never. They have won just one playoff game in the last 12 years and they have not won a first round series since 2000.

Prediction: Knicks in six games.

(3)   Indiana Pacers (49-32) versus (6) Atlanta Hawks (44-38): Series tied 2-2

After their amazing season a year ago where they beat the Orlando Magic in the first round 4-1 and took the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat to the edge, but falling 4-2 in the Conference Semis, the Indiana Pacers looked like a team on the rise in the East.

At the start of this season though, those dreams of greatness seemed derailed when last year’s leading scorer Danny Granger was out because of knee surgery. Despite coming back after the all-star break, he only managed to play in five games this season.

The issue of his absence was put to rest though by the incredible play of first-time all-star swingman Paul George. The Most Improved Player candidate had career-highs of 17.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 4.1 apg and 1.8 spg.

Another big reason why the Pacers captured their first Central Division title since 2003-04 was their stellar defense. They finished second points allowed at 90.7 per game. They were No. 1 in rebounds per game at 45.9, in opponent’s field goal percentage at 42.0 percent and in opponent’s three-point percentage at 32.7. They were tied for fourth in block shots per contest at 6.3.

In their two victories over the Hawks this season, the Pacers were a plus 10 on the boards. They were a minus nine in the two losses.

That dismal on the boards in their two setbacks against the Hawks along with their inconsistent play at the defensive end, where they gave up 100 points on three occasions are why the Pacers lost five of their final six games to close the regular season.

The Hawks did not have a stellar finish to their season either dropping their final two games and seven of their last 10 to fall from the No. 5 spot in the East to No. 6.

The Hawks despite all of that and what has happened to them going back to the off-season; they have played well all things considered.

Back in the off-season, Hawks’ general manager Danny Ferry traded perennial all-star Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets and forward Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz to clear cap space for this summer where two-thirds of the roster will be unrestricted free agents.

One big cloud hanging over the team has been the uncertain future of forward Josh Smith (17.5 ppg-leads team, 8.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 bpg-leads team), who will be a free agent when the Hawks season ends. The team tried to trade their talented forward before the trade deadline back in February, but there were no suitors.

The team lost their Sixth Man Lou Williams (14.1 ppg, 36.6 3-Pt.%) for the rest of the season on Jan. 18 at the Nets where he suffered a torn ACL. The team went 22-21 in his absence.

The Hawks also lost back-up center Zaza Pachulia (5.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) who had season-ending surgery on his right Achilles back in March.

This series will come down to the power physicality of the Pacers versus the speed and finesse of the Hawks.

A season ago, Pacers starting center Roy Hibbert posted career-highs of 12.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, two blocks on 49.7 percent from the field. This season he is scoring just 11.9 points with 8.3 boards and blocking 2.6 shots per game.

He must play a whole lot better in this series as compared to the regular season where he averaged just 9.5 points, 7.3 rebounds on 46.2 percent against the Hawks.

Starting forward David West has led the Pacers with 21.3 points against the Hawks this season. He must average more than 5.7 boards, which he did against the Hawks this season. He must grab at least the 7.7 that he did during the regular season.

For the Hawks, the tandem of Smith and starting center Al Horford must play well if the Hawks are going to compete in this series.

Smith cannot put up 13.3 points and six boards like he did against the Pacers in the four matchups if the Hawks are going to have a chance.

Horford led the Hawks in scoring against the Pacers this season averaging 16.0 points per contest. Overall the former Florida Gator averaged 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds on a team leading 54.3 percent from the floor during the regular season.

Another big match-up is at the lead guard spot between the Pacers George Hill and the Hawks Jeff Teague.

While Hill (14.2 ppg, 4.7 apg, 44.3 FG%, 36.8 3-Pt.%) is the steady calm that runs the Pacers offense, which at times can be shaky.

Teague in his third season out of Wake Forest has had a career-year averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 assists, 1.5 steals on 45.1 percent from the floor. The question is can he take his game to another level in the postseason?

A big X-factor that may swing this series one way or the other is the role players for both teams.

Will it be guard Lance Stephenson (8.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg), forward Tyler Hansbrough (7.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and center Ian Mahinmi (5.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) that will make the difference or will it be Devin Harris (9.9 ppg), forward/guard Kyle Korver (10.9 ppg, 46.1 FG%, 45.7 3-Pt.%) or forward Ivan Johnson (6.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg)?

Prediction: Pacers in five games.

(4)   Brooklyn Nets (49-33) versus (5) Chicago Bulls (45-37): Bulls won three of the four regular season meetings.

When this season began, one team was moving into a new town and new arena bringing with them a great deal of expectations, while the other team outside of their confines had the lowest of expectations.  

The Brooklyn Nets after so many season of playing in the swamps of New Jersey moved to the fancy state of the art Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY.

In the off-season, they re-signed lead guard Deron Williams (18.9 ppg, 7.7 apg). They acquired guard Joe Johnson (16.3 ppg) from the Hawks, re-signed starting center Brook Lopez (19.4 ppg-leads team, 6.9 rpg) as well as starting small forward Gerald Wallace (7.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and back-up forward Kris Humphries.

In free agency, the team signed center Andray Blatche (10.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), forward Reggie Evans (4.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and guard C.J. Watson.
They began this season like gang busters with an 11-4 record and then head coach Avery Johnson was named NBA Head Coach of the Month for November 2012.  

They suffered 10 losses in 13 games in the December and Johnson was gone and he was replaced by assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo.

The Nets proceeded to win nine of their next 10 under their interim head coach, which included a seven-game winning streak. They finished the season 35-19 and claimed home court advantage in the first round.  

Their 49 victories are their most since 2005-06 as well as their first playoff appearance since 2006-07 where they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Semifinals 4-2.

A big reason for the Nets resurgence especially after the all-star break is the play of Williams, who had been suffering from wrist and ankle problems.

After the break, Williams averaged 22.9 ppg, eight assists on 48 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three-point land.

Then there’s the Chicago Bulls, who seemed poised a season ago to challenge the Heat for the East crown. Those dreams went down the drain in Game 1 of the Quarterfinals against the Philadelphia 76ers when 2011 MVP Derrick Rose suffered a torn ACL.

Aside from a few work out sessions before games and speculations behind the scenes, Rose has not been on the court this season. There has been no timetable for his return, contrary to the prior timetable for his return in late February or March.

Rose’s injury has not been the only problem for the boys from the “Windy City.” Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s team has used 15 different starting lineups this season and they had 126 games missed due to injury between forwards Luol Deng (16.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Carlos Boozer (16.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and Taj Gibson (8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) centers Joakim Noah (11.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.1 bpg) and Nazr Mohammed, guards Richard “Rip” Hamilton (9.8 ppg), Marco Bellineli (9.6 ppg) and Kirk Hinrich (7.7 ppg, 5.2 apg).

This is a series that will come down to the play of Williams versus the Bulls point guards by committee. The starting centers for the two teams Noah and Lopez and which team can manage enough consistent offense to win.

The Nets, who averaged 96.9 points per contest, 17th NBA managed just 87.5 points in the four regular season meetings against the Bulls. They shot just 45 percent from the floor, scored just 40.5 points in the paint and turn the ball over on average 18.3 times.

Their lone victory over the Bulls came on Feb. 1 at Barclays Center 93-89. The Nets shot 52 percent from the floor and out-rebounded Chicago 40-29. Lopez had a game-high 20 points.

The Nets held on to the victory that night by outscoring the Bulls 30-22 in the fourth quarter after getting outscored 28-17 and 25-22 in the middle two quarters respectably.

In their Apr. 4 contest versus the Bulls, the Nets got off to a great start leading 26-13 after the first period. The Nets won each of the next three quarters, 23-21, 29-20 and 27-23 and they held on for a 92-90 win.

The Bulls were led by the 29 points and 18 boards from Boozer. Williams had a game-high 30 points to go along with 10 assists. Lopez had 28 points, but he committed a costly turnover and had two key misses in the closing moments that doomed the Nets.

This series can be classified as a knock out, drag out, get after it, take no prisoners.

These are two of the top rebounding teams in the business with the Bulls ranking 10th at 42.8 a game and the Nets rank 8th at 43.2. When it comes to points allowed, the Nets are 3rd giving up just 92.9 per contest (3rd NBA) and the Bulls surrender just 95.1 points a game (6th NBA).

While the Nets opposition shoots better from the floor at 46.4 percent (22nd NBA) Bulls’ opponents hit just 44.3 percent of their shots (8th NBA).

Conventional wisdom says the Nets should win this series, but for both teams, this season has not been conventional. The Bulls have a chance above all else, their ability to win on the road, where they were 21-20 away from the United Center.

Prediction: Nets in seven games.


Western Conference

(1)   Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) versus (8) Houston Rockets (45-37): Thunder won two of the three regular season meetings

In the NBA, sometimes just one single move can change the fortunes of one team.

That is what happened before the start of this season when guard James Harden was traded from the Thunder to the Rockets for guard Kevin Martin.

Harden (25.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.8 apg), who became a first time all-star this season, turned the Rockets from a questionable team into a playoff team. 

This will be the team’s first playoff appearance in four seasons.

Harden along with the signings of new backcourt mate Jeremy Lin (13.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 1.6 spg), starting center Omer Asik (10.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg-3rd NBA), swingman Carlos Delfino (10.6 ppg, 37.5 3-Pt.%) and starting small forward Chandler Parsons (15.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg 48.6 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%) are the reasons the Rockets ranked 2nd in the league in scoring at 106.0 per game, 6th in assists at 23.2, 9th in field goal percentage at 46.1 percent and tied for 8th in three-point percentage at 36.6 percent, making 106 per contest, ranking second only to the Knicks.  

As good as they are at the offensive end they are that bad at the defensive end. While they rank 7th in rebounding at 43.4 caroms per game, they are 28th in points allowed at 102.5, tied for 15th in field goal percentage allowed at 45.4, 24th in block shots per contest at 4.4 and they turn the ball over 16.4 times per game, dead last in the NBA.

That is not the recipe to defeat the Thunder, who averaged 121 points per game in the three regular season meetings.

Kevin Durant, the NBA’s second leading scorer at 28.1 a game averaged 26.3, seven boards on 47.2 from the floor and 40 percent from three-point territory.
To put Durant’s season in perspective, he is just the second player in NBA history to average 28 points on 50-plus percent from the floor, 40-plus percent from three-point range and 90-plus percent from the free-throw line. Durant averaged the aforementioned 28.1 points per game, 7.9 boards, and 4.6 assists on 51.0 percent from the floor, 41.6 percent from three-point land and 90.5 percent from the charity stripe. Hall of Famer of the Boston Celtics Larry Bird is the only other player to accomplish that and he did it in 1986-87 (28.1 ppg, 52.5 FG%, 40.0 3-Pt.%, 91.0 FT%) and 1987-88 (29.9 ppg, 52.7 FG%, 41.4 3-Pt.%, 91.6 FT%).

His all-star running mate guard Russell Westbrook has been spectacular himself this season against the Rockets averaging 23.3 points, 8.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds on 43.9 percent shooting.

The first two games of the season series went to the Thunder by wide margins of 120-98 on Nov. 28, 2012 and 124-94 on Dec. 29, 2012 at the Thunder.

The third match-up at Houston’s Toyota Center on Feb. 20, the Rockets rose up as Harden, who averaged 29.3 points against his former team during the regular season had a career-high of 46 points on 14 for 19 shooting, including 7 for 8 from three-point range and 11 for 12 from the free-throw line as the Rockets won 122-119.

Lin had 29 points in that contest to go along with seven assists, six boards on 12 for 22 from the field. Parsons had 17 points.

While this series features two of the highest scoring teams in the business, the Thunder are the more efficient team scoring 105.7 points a game (3rd NBA). They rebound the ball slightly better at 43.6 (6th NBA) and they take care of business at the defensive end surrendering just 96.5 points per game (9th NBA). They lead the league in points off turnovers at 18.1 and in fast break points at 16.7.

Prediction: Thunder in five games.

(2)   San Antonio Spurs (58-24) versus (7) Los Angeles Lakers (45-37): Spurs won two of the three regular season meetings.

When this season began, many had these two teams in the top three in the West, especially with the talent on both sides and their past history in the last 15 seasons meeting in the playoffs at some point in the Semis or the Conference Finals.

The Spurs have lived up to their high expectations finishing second in the West standings.

The “Big 3” of forward Tim Duncan (17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg-leads team, 2.7 bpg-leads team), guard Tony Parker (20.3 ppg-leads team, 7.6 apg-leads team, 52.3 FG%) and Manu Ginobili (11.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) were once again at the top of their games coming into the postseason hoping to guide the Spurs to their fifth title in franchise history.

The team has been leaking oil as this season concluded dropping three straight contests, seven setbacks in their last 10 games and a 12-10 finish to their season, which included seven consecutive losses on the road.

A lot of that has to do with the injuries to Parker, who has battled ankle injury that he suffered on Mar. 1 and Ginobili, who returned in the season finale versus the Minnesota Timberwolves on Apr. 17.

The Spurs will begin the playoffs without back-up forward/center Boris Diaw who had back surgery to remove a cyst in his spine and they waived swingman Stephen Jackson and signed in his place veteran swingman Tracy McGrady.

As for the Spurs opponent the Lakers, they have had so many twists and turns this season that it would have made for a great television soap opera.

At one point this season, the team was seven games under .500 (18-25) and on the outside of the playoffs picture.

The starting five of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol have missed a combined 82 games this season because of injury. Even key reserves Steve Blake and Jordan Hill have missed 90 games because of injury.

What made matters even worse is that two weeks ago versus the Golden State Warriors, Bryant who had a stellar game with 34 points, injured his foot late in the fourth quarter of the 118-116 win.

It was revealed the next day that the NBA’s third leading scorer at 27.3 per game ruptured his left Achilles.

He is lost for the rest of the season and maybe for the start of next season. There is question of whether he could come back from this, however if there is anyone that can though it is him.

Going forward, if the Lakers have any chance of competing in this series with the Spurs, the front court tandem of Howard and Gasol must play great.

How is that possible you say considering they both have had subpar seasons to this point.

In their third and final meeting against the Spurs on Apr. 14, Howard, who was second in the NBA in double-doubles (points and rebounds) with 48 had 26 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks in the 91-86 victory. Gasol, who had just seven points on 3 for 17 shooting, did have 16 rebounds and three blocks.

In the regular season finale versus the Rockets on Apr. 17, Gasol had his seventh career triple-double of 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists to go along with two blocks in the 99-95 overtime win. Howard had 16 points, 18 boards, three steals and four blocks.

Blake led the way with 24 points, seven boards and seven assists. Forward Antawn Jamison had 16 off the bench and World Peace added 12.

If Howard (17.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg-led NBA, 2.5 bpg) and Gasol (13.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 46.6 FG%) can play to the level they have to close the regular season the Lakers have a chance.

Having Nash contribute like we have seen the two-time MVP do for a great deal of his career would increase the Lakers chances.

If the Spurs play to the level we have become accustomed to seeing them play, it will be that much harder for the Lakers.

Prediction: Spurs in six games

(3)   Denver Nuggets (57-25) versus (6) Golden State Warriors (47-35): Nuggets won three of the four regular season meetings.

Fast, explosive, potent are the words that describe the offenses of the two teams in this first round match-up.

The Nuggets, who led the NBA at 106.1 points per game, are 5th in field goal percentage at 47.8 and third in assists at 24.4.

Their offensive attack is predicated on scoring in the paint which they lead the league at 58 points per contest, getting second chance points on offensive rebounds, scoring in the open court as well as balance scoring.

Nine players during the regular season averaged between eight and 16.7 points per contest.

In the season series against the Warriors, the Nuggets had a plus differential at the foul line.

The Warriors, who are 7trh in the league in scoring at 101.2 per game, rank 11 in the league in field goal percentage at 45.8 and 15th in assists at 22.5.

Their offense is perimeter oriented where they are No. 1 in the NBA in three-point percentage at 40.3 percent and are 8th in makes at eight per contest.

How potent is the Warriors three-point attack? Starting point guard Stephen Curry (22.9 ppg, 6.9 apg, 1.6 steals-all lead team) made an NBA regular season record 272 threes, breaking Heat guard Ray Allen’s record of 269 treys that he made back in 2005-06 as a member of the then Seattle Supersonics.

For both of these teams, this destination of this postseason represents a journey that began two seasons ago.

The Nuggets back then made the difficult decision to trade all-star forward Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks and in return received forward Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mosgov and Raymond Felton, who is back now with the Knicks.

In the playoffs that season, they lost in the first round to the Western Conference runner-up the Thunder in five games.  

The next season, the Nuggets on 38 games in the condensed 66-game campaign and lost to the Lakers in the first round in seven games.

In that season, they traded starting center Nene to the Wizards in exchange for center JaVale McGee. They also drafted in the summer forward Kenneth Faried, out of Morehead State (11.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg-leads team, 55.2 FG%) The 22nd pick of the 2011 draft has been a jewel for them in his first two seasons.

This past off-season, the Nuggets added another key piece in acquiring in a three-team deal swingman Andre Iguodala (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.7 spg-leads team), who led the team in scoring against the Warriors this regular season at 20 in the four games.

For the Warriors, their rise to making their first playoff appearance since 2007 began with the hire of former NBA on ESPN/ABC & Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network Nets analyst and 17-year veteran point guard Mark Jackson as head coach on June 16, 2011.

Last season, the Warriors traded one of their most popular players in guard Monta Ellis to the Bucks for Andrew Bogut, who missed the rest of that season because of injury.

The traded rose Curry and forward David Lee and forward David Lee to the role as team co-captains and increased the role of the 11th overall pick of the draft that off-season in guard Klay Thompson out of Washington State University.

This past off-season, the Warriors acquired guard Jarrett Jack from the New Orleans Hornets and he has been solid off the bench this season. The Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaged 12.9 points, 5.6 assists on 45.2 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three-point range.

On Aug. 1 the team signed forward Carl Landry (10.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg). In the draft they selected with the 7th overall pick forward Harrison Barnes (9.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) out of North Carolina, center Festus Ezeli out of Vanderbilt University and forward Draymond Green out of Michigan State with the 35th pick.

Behind a career season from Curry, who is finally healthy, the consistency of Lee (18.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg-5th NBA), who led the NBA with 56 double-doubles (points and rebounds) in the regular season, steady progression from Thompson (16.6 ppg. 40.1 3-Pt.%), who made 211 three-pointers in the regular season, the Warriors clearly have a bright future in front of them.

As far as the present, mainly this first round series, the one team that will step to the fore front on the defensive end will give themselves the best chance of advancing.

The Warriors, while they are tied for second in the league in rebounding this season at 45.0 per game, they are 19th in points allowed at 100.3. The Nuggets who are tied with their first round opponent in rebounds per game surrender 101.1 points per contest, which is 23rd in the NBA.

The other key is the health of both teams.

The Nuggets lost their second leading scorer and their top marksman from three-point range in Gallinari (16.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 37.3 3-Pt.%), to a torn left ACL back on Apr. 4 versus the Dallas Mavericks. The team may also not have Faried for Game 1 of this series because of a sprained ankle he sustained in a 118-109 victory on Apr. 14 versus the Portland Trail Blazers.

That would be a big loss considering he averaged 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds on 48.7 from the floor in the four games against the Warriors in the regular season.

For the Warriors, they hope that Bogut, who played just 32 games this season because of injury, can be a defensive presence in the paint. He managed to play 17 minutes in season finale on Apr. 17 at the Trail Blazers.

The other key factor in this series is the home record of the Nuggets, who coming into this series won 23 times at the Pepsi Center, a franchise NBA/ABA record. They are an NBA best 38-3 on their home court this season. The Warriors went 28-13 at ORACLE Arena. Both teams went 19-22 on the road in the regular season.

Prediction: Nuggets in seven.

(4)   Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) versus the (5) Memphis Grizzlies (56-26): Clippers won three of the four regular season meetings.

They finished with the same record in the regular season going 32-9 on their respective home courts and 24-17 on the road, with each setting new franchise records for road victories.

The Clippers won one more game in conference going 35-17, while the Grizzlies went 34-18 versus the West.

They each had strong finishes to the regular season as the Clippers won their final seven games while the Grizzlies won eight of their final 10 games, which includes two straight wins.

The reason the Clippers will open this series at the Staples Center is because back on Apr. 13 they won at the Grizzlies 91-87 winning the season series and clinching the No. 4 Seed and home court in this playoff match-up.

When the Clippers take the court in Game 1 of this series at the Staples Center, it will be just the second time in franchise history they will begin with home court advantage.

A big reason why the Clippers have confidence going up against Memphis is that they defeated them in seven games a season ago. They stole home court of the first round series a year ago by coming back from a 27-point deficit in the second half to capture a 99-98 win. They also won Game 7 at the FedEx Forum to win the series 4-3.

The Clippers also enter these playoffs with the understanding that their season has just begun. Yes they won a franchise record 56 games in the regular season. Yes they captured their first Pacific Division title in franchise history. Yes they swept their inter town rivals the Lakers 4-0 this season and the games were not even close. They know that their season will be judged by what they do in this series and beyond if they advanced.

They will go as far as their dynamic all-star duo of guard Chris Paul (16.9 ppg, 9.7 apg-2nd NBA, 2.4 spg-leads NBA) and forward Blake Griffin (18.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg-leads team) can take them.

Paul in the regular season against the Grizzlies dominated his lead guard counterpart Mike Conley averaging 16.3 points, 8.7 assists, 2.3 steals on 47.2 percent from the field. Conley averaged only 10.3 points and 5.8 assists, which is far below his season averages of 14.6 and 6.1 assists per game.

At power forward spot, Griffin had a tough time in the season series against the Grizzlies scoring just 13 points and grabbing seven boards on 44.4 percent from the floor. His counterpart Zach Randolph (15.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg-4th NBA, 46.0 FG%), who is healthy entering the postseason this time from a year ago averaged 14.8 points, 12.3 rebounds against the Clippers during the regular season. If the Grizzlies are going to win this series though, he cannot shoot 37.3 percent from the field, which he did against the Clippers in the regular season.

In a series that features two of the top defensive teams in the business, this series could come down to a number of X-factors.

For the Clippers can guard Chauncey Billups, who played in just 21 games this season because of injuries, return to the form that helped the Detroit Pistons and the Nuggets reach the Conference Finals for seven straight seasons combined when he played for those teams?

Will starting center DeAndre Jordan, who had career-highs of 8.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg and field goal percentage of 64.3 percent, which led the league, be a presence on in the paint on both ends or just a spectator?

If he is a spectator, Defensive Player of the Year candidate, younger brother of Pau Gasol and starting center Marc Gasol (14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.7 bpg-leads team) of the Grizzlies will have a field day. Against the Clippers in the regular season, he averaged 16.8 points.   

The other factor is the bench of the Clippers. Can Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford (16.5 ppg, 43.8 FG%, 37.6 3-Pt%) rise to the occasion along with swingman Matt Barnes (10.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 46.2 FG%, 34.2 3-Pt.%), forwards Caron Butler (10.4 ppg, 38.3 3-Pt.%), Lamar Odom (4.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Grant Hill and guards Eric Bledsoe (8.5 ppg) and Willie Green (6.3 ppg).

The Clippers reserves this season led the league in minutes, steals and blocks. They were second in rebounds, fourth in points and fourth in assists.

For the Grizzlies the question is can they generate enough offense for a consistent period in each game to capture this series?

In the four games against the Clippers in the regular season, they averaged just 87 points on 40 percent from the field. Conley, who shot 44 percent this season, shot just 30.2 percent from the floor and just 29.4 percent from three-point range against the Clippers.  
In terms of perimeter shooting that will be left up to forward Tayshaun Prince (8.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and guards Jerryd Bayless (8.7 ppg, 35.3 3-Pt.%) and Keyon Dooling, who they signed before the postseason.
On the season, the Grizzlies averaged just 93.2 points (T-28th NBA). They were 21st in shooting from the floor at 44.4 percent and 24th in three-point percentage at 34.5 percent.

The Clippers have one of the most efficient offenses in the business averaging 101.1 points (T-9th NBA) on 47.8 percent from the field (4th NBA).

What might be an Achilles for them in this series is that their three-point shooting is average at 35.8 percent, tied for 15th in the league and they are 27th in free throw shooting at 71.1 percent.

In 33 seasons of L.A. Clippers basketball, they have lost 70 games in a season once; 60 or more games four times (1987-88, 1994-95, 1999-00, 2008-09) and or more games 21 times. That is the kind of history that they are trying to put in their rear view mirror and a solid playoff run this season could do that.

For the Grizzlies, they had their coming out party two years ago when they took down, the mighty Spurs in the first round in six games. They lost in the Conference Semis to the West runner-up the Thunder in seven games.

Prior to this season, the Grizzlies won 50 games or more in the regular season just once. That happened nine seasons ago and they were swept by the Spurs in four games.

For one of these teams, they will have their promising season come to a close.

Prediction: Clippers in seven games.  

Information and statistics are courtesy of;;;;;
Sporting News 2006-07 Official NBA Guide.