Saturday, April 19, 2014

J-Speaks: 2014 National Basketball Association Playoff Preview

In just a matter of hours, 16 National Basketball Association (NBA) teams, eight from the Eastern Conference and eight from the Western Conference begin the journey to get to 16 victories and an NBA title. For the second seed in the East from South Florida, they are trying to win their third consecutive title while the team they defeated for their second straight title last season is trying to get back to The Finals and win their fifth title in franchise history. Another East team, which beat out the defending champs for the top spot in the East is trying to reach the NBA Finals after falling short a season ago. Three other East teams are making a appearance in the playoffs for the first time in a while, while four teams in the West are trying to make their own playoff history. Here is a preview of all eight Quarterfinals matchups in the 2014 NBA Playoffs.

Eastern Conference
(1) Indiana Pacers (56-26) versus (8) Atlanta Hawks (38-44): Season series tied 2-2.

From the outside looking in, this seems like a mismatch on paper. The Pacers, who stated coming into this season, they wanted to have home court advantage through at the most the Eastern Conference playoffs.

For much of this season, the Pacers were on track for that goal. At the end of February, the team was 44-13 a top the East. The team finished the last two months of the regular season going just 12-13 in the months of March and April.

One of those losses came versus the Hawks 12 days ago when they beat them in Indianapolis 107-88, which was just the Pacers second loss at home by double digits.

Hawks starting lead guard Jeff Teague, whose a native of Indianapolis led the way with 25 points on 9 for 17 shooting and center Pero Antic had 18. The Hawks lead from start to finish in that contest as they held the Pacers to a franchise low 23 points in the first half.

The Hawks in that game not allowed 107 points in that contest, when they normally give up 92.3 points, second best in the league, the Pacers shot 56.2 percent and made 12 three-pointers in 27 attempts.

It has not been easy for the Hawks either. They lost their leading scorer Al Horford to a shoulder injury earlier in the season.

With that being said, the play of guys like Paul Milsap (17.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.7 spg), Kyle Korver (12.0 ppg, 47.2 3-Pt.%), DeMarre Carroll (11.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 spg), Mike Scott (9.6 ppg), Louis Williams (10.4 ppg) have picked up the slack and it is because of their play, the Hawks were able to win six of their last eight to beat out the New York Knicks for the eighth and last playoff spot and make the postseason party for the seventh straight season.

The question is which Pacers team is going to show up in this series? Will it be the team that played with a chemistry that was second to none, especially at the defensive end or will it be the team that has been playing uninspired and with a poor attitude the last two months.

They need starting center Roy Hibbert (10.8 ppg 6.6 rpg 2.2 bpg-4th NBA) to come out of his funk. They need Paul George (21.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.9 spg) to be the offensive force that he was at the start of this season. Starting lead guard George Hill (10.3 ppg, 44.2 FG%, 36.5 3-Pt.%) to play aggressive at all times on both ends. David West (14.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) to be a steady presence scoring and on the board and Lance Stephenson must be the all around player who can pull off a triple double at the drop of a hat, which he did on five occasions this regular season, the most in the league.

If this starting five though has to play heavy minutes, totaling 1,468 more than any other lineup, this playoff run may be short lived.

They need the likes Luis Scola (7.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Evan Turner (7.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.4 apg with the Pacers), who they got at the trade deadline in February, C.J. Watson (6.6 ppg, 36.6 3-Pt.%), Ian Mahinmi (3.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) to provide some relief.

If the Pacers reserves can play anything close like they did in their big win versus the Oklahoma City Thunder in the next to last game of the regular season, when Scola, Watson and Mahinmi combined to score 41 points on 15 for 21 shooting, the Pacers will be okay.

One thing the Pacers better do in this series guard the three-point line. The Hawks in four meetings with the Pacers made an average of 10.3 three-point field goals. The Pacers ranked fourth in the league in three-point defense. Korver shot 10 for 20 versus the Pacers this season. Antic, who averaged just 7.0 points a game on 41.8 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from three-point range, averaged 17.0 points on 72.2 percent from the field and shot 60.0 percent from behind the three-point line.

This will be big against the Pacers because, this will take Hibbert away from the basket and it could open other things offensively for the Pacers.

While the Pacers on paper are a better team, they have not shown well lately and they have not shown well against the Hawks in Atlanta in recent years dropping 13 of their lat 15 visits to Phillips Arena.

All the pressure is squarely on the Pacers. They fell one game short of the Finals after losing Game 7 of the East Finals at the Miami Heat. If they happen to fall in the quarterfinals, it would be a disaster.

Prediction: Pacers in five games. Game 1: Today at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

(4) Chicago Bulls (48-34) versus (5) Washington Wizards (44-38): Wizards won season series 2-1.

This matchup features a drastic difference in styles and experience.

The Washington Wizards are back in the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. They are lead by the young potent backcourt of former No. 1 overall pick in 2010 out of Kentucky John Wall and the second year guard out of Florida Bradley Beal.

Wall healthy this season playing in all 82 games led the Wizards in scoring at 19.3 points dishing, steals at 1.8 and 8.8 assists (2nd NBA) and averaged 1.8 steals per contest. Beal showed well in his sophomore season in the league finishing second on the team in scoring at 17.1 per game and shot 40.2 percent from three-point range.

The key for the Wizards in this series is can Wall be able to score when it presents itself and be able to facilitate against a very tough Bulls defense which is one of the best in the business.

In the two victories, they managed to put up 102 and 88 points respectably in two wins in the month of January in a four-day span.

The Bulls returned the favor 13 days ago as they held the Wizards to 78 points in their 18-point win at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC.

Against the Bulls this season, Wall and Beal averaged 20.7 and 13.7 per contest respectably on 50 percent from the field.

The Wizards will also need their front court of Nene (14.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Marcin Gortat (13.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg), Trevor Ariza (14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 45.6 FG%, 40.7 3-Pt.%), Drew Gooden (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Martell Webster (9.7 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%) and Trevor Booker (6.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) to show well against the Bulls.

They also need to take care of business in the mid-range game. While they rank No. 1 in shot attempts from about 15 feet at 26.8 in the league, they are ranked 21st in percentage at 38.1

When the Bulls lost 2011 MVP Derrick Rose again for the season due to another knee injury, traded away Luol Deng in January to save money and struggled out of the gate going just 3-13 in November and December, many people thought that they would be out of the playoff mix.

This team however is coach by Tom Thibodeau and all he and his team did was get back on the court, play harder than the other team and win, which they did.

The likes of Joakim Noah (12.6 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg), who stands a good chance of winning Defensive Player of the Year, took their game to another level as he used every bit of passion and energy to record four triple doubles and average seven assists per contest since the All-Star break as the Bulls went 21-9.

Picking up guard D.J. Augustin (14.9 ppg, 5.0 apg, 41.1 3-Pt.%) off the street early after he was waived by the Toronto Raptors in December gave the offense life and the emergence of Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Taj Gibson (13.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), full-time starting two guard Jimmy Butler (13.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.9 spg) and veterans like Carlos Boozer (13.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and off-season addition Mike Dunleavy (11.3 ppg, 38.0 3-Pt.%) have been solid.

The key for the Bulls is can they score enough to win. Their 93.7 average per contest, ranked dead last will not cut it.

If they can take care of business at the offensive end and play their stellar defense, which ranked No. 1 in points allowed in the league at 91.8, second in field goal percentage at 43 percent and tied for seventh in three-point percentage allowed at 35.1, they have a great chance of making it to the second round for the second straight season.

The last time the Wizards advanced past the first round is 2005 when they defeated the Bulls in the first round in six games. Then starting guard Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards in that series with 23 points, six boards and six assists. It was the one and only playoff series victory in their last 11 tries since 1983.

Getting a victory in the opening round versus the Bulls, will not be easy, but if they do, it would go a long way in the development for this team.

Prediction: Bulls in seven games. Game 1: Sunday at 7 p.m. on TNT.

(2) Miami Heat (54-28) versus (7) Charlotte Bobcats (43-39): Heat won season series 4-0.

When you win one championship, it is a wonder feeling. Winning back-to-back titles is special. Winning three in succession is something most dream of doing.

That is the opportunity the Miami Heat have in front of them as they begin the 2014 NBA Playoffs trying to make it to The Finals for a fourth straight season.

Unlike last season though, their road to get to the No. 2 Seed was not an easy one.

While the top dog of the "Big 3" in LeBron James (27.1 ppg-3rd NBA, 6.9 rpg-led team, 6.4 apg-led team, 56.7 FG%-4th NBA) had another stellar season leading the, he did not have his sidekick Dwyane Wade (19.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.5 spg) for a great deal this season as he sat because of a hamstring injury and to rest a knee injury so that he could be ready for the playoffs. The third of the "Big 3" Chris Bosh (16.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) had to step in as the No. 2 scorer at times and he had is good moments and he had some rough ones.

On top of that, two key editions in center Greg Oden, who played in the league for the first time in four seasons trying to comeback from a knee injury and Michael Beasley, who tried to rebuild his image in his second stint with the Heat have not panned out well as they had hoped and the likes of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers (9.8 ppg, 4.9 apg, 45.4 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%), Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem , Ray Allen (9.6 ppg, 44.2 FG%, 37.5 3-Pt.%) and Rashard Lewis have been up and down a lot during this season.

With all of that being said though, the Heat understand what is ahead of them. The team and head coach Erik Spoelstra understand that what happens for the first 82 games is what it is. They got the second seed in the East. For a while they had a shot at the No. 1 Seed, but decided to rest their key players down the stretch and they are ready to embark on this journey that hopefully ends with a third straight title.

The journey begins for the Southeast Division champs versus the Bobcats, who they have beaten 16 consecutive times, which includes all four meetings this season. Two of those meetings though were close.

The Heat escaped by one point 99-98 versus the Bobcats on Dec. 1 and by eight points 104-96 in overtime in Charlotte back on Jan. 18.

The most memorable of the meetings came on Mar. 3 in Miami when James scored a Heat record, career-high and second best scoring night this season by an individual when he put up a remarkable 61 points on 22 for 33 from the field, including going 8 for 10 from three-point range and 9 for 12 from the free throw line in the Heat's 124-107 win over the Bobcats.

The Bobcats stayed in that game, before the Heat pulled away late, thanks to center Al Jefferson (21.8 ppg-leads team, 10.8 rpg-leads team). The Bobcats prized off-season addition had 38 points and 19 rebounds in the setback.

Jefferson, along with the emergence of Kemba Walker (17.7 ppg, 6.1 apg-leads team) and Gerald Henderson (14.0 ppg). The Bobcats have also gotten solid contributions from Gary Neal (11.2 ppg, 40.6 3-Pt.%), who they acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline along with Luke Ridnour for Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien, Josh McRoberts (8.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (7.2 ppg and 5.2 rpg).

When the Bobcats hired long time assistant Steve Clifford to be their head coach this past off-season, he brought something that the Bobcats needed desperately. Consistency and accountability. The result a second straight season where they doubled their win total from a season ago. Just two seasons ago, the Bobcats went just 7-59 in the lockout shortened season season. They won just 21 games a season ago.

The fact that they had a good record like they did this season was an accomplishment for the team and owner Michael Jordan.

Advancing though may be asking too much, especially against the back-to-back champs. On top of that, the Bobcats despite having a solid scoring threat in the post in Jefferson, the Bobcats rank 23rd in scoring per game putting up just 96.9. They did however rank fourth in points allowed this season at 97.1.

The 29 times they allowed 100 points or more, the Bobcats won just nine times.

If the Bobcats have any chance of competing in this series, they have to have high level performances from Jefferson and Walker. A third consistent scorer must emerge and Kidd-Gilchrist, Henderson or whoever takes the task of guarding James has to at least make an attempt to slow him down. If he comes anywhere close to what he did against the Bobcats this season, where he averaged 37.8 points per contest on 62.9 percent from the floor, it is a wrap.

Prediction: Heat in four. Game 1: Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on ABC

(3) Toronto Raptors (48-34) versus (6) Brooklyn Nets (44-38): Season series tied 2-2.

When the 2013-14 NBA campaign began, many thought that the Atlantic Division was a two-team race between the Knicks and their in state rivals the Brooklyn Nets, especially after the team acquired future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce (13.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 45.1 FG%, 37.3 3-Pt.%) and Kevin Garnett (6.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg-led team) from the Boston Celtics. In a very big gamble, the Nets hired Jason Kidd, who just retired from the hardwood to be their head coach. The team also signed role players in Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson and Shaun Livingston (8.3 ppg) to go alongside Deron Williams (14.3 ppg, 6.1 apg-led team, 1.5 spg-led team), Joe Johnson (15.8 ppg, 45.4 FG%, 40.1 3-Pt.%), Brook Lopez, Andray Blatche (11.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Mirza Teletovic (8.6 ppg, 39.0 3-Pt.%).

The season did not start great for the Nets as they went 10-21. During this stretch, they lost Lopez, their leading scorer at 20.7 ppg and six boards for the rest of the season to a broken bone in his right foot on Dec. 21. Kidd looked lost at times as a head coach and one incident in particular brought a lot of attention when he on Nov. 27 late in the Nets' 99-94 loss versus the Los Angeles Lakers acted as if he was spilling a beverage to gather his team to draw up a play and Garnett and Pierce played as if they were on their last legs.

Things turned around though once the calendar turned to January as the Nets went 34-17 to close the season, which includes a 16-2 mark at home.

They changed their offensive approach by going small playing Pierce as the starting power forward. The Nets made shooting the three-pointer an important part of the offense and they forced more turnovers at the defensive end.

After the first 18 games of this season, the Raptors were looking at their sixth straight season of not making the playoffs.

Then on Dec. 9, 2013, new General Manager Masai Ujiri traded swingman Rudy Gay along wit Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez (9.5 ppg, 3.7 apg), Patrick Patterson (9.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 47.4 FG%, 41.1 3-Pt.%) and Chuck Hayes.

After the trade, the Raptors sored to the top of the Atlantic Division going 42-22 the remainder of the season. Fourth year swingman DeMar DeRozen (22.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.0 apg) emerged as the team's best player, making his first All-Star game back in February. His backcourt mate Kyle Lowry (17.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 7.4 apg-led team, 1.5 spg-led team).

The biggest changes after the trade is the Raptors went from a straight isolation team to one that shared the ball consistently and made playing defense a priority.

Along with the emergence of DeRozen and Lowry, center Jonas Valanciunas (11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg-led team), Terrance Ross (10.9 ppg) and Amir Johnson (10.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) rose their games to another level.

These two teams met in the first round of the playoffs seven seasons ago and the Nets prevailed in six games.

The similarity in that series and this latest installment is that the Nets have the most playoff experience. The top players of the Nets in Garnett, Pierce, Johnson and Williams have played a combined 387 playoff games. The Raptors key players of Lowry, Johnson, DeRozen, Valanciunas and Ross have a combined 24 games of playoff experience. Those 24 games are split between Lowry and Johnson and they were marginal role players at that time.

Besides the experience, the Nets have been better this season in the clutch. In games decided by six points or less, the Raptors are just 3-8.

In his two seasons as a Net, Johnson has gone 13 for 18 in the final 30 seconds with the score tied or the Nets are within 1 to 3 points.

The Raptors have had a great season. They went from the outhouse to the top of the Atlantic Division, winning for the second time in franchise. Some of their core players have made names for themsevles in the NBA. The playoffs though are a different animal and the Nets have players that understand that.

The other thing that is in the Nets favor is that there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs. This season, the Nets went just 6-14 in the second night of back-to-back, but were 38-24 when they played with at least one day off.

If the Raptors cannot get Game 1, will their inexperience rattled them?

Prediction: Nets in six. Game 1: Today at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN

Western Conference
(1) San Antonio Spurs (62-20) versus (8) Dallas Mavericks (49-33): Spurs won season series 4-0.

The more things change the more they stay the same. That is true in the Western Conference as the Spurs finished with the No. 1 Seed in the West and the best record in the NBA, making the playoffs for the 17th straight season.

The Southwest Division champs did all of this on the heels of falling apart in the closing moments of Game 6 of last season's Finals and they fell in Game 7 to the Miami Heat as they won back-to-back titles.

During the season, key Spurs like Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.7 spg-led team, 37.9 3-Pt.%) missed a month with a broken hand. Danny Green (9.1 ppg, 41.5 3-Pt.%) missed several weeks with a broken finger and Manu Ginobili (12.3 ppg, 46.9 FG%, 34.9 3-Pt.%) was sidelined by a hamstring injury and Tony Parker (16.7 ppg-led team,5.7 apg-led team, 49.9 FG%) was put on the shelf to rest some nagging injuries.

When someone goes down, someone has to step up and that is what the likes of Marco Belinelli (11.4 ppg, 48.5 FG%, 43.0 3-Pt.%), Corey Joseph, Boris Diaw (9.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Tiago Splitter (8.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), who also missed time due to injury and Patty Mills (10.2 ppg, 46.4 FG%, 42.5 3-Pt.%) stepped up and the Spurs continued to win.

In fact they won 19 consecutive games, a new franchise record from Feb. 26 to Apr. 3.

Their interstate and division rivals the Mavs are back in the postseason after missing out last season, which snapped their streak of 12 straight appearances.

The Mavs return the playoffs is because of a healthy and rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki (21.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 49.7 FG%, 39.8 3-Pt.%) and the solid play of free agent signings of starting guards Monta Ellis (19.0 ppg, 5.7 apg, 45.1 FG%) and Jose Calderon (11.4 ppg, 4.7 apg, 45.6 FG%, 44.9 3-Pt.%).

This is not the first rodeo, no pun intended, between the Interstate 35 rivals. They have met five previous times in the playoffs and in the middle of those battles has been Nowitzki, 35 and the 37-year-old Tim Duncan of the Spurs.

In 26 matchups between the two former MVPs and future Hall of Famers have been classics. Duncan (15.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg-led team, 1.9 bpg-led team) has averaged 24.5 points, 10.1 boards on 49.8 percent shooting while Nowitzki has averaged 26.0 points, 12.3 rebounds on 53.9 percent shooting. Duncan's Spurs have won 14 times, while Nowitzki and the Mavs have won 12 games. The Spurs have won three of the five series they have met in the playoffs.

This might be the last time we see these two greats at the power forward position head-to-head in the postseason. This should be treasured.

The Spurs have won the last nine meetings in a row against the Mavericks, which includes all four meetings this season by an average of 11.5 points. The Spurs have lead after the first quarter in all four meetings.

The Mavs had no answers for Duncan or Parker who averaged 23.3 points and 18.5 points respectably.

If the Mavs have any chance of competing against the Spurs in this series, they need Ellis and Nowitzki to play at a high level. They also need the likes of Shawn Marion (10.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Vince Carter (11.9 ppg, 39.4 3-Pt.%), Samuel Dalembert (6.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg-led team), Brandon Wright (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), DeJuan Blair (6.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Devin Harris (7.9 ppg, 4.5 apg) to make an impact.

Prediction: Spurs in five. Game 1: Sunday at 1 p.m. on TNT.

(4) Houston Rockets (54-28) versus (5) Portland Trail Blazers (54-28): Rockets won season series 3-1.

If you are somebody that enjoys seeing high octane offenses that get up and down the court, shoot three-pointers at a moments notice and have big men that can play down low with the best of the best, this is a series worth the price of admission.

The Rockets take the most three-pointers (26.6) and make the most at 9.5 per game. The Trail Blazers take the third most three-pointers (25.3) and are tied with the Phoenix Suns in makes from distance at 9.4 per contest. The Trail Blazers shoot better from distance making 37.2 percent (7th NBA), while the Rockets connect on 35.8 percent from three-point range (T-15th NBA).

While the team's have guys that can strike a match from distance, the shooting percentages and great looks are not possible without a solid player in the pivot.

The Rockets anchor in the pivot on both ends is Dwight Howard (18.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg), who averaged 25.5 points, 13.5 boards and four blocks on 63.3 percent from the field versus the Trail Blazers this season.

The Blazers inside presence is three-time All-Star is LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg), who averaged 26.8 points and 15.5 boards and pulled down at least 20 boards on two occassions this season versus the Rockets.

Howard's sidekick is James Harden (25.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 6.1 apg, 45.6 FG%) one of the best in the league and the two-time All-Star was at his best against the Trail Blazers averaging 30.3 points, 7.3 boards and 5.1 assists on 48.1 percent.

The Trail Blazers second best scorer is last season's Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard (20.7 ppg, 5.6 apg, 39.4 3-Pt.%). Against the Rockets this season, Lillard was okay averaging 18.8 points and five assists, though he shot just 38.6 percent from the floor.

These two high powered offensive teams are more than just their dynamic duos. Each of these teams have multiple players who can score with the best of them.

The Rockets supporting cast consists of Chandler Parsons (16.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 47.2 FG%, 37.0 3-Pt.%), Jeremy Lin (12.5 ppg, 44.6 FG%, 35.8 3-Pt.%), Terrence Jones (12.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 54.2 FG%), Patrick Beverly (10.2 ppg), Omri Casspi (6.9 ppg), Jordan Hamilton (6.6 ppg), Omer Asik (5.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Francisco Garcia (5.7 ppg) and Donatas Montiejunas (5.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

The Trail Blazers supporting cast consist of Wesley Matthews (16.4 ppg, 44.1 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%), Nicolas Batum (13.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 46.5 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.%), Robin Lopez (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg), Mo Williams (9.7 ppg, 36.9 3-Pt.%).

In a series that features to evenly matched teams, it comes down to some x-factors coming to the fore front and creating some separation.

For the Rockets, Asik can be a huge factor, especially at the defensive end. He has been the one guy who can cause Aldridge some problems. Beverly can do the same against Lillard with his constant full court pressure.

In the case of the Blazers, their ability to pound the offensive and defensive glass is how they can seperate themselves in this series.

They are the No. 1 rebounding team in the league with 46.4 boards per contest; third in offensive boards per game at 12.5 per contest. The Rockets though rank second in rebound differential at 3.6, while the Blazers rank sixth at 2.9.

As far as the defensive end, the job of containing Harden falls toe Matthews and at times Batum. In two of the four games against the Trail Blazers this season, Harden dropped 41 and 33 points.

Another factor in this series could be the free throw line. The Rockets behind Harden and Howard, they attempt the most free throws per game at 31.1. The Rockets however rank 28 in the league shooting just 71.2 percent.

The Blazers attempt 23.5 free throws per game, ranking 13th in the league, but are No. 1 in the NBA shooting percentage at 81.5 percent.

If these are as close as expected, that is more in favor of the Trail Blazers as 30 of their wins have come within five points in last five minutes. Only the Grizzlies have more wins with 33.

When Howard signed with the Rockets as a free agent this past summer, he came here to win championships. After being on the shelf in the last couple of weeks this season with a left ankle strain. His health and how he plays will play a big role in how the Rockets do this postseason.

Nobody thought the Blazers would make the playoffs let alone win over 50 games. Behind a career year from Aldridge, continued improvement from Lillard and improvement from Matthews and Batum and the editions of Williams and Batum, the Trail Blazers became a playoff team.

Prediction: Rockets in seven. Game 1: Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on TNT.

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) versus (7) Memphis Grizzlies (50-32): Thunder won season series 3-1.

For the third time in four seasons, two of the NBA's up and coming teams meet again in a best-of-seven playoff series.

Their first meeting took place in the Semifinals in 2011, the Thunder outlasted the Grizzlies in a grueling seven game series advancing to the Western Conference Finals, only to lose to the eventual NBA champion Mavericks.

They met again in the Semis last season and the Grizzlies returned the favor beating the Thunder, who did not have Russell Westbrook in five games.

The past may be the past, but the intrigue still remains and some of the key players on both teams have gotten better and some adversity has made both of these teams better.

Despite finishing as the No. 2 Seed in the West, the road to get their has not been easy as the Northwest Division champs dealt with injuries to the likes of Russell Westbrook (21.8 ppg 5.7 rpg, 6.9 apg-led team, 1.9 spg-led team), Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, who have missed a combined total of 77 games this season because of knee, calf and groin strain injuries respectably. Westbrook knee required him to have two surgeries stems from what happen to him in the playoffs in last season's playoffs versus the Rockets, that made him missed games in the regular season for the first time in his six-year career.

On top of that, the Thunder have been inconsistent since the All-Star break, as they have gone just 16-11.

The one constant for them has been this season's likely MVP in Kevin Durant (32.0 ppg-leads NBA, 7.4 rpg, 5.5 apg-career-high), who averaged 30.8 ppg, 6.0 boards and five assists against the Grizzlies this season.

The Grizzlies after a rough beginning under new head coach Dave Joerger, really got their act together after Jan. 1 going 40-19. A big reason for their change of fortune is the return of starting center Marc Gasol (14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg 3.6 apg), who had missed 23 games because of a knee injury and the Grizzlies struggled going just 10-13.

The Thunder won three of the four meetings and the one they lost on Jan 14 in Memphis 90-87, Westbrook did not play.

If the Grizzlies want to win this series versus the Thunder, slowing down Kevin Durant and scoring consistently are going have to be the top priorities.

In last season's semis, the Grizzlies used a multitude of defenders on Durant, which included Tayshaun Prince early and defensive ace Tony Allen late.

In Games 3, 4 and 5, Durant struggled in the fourth quarter scoring a combined nine points going just 4 for 18 from the floor and getting to the line just four times combined hitting just one. The Thunder lost those last three games and the series.

James Johnson, who the Grizzlies signed earlier in the season out of the D-League will have his chance to guard Durant as well.

As far as offensively, the Grizzlies have to do better than the 93.5 average they scored in the four meetings against the Thunder and just 96.1 points per game, ranking 27th in the league.

The likes of Mike Conley (17.2 ppg, 6.0 apg), Courtney Lee (11.0 ppg, 47.6 FG%, 34.5 3-Pt.%), who the team acquired earlier in the season from the Celtics and Mike Miller (7.1 ppg, 48.1 FG%, 45.9 3-Pt.%) to provide some scoring punch.

The Grizzlies also need their other main threat in the post in Zach Randolph (17.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 46.7 FG%), who averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 rebounds versus the Thunder.

On the Thunder side, the key for them is getting consistent play from the likes of Serge Ibaka (15.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.7 bpg-2nd NBA), Reggie Jackson (13.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.1 apg) and Caron Butler (9.7 ppg, 44.1 3-Pt.%), Jeremy Lamb (8.5 ppg), Derek Fisher (5.2 ppg 38.4 3-Pt.%), Nick Collison and the rookie Steven Adams.

If this series goes at least five games, Fisher will make a some history as he will pass seven-time NBA champion and his former teammate with the Lakers Robert Horry most playoff games played. Horry has played in 244 playoff games and Fisher, who has won five rings with the Lakers in the early and middle 2000s has played in 240 playoff games. He has already passed Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (237) and former teammates Kobe Bryant (220) and Shaquille O'Neal (216).

Prediction: Thunder in six. Game 1: Tonight at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN

(3) Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) versus (6) Golden State Warriors (51-31): Season series tied 2-2.

It was just a few seasons back that these two teams were in the bottom of the West. Both have risen from the ashes and have developed into the high octane high flying, jump shooting Hatfields versus the McCoys over the last couple of years and they will meet for the first time in the playoffs.

How much do these teams dislike one another?

Well Warriors starting shooting guard Klay Thompson, one half of the Warriors' dubbed splash brothers tandem said about Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin on a local San Francisco radio station 95.7 The Game, "He's kind of like a bull in a China shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you do just see him flop sometimes-like how can a guy that big and strong flop so much?"

Let the antagonism and the scuffles, which there were a lot of in the four meetings begin.

For the Warriors it will begin though without the services of starting center Andrew Bogut (7.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg-leads team, 1.8 bpg-leads team), who is out indefintely due to a rib injury.

The burden of protecting the paint and providing some kind of offensive punch now comes down to 35-year-old Jermaine O'Neal (7.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and David Lee (18.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg), who averaged 21.8 points and nine boards against the Clippers in the regular season.

While the Warriors lose their best rim protector, they still have options to go to at the forward position with the likes of swingman Andre Iguodala (9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.2 apg), Harrison Barnes (9.5 ppg), Draymond Green (6.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Marreese Speights (6.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg).

The scoring falls on Thompson (18.4 ppg, 41.7 3-Pt.%) and his "Splash Brother" sidekick Stephen Curry (24.0 ppg-leads team, 8.5 apg, 47.1 FG%, 42.4 3-Pt.%), who averaged 22.0 points against the Clippers during the regular season and going 17 for 29 from three-point territory. . They will also need some scoring punch off the bench from Jordan Crawford (8.4 ppg), who put up a career-high 41 points on 16 for 28 shooting in the regular season finale, a 116-112 win at the Nuggets this past Wednesday.

To put this Warriors season into perspective, the last time the Warriors made the playoffs in back-to-back season and were able to win 50-plus games, I was in fourth grader and fifth grader when the Warriors made the postseason two straight seasons in 1991 and 1992 and I was a sixth grader at Grand Ave. the last time the Warriors won 50 games was back in 1993-94, when they went 50-32 when they had the likes Chris Webber, Latrell Sprewell, Chris Mullin, Billy Owens, Avery Johnson, Chris Gatling and Keith Jennings and the head coach was Don Nelson.

The Clippers had their greatest regular season in franchise history. They won their second straight Pacific Division title, establishing a new franchise best number of total victories and home victories with 34.

The All-Star duo of Blake Griffin (24.1 ppg-lead team, 9.5 rpg, 3.9 apg), who averaged 28.0 ppg, 10.5 boards on 53.2 percent shooting against the Warriors this regular season. and Chris Paul (19.1 ppg, 10.7 apg-lead NBA, 2.5 spg-led NBA) had stellar seasons.

Starting center DeAndre Jordan (10.4 ppg, 13.6 rpg-led NBA, 2.5 bpg-3rd NBA, 67.6 FG%-led NBA) had a break out season and he could win Defensive Player of the Year.

The difference in this team from last year and so far in the regular season is that they faced some adversity and they only got better because of it. Chris Paul missed 18 games because of a seperated right shoulder he suffered back on Jan. 3 at the Mavericks.

Understudy Darren Collison (11.4 ppg 46.7 FG%, 36.8 3-Pt.%) had to step in and he performed very well as the Clippers went 12-6 without their floor general.

When Paul returned to the line up on Feb. 9 and in the six games leading up to the playoffs he averaged 20.5 ppg and 8.7 apg on 52.4 percent shooting. Against the Warriors this season, Paul averaged 28.0 points, 12.7 assists and 3.7 steals.

Along with coming into the playoffs healthy this season, the Clippers have quality depth at every position and they have a true leader in head coach Glenn "Doc"Rivers to guide them to hopefully the promise land this season.

The Clippers have the likes of J.J. Redick (15.2 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 39.5 3-Pt.%), Collison, Matt Barnes (9.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 34.3 3-Pt.%), Jared Dudley (6.9 ppg36.0 3-Pt.%), Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger (8.0 ppg), Willie Green (5.0 ppg) and Glen Davis to both score inside and on the perimeter.

While the series will feature some amazing high light dunks and fastbreaks from the Clippers, who had 20-plus advantage in fastbreak points over the Warriors and smooth outside shooting by Warriors that can score inside as they held a plus 48 advantage in points in the paint, whoever can take the other teams advantage away will gain the upper hand.

The Clippers under Rivers went from the 26th rank team in defending the three-point line a season ago to No. 1 this season. In the Clippers victories this season, they have made an average of 9.3 triples per game and just 6.5 connections from distance in their losses.

Two other keys in this series is can the Clippers, who shot just 72.6 percent from the free throw line during the regular season take care of business in that area, especially if the game is close. Three of the Clippers top players in Jordan (42.8), Dudley (66.5) and Griffin (71.5) struggle from the line and can Warriors, who averaged 14.9 turnovers per contest (27th NBA) keep their miscues to a minimum to keep the Clippers out of the open court.

As I mentioned earlier, these two teams dislike each other very much. So who can keep their composure and not allow a teams antics to interfere with the task at hand will win. Which team can play through some tough calls by the officials and adjust will come out on top.

The difficulty of this series is that one team who has had their best season in recent memory will have it conclude in this round and will see a season of great promise be unfufilled.

Prediction: Clippers in six. Game 1: Today at 3:30 p.m. on ABC.
Information, statistics and quotes are courtesy of;;;;;;; 4/17/14 6 p.m. edition of NBATV's "The Starters" with J.E. Skeets, Tas Melas, Leigh Eills and Trey Kerby; 4/17/14 7 p.m. Eastern Conference Playoff Preview Show on NBATV sponsored by SAP with Matt Winer, Dennis Scott and Vinny Del Negro; 4/17/14 8 p.m. Western Conference Playoff Preview on NBATV sponsored by SAP with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Vinny Del Negro.