Sunday, April 24, 2016

J-Speaks: NBA Awards Time

It is playoff time in the NBA. The time where 16 times compete for an NBA title. This is also the time of the season where players are in the running to receive some serious individual awards. The chance to be recognized for their amazing hard work that allowed them to have an amazing season and in some cases a historic one. Three of those awards have already been handed out and there are few more on the verge of being announced. Here are my candidates for some of these prestigious awards for the 2015-16 NBA regular season campaign.

Defensive Player of the Year

The 2016 NBA Defensive Player of the Year presented by KIA was handed out early last week to first time All-Star forward of the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard, who won the award for the second consecutive season.

He became the first non-center or power forward to win this award since Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, who won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1990 and 1991 and former Milwaukee Buck guard Sidney Moncrief, who won the award in its inaugural season of 1983 and again in 1984.

Leonard, who has taken his game to even greater heights on both ends of the court this season, continues to show that he can guard the likes of Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

His work at the defensive end is a major reason why the Spurs, who won a franchise record 67 games this season finished No. 1 in points allowed at 92.9 per contest and in opponent’s three-point percentage at 33.1; No. 4 in opponent’s field goal percentage at 43.6 and No. 11 in steals per game at 8.3.

To put that into perspective, this was the 19th straight season the Spurs allowed less than 100 points to their opposition.

In addition to averaging 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds on 50.6 percent from the floor and ranking fourth in the NBA in three-point percentage at 44.3 percent, Leonard finished 12th  in the league in steals per game at 1.8.

In the Spurs Game 3 victory on Friday night at the Memphis Grizzlies 96-87 to take a 3-0 series lead, Leonard was remarkable on both ends leading all scorers 32 points on 11 for 22 shooting, including 6 for 9 from three-point range with seven boards, four steals and five blocks.

The Spurs held the Grizzlies to 41.5 percent from the field, had 10 steals and 12 block shots.

There were other noteworthy candidates for this award like Draymond Green of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who averaged 14.0 points, 9.5 boards, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest. Jordan finished second in the league in boards and blocks.

Then there is Hassan Whiteside, who averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 boards, which ranked third in the league and he led the NBA in blocks at 3.7 per game. Whiteside ability to defend the paint was a big reason the Heat led the league in blocks per contest during the regular season.

Sixth Man of the Year

Most teams in the NBA if they are fortunate enough have a starting quintet that can consistently put the ball in the basket and a sixth man who can also put the ball in the basket at a high rate. That instant offensive can have a serious impact on the game that can shift the momentum into their respective team’s favor. This year’s winner embodies that quality completely and made history in the process of winning this award.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford captured his third Sixth Man of the Year award earlier this week, making him the first three-time recipient of this honor.

Crawford previous won this  honor in his second season with the Clippers back in 2014, when he averaged 18.6 points per game and he won this award for the first time in 2010, with a 18.0 scoring average in his first season with the Atlanta Hawks. He also shot 44.9 percent from the field, the second highest for a season of his career and shot 38.2 percent from three-point range, which was the third highest for a season of his career.

While his numbers in comparison to his career were a little low with a 14.2 scoring output per contest this regular season, his scoring off the pine along with the likes of Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Jeff Green, who the team acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline back in February are a big reason why the Clippers won 53 games and got home court advantage as the No. 4 Seed in the opening round without All-Star forward Blake Griffin on the shelf for nearly three months because of injury and suspension.

To bring this point home, the Clippers reserves since Christmas Day 2015 have averaged 41.5 points per game.

Other worthy candidates that made names for themselves off the bench this season include Enes Kanter of the Northwest Division champion Oklahoma City Thunder, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds on 57.6 percent from the floor. Kanter garnered 19 double-doubles during the regular season.

Another stand out performer off the bench for his team during the regular season was Evan Turner of the Boston Celtics. The former No. 2 overall pick back in the 2010 draft out of Ohio State averaged 10.5 points, 4.9 boards and 4.4 assists on 45.6 percent shooting off the pine for the C’s in the regular season.

He really picked up his game after the All-Star break with averages of 12.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 47.7 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from three-point range. In the month of April, Turner averaged 14.0 points, 5.0 boards and 4.7 assists on 50.0 percent shooting.

In a very disappointing season for the New Orleans Pelicans (30-52) that saw them miss out on the playoffs after making it a season ago for the first time in four seasons, one bright spot for them was the play off the bench of sharp shooting forward Ryan Anderson who averaged 17.0 points and six rebounds on 36.6 percent from three-point range.

In a season of trying to build for better days ahead, the Denver Nuggets (33-49) did find a serious diamond in the rough in swingman Will Barton, who had a breakout season with career-highs of 14.4 points and 5.8 boards on 34.5 three-point percentage.

On 20 occasions this past regular season, the former 2012 second round pick scored 20 points for more, including a career-high of 32 points to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists going 12 for 25 from the floor, including 7 for 11 from three-point territory in a 130-125 loss versus the Pelicans on Dec. 20, 2015. Barton also had a 31 points performance on 12 for 22 shooting, including 4 for 6 from long range in a 110-103 loss at the Portland Trail Blazers.

Coach of the Year

This season unlike any other, there have been a number of solid coaching jobs done. Two coaches led their teams to historic seasons for not just their respective franchises by in league history. There were also a few coaches who led their teams either back to the playoffs or led them to an unexpected appearance in the postseason.

The leading candidates for this award are Steve Kerr of the defending champion Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Kerr missed the first 43 games of the season recovering from complications from off-season back surgery. In his absence, assistant coach Luke Walton steady the ship greatly as the Warriors got off to an NBA record 16-0 start to the season, which grew to 24-0.  

When Kerr returned, the Warriors train kept on rolling to a new NBA record 73-9, surpassing the 1995-96 World Champion Chicago Bulls and setting a new franchise record. That 73-9 record included a new NBA record 34 wins on the road, while going 39-2 at Oracle Arena for the second straight season, which tied the third best mark in NBA history. The Warriors had won dating back to last season 54 straight wins at home, a new NBA record.

For much of the season, the Spurs kept on their heels until the finals games of the season. They still won as mentioned earlier a franchise record 67 wins this season, which included 40-1 at AT&T Center, which tied the NBA record with the 1985-86 World Champion Boston Celtics. They also had a major hot streak at home dating back to last season winning 48 straight, the second best stretch in NBA history to the Warriors 54 straight.

Four other worthy candidates include Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics; Terry Stotts of the Trail Blazers; Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets and Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors.

After a surprising playoff appearance a season ago, which ended in a four-game sweep to the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston Celtics proved that they were not a one-year wonder with a 48-34 record in 2015-16.

In just two seasons, former Butler University head coach Stevens has made the Celtics from a young team hoping to be good into a tough minded, defensive oriented move the basketball, focused play well together bunch.

When the 2015-16 NBA campaign began, the Trail Blazers lost 80 percent of their starting five in the off-season. All that remained was All-Star and former Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard.

The team started off the season 11-20 and seemed to be on the verge of being in the lottery not just this May but the next couple. The team went 33-18 the remainder of the season and vaulted from outside the playoff picture to the No. 5 Spot in the Western Conference.

“I think we had a lot of guys looking forward to the opportunity of solidifying themselves not only on our team, but in the NBA. When the predicted us to win 27, 28 games, we felt like that was disrespectful and more of an individual challenge,” Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum said to Rachel Nichols, host of “NBA: The Jump” on ESPN this past Friday about himself and teammates like Mason Plumlee, Alan Crabbe, Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Al-Faroug Aminu.

“We felt like they were saying some of us weren’t good enough or consistent to be good enough to help our team win and we took that as a challenge. We felt like if we put the work in over the course of the summer. Make sure we hit the weights hard and continue to get shots up and gain some cohesiveness and chemistry, we felt like there was no reason why we couldn’t make the playoffs.”

North of the Border in Toronto, head coach Dwane Casey has taken the Raptors from the Eastern Conference basement to a serious contender and this year, they made some major history.

They set a new franchise mark for wins in a season with 56 and became the last NBA team to garner 50 wins or more in a season. They won the Atlantic Division for a third consecutive season and finished with their highest seed at the No. 2 spot in the East in 2015-16.

The Final candidate is head coach Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, who went 48-34 on the season, finishing in a four-way tie in the middle of the East.

He led the Hornets back to the playoffs after a one-year absence and the team changed on the fly from a defensive team that played inside and out to a team that embraced to new age NBA offensive philosophy of spreading the floor and shooting a bunch of three-pointer, where they finished tied for seventh in percentage at 36.2 percent; fourth in attempts at 29.4 and in makes at 10.6 per contest.  

Most Improved Player

When it comes to the winner of this particular award, sometimes it has a lot to do with getting more minutes, which equals a chance to get a better opportunity to perform on the court. This award at times is also given to the player who has really worked on his game and has improved to the point where he becomes a bigger reason why that teams wins more. That is description of the 2016 winner this season.

The 2016 Most Improved Player was C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers, which he received this past Friday and was officially presented with the award before the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 contest versus the Los Angeles Clippers. He received 101 first place votes and 559 total.

He had 27 points, going 11 for 22 from the field with five boards as the Trail Blazers won Game 3 96-88 to cut the Clippers series lead 2-1.  

The No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Lehigh increased his scoring from 6.8 a season ago off the bench to 20.8, the best of his young career and he became the team’s starting shooting guard right next to All-Star and his best friend on the team Damian Lillard.

He also established career-highs in shooting from the floor at 44.8; from three-point range at 41.7 and from the free throw line at 82.7 percent. On 23 occasions, McCollum scored 25 points or more and on nine occasions scored 30 points or more.

He scored a career-high of 37 points on 14 for 22 from the field, including 6 for 9 from long range in helping the Trail Blazers to a 112-94 win versus the Pelicans on Oct. 28, 2015. He had a near triple-double of then a career-high of 35 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, along with four steals in Portland’s 98-94 win at the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 27, 2015.

McCollum’s great season is a great example of a guy who showed that a person who played collegiately for four years can improve and has the work ethic to do so.

“I think being a four-year guy, a lot of teams look at you as a finished product,” McCollum said to Nichols on Friday. “They feel like you’re older in the sense that the one-and-done kids that are 17, 18 years old and they think that their ceilings are higher, but when you go to school for four years, I think you get a more polished guy whose ready to come in and contribute right away. Mentally and physically. They don’t need as much development and you don’t have to worry as much about off the court decisions.”

Finishing in second place was Hornets guard Kemba Walker, who averaged a career-high of 20.9 points per contest. Shot a career-highs of 37.1 percent from three-point range and 84.7 percent from the charity stripe. He also hit a career-high 182 three-pointer in the regular season.

Milwaukee Bucks (33-49) forward Giannis Antetokounmpo finished third in the voting with a stellar season, where improved his game even more from a season ago with averages of 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest on 50.6 percent from the field. He garnered 15 double-doubles in the regular season and had five triple-doubles as well.

Finishing fourth was Stephen Curry of the Warriors. The reigning MVP of the league increased his scoring by 6.3 points per contest a season ago and became the most electric offensive player in the league and had one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, which I will detail more in a moment.

Rookie of the Year

Coming into the league regardless of whether you played on year of collegiate basketball or four, each player that is drafted or undrafted has a learning curve. Some can pick up things at the drop of a hat. Others may take some time. For that do get it become a major part of turning their team into a playoff perennial and hopefully a title contender and then a champion. They also in that first season have a chance to get some serious recognition and this season that player who has proven himself of that recognition is the No. 1 overall pick from last June’s draft that plays in Minneapolis.

The soon to be Rookie of the Year for the 2015-16 NBA campaign is the No. 1 overall pick from this past June’s draft Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves (29-53).

By the numbers, he has been at the top of this rookie class leading them in scoring at 18.3, rebounds at 10.5 and in block shots per contest at 1.7.

Not only did he lead all rookies in double-doubles, he finished third in the league overall with 51 double-doubles right behind Westbrook with 54 and Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons with 66.

More than anything else, Towns established himself as a valuable component of the future of the Timberwolves alongside Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad.

Having a veterans and former NBA champions in Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince to learn from both on and off the court is nice to have as well.

Their future just got a little brighter with the signing of new head coach Tom Thibodeau, who will also serve as President of Basketball operations for the organization. They also hired Scott Layden to be their new general manager.

A couple of other rookies that showed promised, but had their seasons cut short because of injury are Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks who averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 boards and 1.9 blocks per game and Jahlil Okafor who averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds on 50.8 percent shooting from the field.  

Most Valuable Player

It is very rare for a season that one player is head and shoulders above everyone else. The only players that I can think of that would be in this stratosphere include Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird and future Hall of Famer LeBron James. A player who played at such a high level all season long that anyone having a great season was just a punch line. A new player emerged as that headliner.

A season ago, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors captured the basketball world and led by the eventual 2015 MVP, they won an aforementioned 67 games and the NBA title.

This season, Stephen Curry is on the verge of becoming the ninth player in NBA history to win the MVP Award in back-to-back seasons and right from the start of the 2015-16 NBA campaign it was no contest.

To put how good Curry has been this into perspective, he became the first Warrior to lead the NBA in scoring at 30.1 points per contest since Hall of Famer Rick Barry did it back in the 1966-67 season. His 6.3 point per contest increase is the most by a player to win MVP the season before since Bird had a 4.5 increase from his MVP season of 1983-84 at 24.2 points to 28.7 on the back end of his back-to-back MVP seasons. He scored 40 points or more on 13 occasions in the regular season; made a new NBA record 402 three-pointers and became the 1st player since Michael Jordan in 1991-92 to score 30 points on average, while shooting 50 percent from the field and he became the seventh player to win the so-called triple crown of shooting with a mark of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. Curry shot career-highs of 50.4 percent from the floor and 45.4 percent from three-point land, while also hitting 90.8 percent from the, the third highest of his career.

He has put up 10 quarters of 20 points or more on his own and has not played in 19 fourth quarters on the season. Curry led the league in scoring 30 points or more during the regular with 40.

Back on Feb. 27 at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Curry tied the NBA record for most three-pointers made in a game hitting 12 for 16. The 12 connection ended up being the game winner as Curry finished with 46 points going 14 for 24 from the field with six assists and two steals as the Warriors won at the Thunder 121-118 in overtime.

Besides his individual greatness this season, Curry was huge reason why the Warriors won an NBA record 73 games in the regular season, with a new NBA record 34 of those wins on the road, while also going 39-2 at home. They won dating back to last season an NBA record 54 straight games at Oracle Arena, including 46 straight home wins against Western Conference opponents. To put a cherry on this Sundae, the Warriors became the first team in NBA history to never sustain a two-game losing streak during the regular season. They hope that continues as they try to avoid losing two in succession when the play against the Rockets in Game 4 of their opening round series on Sunday on ABC.

The only other player who can make a case for MVP this season is Russell Westbrook of the Thunder, who finished eighth in scoring per game at 23.5 during the regular season and established career-highs in rebounds and assists per contest at 7.8 and 10.4 respectably. His 10.4 assists per contest average as second in the NBA behind Rajon Rondo of the Sacramento Kings. Westbrook also finished fifth in the league in steals per contest at two per game.

His 18 triple-doubles on the season on the season tied him with “Magic” Johnson for the third highest total for a season in NBA history. The late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin at 22 triple-doubles in the 1966-67 season and he had a mouth dropping 31 the next season. On those 18 occasions that Westbrook had a triple-double, the Thunder won all 18 times.

All of three of the award winners announced were my picks as well. Of the remaining awards to be handed out, my Coach of the Year for 2015-16 season is Steve Kerr of the Warriors. Stephen Curry is my MVP and Towns is my Rookie of the Year.

Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of;;;; 4/7/16 10:30 p.m. contest San Antonio Spurs versus Golden State Warriors on TNT with Marv Albert, Chris Webber and Lewis Johnson; 4/15/16 8 p.m. NBATV’s “The Starters: Awards Show,” with Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis and Trey Kerby; 4/22/16 3:30 p.m. NBA: The Jump on ESPN with Rachel Nichols, Stephen Jackson and Amin Elhassan; Sporting News “Official 2006-07 NBA Guide.”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

J-Speaks: 2016 NBA Playoff Preview

All 30 teams come into a season with one dream. Hoisting up the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Only 16 teams end up with that chance. Some teams have a legitimate chance. To other, getting into the postseason is a major accomplishment, especially when you have not been there for a while. One team if they are lucky, will have a chance to win another title, which is the case this season. There are a few teams though that would like to put an end to that dream. Here is my preview and predictions for the opening round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs

Eastern Conference

           (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Detroit Pistons

             (57-25)                            (44-38)

Pistons won season series 3-1

Nine years ago, a young up and coming LeBron James introduced himself to the NBA world as the best player in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals when he scored 25 straight points and 29 of the last 30 in leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 109-107 victory in double overtime at the Detroit Pistons that gave them a 3-2 lead and they won the series in six games victory over the six time. Two years later, the Cavs swept the Pistons in the opening round, which is the last time the Pistons made the playoffs.  

They meet again in the opening round this year and the Cavs just like back then are on a mission to capture the first NBA title in franchise history and the first pro sports title in Northeast Ohio since the Browns won an NFL title in 1960.

Despite winning 57 games for the third time in franchise history, it has not been an easy season for the defending East champs.

They fired then head coach David Blatt despite winning 30 games in 41 chances and replaced him with Tyronn Lue, who basically had a similar record going 27-14.

James (25.3 ppg-3rd NBA, 7.4 rpg, 6.8 apg-Led team) at times this season has been very distant from his teammates whether it is paling with the likes of former teammate Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat or unfollowing his employer on social media.

The reality is that the Cavs despite having a great record, they did not play to the level of a team wanting to win a championship. 

On top of that, the Cavs who are head and shoulders the most talented team in the East did not clinch the No. 1 Seed until late the in the season.

The trio of James, Kyrie Irving (19.6 ppg, 4.7 apg, 44.8 FG%) and Kevin Love (16.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 36.0 3-Pt.%) have been inconsistent in terms of playing at a high level at the same time.

Along with the “Big Three” playing at a high level, they need the likes of Tristan Thompson (7.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Channing Frye (7.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 37.7 3-Pt.% in 26 games w/Cavs), Matthew Dellavedova (7.5 ppg, 4.4 apg, 41.0 3-Pt.%), Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith (12.4 ppg, 40.4 3-Pt.%), Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson to play their defined roles on the court consistently and never waiver from them.

Their opponent the Detroit Pistons are making their first postseason appearance in seven years, led by their dynamic duo of All-Star center Andre Drummond (16.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg-Led NBA), who led the NBA in double-doubles with 66 and lead guard Reggie Jackson (18.8 ppg, 6.2 apg 35.3 3-Pt.%), who closed the season really well averaging 19.8 points and six assists the last 10 games of the season.

The rise of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.5 ppg, 1.5 spg) and the additions of Tobias Harris (16.6 ppg, 6,2 rpg, 47.7 FG%, 37.5 3-Pt.%) at the trade deadline and free agent from the summer Marcus Morris (14.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) have made the Pistons starting five a potent group.

On top of that, this is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the NBA, averaging a league best 12.5 per game, second in the league and they are No. 2 in average boards per game at 46.3. The Pistons were 36-15 this regular season when they grab more rebounds than their opponent.

While they are tied for 22nd in three-point percentage at 34.2 percent, they made a franchise 740 triples, which toped last season’s 703 connections from long range and shattering the prior record of 582 back in the 1996-97 season.

The problem for the Pistons is their second unit of Aron Baynes (6.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake and rookie Stanley Johnson (8.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) is mediocre and that is being kind.

Stan Van Gundy though in just two seasons and turned the Pistons from a bottom feeder team back into a playoff participant and in time maybe a title contender like he did when he was lead man on the sidelines for the Orlando Magic.

This is all about the Cavaliers and in the playoff career of James, whose teams are 10-0 in the opening round, compiling a 40-7 mark in the quarterfinals dating back to 2006 and have won 13 straight in the first round dating back to 2012. He is also peaking at the right moment with averages of 28.4 points, eight boards and 8.5 assists while shooting 62.0 percent in his last 10 games.

Prediction: Cavs in five games.

             (4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Boston Celtics
                         (48-34)                       (48-34)

Hawks won season series 3-1

Nearly three decades ago, an NBA classic played at the old Boston Garden took place between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics. In Game 7 of the East Semis on May 22, 1988, Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins of the Hawks and Larry Bird of the Celtics engaged in a once in a lifetime scoring duel that was captivating for 48 minutes. In the end Wilkins had 47 points, but Bird had the final say with 20 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and the C’s beat the Hawks in Game 7 118-116 to move on the East Finals, where they lost to the Detroit Pistons.

They renew acquaintances here in the 2016 postseason and this time around, no Hall of Famers will be taking center stage, but what will be on display are two teams with dynamic lead guards; that are fundamentally sound, especially at the defensive end; their well-coached teams with the Hawks led by Mike Budenholzer and Celtics led by Brad Stevens and they play as a cohesive unit.

Last season was the best in Hawks history as they won 60 games and reached the Conference Finals where their fairytale season ended in a four-game sweep by the Cavs.

The back-to-back Southeast champs made it back to the postseason party for a ninth straight season, the 2nd longest active streak in the league behind the San Antonio Spurs, who will in the playoffs for a 19th consecutive season and really played well against the Celtics in 2015-16.

While an important piece in starting small forward DeMarre Carroll bolted in free agency this past summer to the Toronto Raptors, his replacement Kent Bazemore (11.6 points, 5.1 rpg, 35.7 3-Pt.%) had a breakout regular season and has been a solid compliment to starting All-Star forward Paul Millsap (17.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg-Led team, 1.8 spg-Led team, 1.7 bpg-Led team), who had career-highs in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks; starting center Al Horford (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg) and starting lead guard Jeff Teague (15.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 40.0 3-Pt.%-career-high) and his understudy Dennis Schroder (11.0 ppg-career-high, 4.4 apg-career-high).

The Celtics boast an All-Star of their own in Isaiah Thomas (22.2 ppg-Led team, 6.2 apg-Led team, 35.9 3-Pt.%) who joined Hall of Famers Bird and John Havlicek as the only players in team history to score 1,800 points and dish out 500 assists in a season.

The players surrounding Thomas are really solid in the likes of Jae Crowder (14.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.7 spg-Led team) Avery Bradley (15.2 ppg, 1.5 spg, 36.1 3-Pt.%), Marcus Smart (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.0 apg), Amir Johnson (7.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Jared Sullinger (10.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg-Led team), Tyler Zeller, Evan Turner (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.4 apg), Kelly Olynyk (10.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 45.5 FG%, 40.5 3-Pt.%) and Jonas Jerebko.

For the Hawks to win this series, they need Teague to play like he did to close the season, where he averaged 20.6 points and nearly 6.5 assists in the final 10 games of the season. In the Hawks’ 118-107 win over the Celtics on Apr. 9, Teague had 24 points with seven assists and five rebounds.

They also need Horford and Millsap to be dominant like they were versus the C’s in the regular season. Millsap averaged 22.5 points and 10.3 boards in the four games, while Horford averaged 14.3 points and seven rebounds.

Consistent scoring from Korver (9.2 ppg), who output was the lowest since his eighth season in the league has increased his three-point percentage since the start of the season to 42.3 percent after the All-Star break.

His ability to shoot gives Teague room to operate on the perimeter and for Horford and Millsap to have space to operate in the paint.

The Hawks also need to take great care of the ball against a Celtics team that led the league in force turnovers at 15.8 per contest and was second in steals per contest at 9.2 per game.   

On top of that, they need consistent attack on both ends from Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha (6.4 ppg), who missed the playoffs a season ago because of injury and Kris Humphries to be solid compliments to the other aforementioned Hawks.

For the Celtics, their front court of Sullinger, Johnson, Olynyk and Zeller have to provide a presence on both ends if the Celtics have a chance of winning this series.

They also have to finish games in better fashion. In their second matchup back on Nov. 24, 2015 at Phillips Arena, the Hawks outscored the C’s 40-24 in the fourth quarter to win going away 121-97. Their Dec. 18, 2015 clash at TD Garden the Hawks outscored the Celtics again 38-28 in the final stanza to rally for a 109-101 win. The Hawks did it again in their Apr. 9 meeting outscoring the Celtics 25-16 in the fourth turning a two-point lead after three quarters into a 118-107 win.

Whichever front court comes with it and which team closes well in this series will give their team a major advantage.

Prediction: Hawks in seven games.

           (2) Toronto Raptors vs.  (7) Indiana Pacers
                      (56-26)                              (45-37)

Raptors won season series 3-1

It has been 14 years since the team that goes by the mantra “We the North” won their first and only playoff series when Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady led the Raptors to 3-2 opening round series win versus the New York Knicks.

This time around the back-to-back Atlantic Division champions and the No. 2 Seeded Raptors, who won a franchise record 56 victories this season take on the postseason seasoned Indiana Pacers, who are making their 21st appearance in the playoffs since 1990, best in the East in that time span.

While the Raptors have won more games in each of the last five seasons under head coach Dwane Casey, the Raptors have flamed out in the opening round the last two postseasons.

A season ago, the Raptors faced the Washington Wizards, who they dominated in the regular-seasons, but the Wizards used a three-point avalanche to knock the Raptors out in a four-game sweep.

The dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan managed just 20.3 and 12.3 points on 31.6 and 40.0 percent respectably from the field in the four games.

This season, both came back with a major chip on their shoulder and the All-Star backcourt averaged career-highs of of 21.2 and 23.5 points per contest respectably.

The Raptors also this past off-season went out and got some key veterans that added some major toughness to the team in veteran forward Luis Scola (8.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), fellow Canadian in guard Cory Joseph (8.5 ppg-career-high) and center Bismack Biyombo (5.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg-Led team) to go alongside Terrence Ross (9.9 ppg, 38.6 3-Pt.%), James Johnson, Patrick Patterson (6.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) and Jonas Valanciunas (12.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg-Led team).

In the off-season, they signed forward DeMarre Carroll (11.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 39.0 3-Pt.%) to add another defender on the perimeter and three-point shooter. A knee injury curtailed his season, but it gave an opportunity to the second round pick in this past June’s draft in Norman Powell and he really played well to close the season scoring 8.1 points in March and 15.3 in April.

When front court book ends David West and Roy Hibbert departed this past summer, the Pacers decided to become a more up-tempo offensive team with All-Star forward Paul George leading the charge.

George played very well this season with a 23.1 scoring average, a career best along with seven rebounds alternating time between playing small forward and power forward this season. Not bad for a guy that had a gruesome leg injury last season that cost him all but six games and was a major reason the Pacers missed the playoffs last season.

While the team played well to start the season, they went 7-8, 6-7 and 8-7 in January, February and March, before winning seven of eight games in April to solidify the No. 7 spot in the West.

The reality, all the pressure is on the Raptors for them to win this series.

For them to get this very visible monkey of their back, Lowry and DeRozan must play well. That means they are in attack mode on offensive right from the start of Game 1, which they have lost at the Air Canada Centre the last two seasons.

To put this into perspective in terms of the play of DeRozan specifically, he averaged 8.4 free throws attempts in the regular seasons this year, third in the league. Last postseason against the Wizards, he shot 17 free throws in the four-game sweep. Two years ago when the Raptors lost to the Brooklyn Nets, DeRozan in the three wins 13 free throw attempts.

The Raptors will also need for Valanciunas to play well for them and be a major compliment to Ross, Patterson, Powell, Scola, Joseph. In two wins against the Pacers, Valanciunas averaged 15.5 points and 9.5 boards.

For the Pacers, George must lead the way. If he plays to the tune of 16.3 points on 30.8 percent shooting, which he averaged against the Raptors this season, this will be a short series.

Getting some scoring help from the likes of starting guard Monta Ellis, who averaged a career-low 13.8 points and shot just 30.9 percent from three-point range, rookie center Miles Turner (10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), forwards C.J. Miles (11.8 ppg, 36.7 3-Pt.%), Jordan Hill (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Lavoy Allen and center Ian Mahinmi (9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), starting lead guard George Hill (12.1 ppg, 40.8 3-Pt.%) and understudy Rodney Stuckey (8.9 ppg) will be a big help for the Pacers who this season have had a hard time finding an offensive identity.

Prediction: Raptors in seven.

                      (3) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets
                               (48-34)                      (48-34)

Season series tied 2-2

After four straight trips to The Finals, the Heat despite adding point guard Goran Dragic at the trade deadline, the Heat missed out on the playoffs a season ago

The Heat made it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence and they punched their ticket despite perennial All-Star forward/center Chris Bosh on the shelf since Feb. 9 because of issues with blood clots.

Since the All-Star break, the Heat went 19-10 in large part to the addition of Joe Johnson (13.4 ppg, 51.8 FG%, 41.7 3-Pt.% in 24 games w/Heat) of waivers back in March. He was a major reason the Heat went from a team that scratched and clawed to put points on the board to now they score at a high rate.  

Johnson’s play along with the continued emergence of center Hassan Whiteside (14.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg-3rd NBA, 3.7 bpg-Led NBA); the stellar play of Luol Deng (12.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 45.5 FG%, 34.4 3-Pt.%), who has been starting at power forward recently and the strong play off the bench from Gerald Green (8.9 ppg), rookie Josh Richardson, who has averaged 10.2 points hitting 53.3 percent of his three-pointers since the All-Star break; starting lead guard Goran Dragic (14.1 ppg, 5.8 apg-Led team) has played solidly and rookie Justise Winslow (6.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and veteran forward/center Amar’e Stoudemire (5.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg) have been solid.

For the Hornets, their 48 victories are the most since 1999-00 season and they will be making their second playoff appearance in the last three years under head coach Steve Clifford.

Two big reasons for their return to the playoffs is the emergence of Kemba Walker who averaged career-highs in points (20.9), three-point percentage and three-pointers made (182) and the team went from a the fourth worst three-point shooting team in terms of makes last season to the fourth best in terms of makes at 10.6 per game this past regular season.

The additions of Nicolas Batum (14.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.8 apg, 34.8 3-Pt.%), Jeremy Lin (11.7 ppg), Jeremy Lamb (8.8 ppg) rookie Frank Kaminsky (7.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg and Courtney Lee (8.9 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%) at the trade deadline back in February and stellar play from Marvin Williams (11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg-career-high, 40.2 3-Pt.%-career-high) and Cody Zeller (8.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) have helped the Hornets play to overcome the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just seven games this season because of a bad shoulder that required season-ending surgery and Al Jefferson (12.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who missed 34 games earlier this season because of injury/suspension.

The Hornets also are a team that maximizes their offensive opportunities as they led the league in the fewest turnovers per game at 12.5 and since Mar. 1 give up the basketball just 11.2 times per contest.

This series comes down to whose can impose their will on the game.

The Heat are the veteran team, with a mix of young players that play well beyond their years. They also have the advantage of having a massive presence in the paint in Whiteside. They also have two players who are more than capable in closing an opponent in three-time NBA champion and perennial All-Star Dwyane Wade (19.0 ppg, 4.6 apg), who averaged 16.0 ppg against the Hornets in the regular season and Johnson. Combined they have played 239 career playoff games and the entire Hornets roster has played in 237 playoff games total

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will for sure be putting an emphasis for his team to guard the three-point line in this series.

For the Hornets, Walker must dominate on the perimeter like he did in the regular season when he averaged 19.5 points, 5.3 boards and 5.3 assists hitting 43.5 percent of his triples and committing just 0.8 turnovers per game.

They also need Batum and Williams to make the 11 three-point field goals like they did against the Heat in the four-game regular season series.

Consistent shooting on the perimeter will give room for Jefferson, who hopes to have a better playoff series than he did two seasons back against the Heat where seconds into Game 1 sustained a foot injury that limited him and the Hornets offensive attack.

While injuries have hampered Jefferson at times this season as he now comes off the bench, he is still one of the best low post players at the offensive end and should give a challenge to Whiteside and Stoudemire.

Prediction: Heat in seven games.

Western Conference

     (1) Golden State Warriors vs.    (8) Houston Rockets 
                          (73-9)                                  (41-41)

Warriors won series tied 3-0

Welcome to the playoff rematch that no one expected so early in the process with the defending champs and last season’s West runners up going in completely different directions. One team made a lot of history in 2015-16, while the other barely made it to the postseason.

The Warriors won an NBA record 73 games, this season one better than the 1995-96 World Champion Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, head coach Phil Jackson and their now head coach Steve Kerr. Their 34 road wins also set a new NBA record. They did not lose two-games in a row, a first in NBA history and they did not lose to a team twice this season. They went 39-2 at home for the second straight season and late into this season won 54 straight games at Oracle Arena dating back to last season. They also set a record by making 1,077 three-point field goals, a new NBA record.

Speaking of three-point make, the soon to be back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry (30.1 ppg-Led NBA, 5.4 rpg, 6.7 apg, 2.1 spg-Led NBA) made an NBA record 402 triples, setting a new NBA record. He became the seven player in NBA history to shoot over 50 percent from the field at 50.4; over 40 percent from three-point territory at 45.4 and 90 percent from the free throw line at 90.8 in the regular season and he became just second guard to accomplish that since Michael Jordan did it in 1991-92.

To put how great the Warriors were from three-point range, Curry and fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson (22.1 ppg, 47.0 FG% 42.5 3-Pt.%) made a combined 678 triples in the regular season. That is more than 13 teams hit total this season.

This team is more than just the “Splash Brothers.” Draymond Green (14.0 ppg-career-high, 9.5 rpg-Led team, 7.4 apg-Led team, 1.5 spg) had a career-season and finished second in the league in triple-doubles with 13, which also set a new franchise record in a season.

Harrison Barnes (11.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 38.3 3-Pt.%) had another great season and veterans lke Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, Andre Iguodala, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush played their roles to perfection.

The team did all of this, particularly in the early stages of the season without their head coach Steve Kerr, who missed the first 43 games because of complications from off-season back surgery.

That all spells doom and gloom for a Houston Rockets team that has been inconsistent from the get go. They fired head coach Kevin McHale after just 11 games, where the team went 4-7. He was replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff, who was 37-34 to close this season.

Their defensive effort has been at times deplorable and for the life of me, Dwight Howard (13.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg-3rd NBA, 1.6 bpg-Led team) was about as utilized at the offensive end as an old school pencil sharpener in an elementary school classroom.

Besides prayer; the duo of Howard and James Harden (29.0 ppg-2nd NBA, 7.5 apg-Led team, 6.1 rpg, 1.7 spg) being the best players on the court; Golden State’s starting quintet of Barnes, Green, Bogut, Curry and Thompson being kidnapped and the role players of Trevor Ariza (12.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 37.1 3-Pt.%), Patrick Beverly (9.9 ppg, 40.0 3-Pt.%), Michael Beasley (12.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Corey Brewer (7.2 ppg), Clint Capela (7.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Donatas Motiejunas outplaying the Warriors secondary guys this series is the Warriors.

They went as mentioned 3-0 in the regular season against the Rockets and dating back to a season ago, they have won 11 of the last 12 meetings.

The one close contest between the two this regular season was on New Year’s Eve 2015 when the Warriors escaped Texas with a 114-110 win with Harden scoring 30. They Warriors handled the Rockets 112-92 at the Toyota Center on Oct. 30, 2015 and in their Feb. 9 meeting at Oracle Arena 123-110.

Prediction: Warriors in four.

            (4)  Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers

                    (53-29)                               (44-38)

Clippers won series tied 3-1

In this first round tussle we have one team that had all the expectations imaginable and the other had zero expectations. In fact the team with no expectations was looked at as a team that would be in the draft lottery for the next couple of seasons at least.

When the Portland Trail Blazers saw 80 percent of their starting five of LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio Spurs), Wesley Matthews (Dallas Mavericks), Robin Lopez (New York Knicks) and Nicolas Batum (Charlotte Hornets) leave via free agency or trades, the entire NBA world thought, they thought the best days of the face of the franchise in lead guard Damian Lillard would be of pulling the team out from the bottom of the NBA barrel.

That was not the case thanks to Lillard (25.1 ppg-6th NBA, 6.8 apg, 37.5 3-Pt.%) and his backcourt mate C.J. McCollum (20.8 ppg, 44.8 FG%, 41.7 3-Pt.%), who turned his postseason run a season ago into a breakout season.

New additions Al-Farouq Aminu (10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg 36.1 3-Pt.%), Mason Plumlee (9.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg-Led team), Gerald Henderson (8.7 ppg, 35.3 3-Pt.%), Ed Davis (6.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg),Maurice Harkless (6.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg), who has averaged 11.8 points and 6.5 boards on 45.9 percent from the floor and 37.5 from three-point range in April and the emergence of Allen Crabbe (10.3 ppg, 39.4 3-Pt.%) are huge reasons the Trail Blazers went from being 11-20 to finishing the season 33-18 and moving from completely out of the playoff picture to the No. 5 spot in the playoffs.

It also put their head coach Terry Stotts in the running for Coach of the Year.

Their reward, a matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, who turned another solid season into a fifth straight playoff appearance. This season was not an easy one though for L.A.’s other team.

All-Star forward Blake Griffin (21.4 ppg-Led team, 8.4 rpg, 4.9 apg) missed 45 games because of a quad injury and a broken hand, which was the result of a fight between him and the team’s assistant equipment manager, which also led to a four-game suspension.

Griffin managed to return this month and got a few games under his belt to try to get in game shape. His best game of the five he played was on Apr. 10 versus the Mavericks where he had 17 points, 11 boards and seven assists in 33 minutes as the Clippers won 98-91.

The Clippers managed to go 30-15 in Griffin’s absence thanks in large part because of perennial All-Star lead guard Chris Paul (19.5 ppg, 10.0 apg-4th NBA, 2.1 spg-3rd, NBA); center DeAndre Jordan (12.7 ppg, 13.8 rpg-2nd NBA, 2.3 bpg-Led NBA, 70.3 FG%-Led NBA), who finished tied for fourth with 49 double-doubles; Sixth Man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford (14.2 ppg, 34.0 3-Pt.%) and sharp shooter J.J. Redick (16.3 ppg), who shot career-highs percentages from the field at 48.0 and from three-point range at 47.5 percent. He also tied the Clippers season record with 200 made triples.

One of the biggest things that the Clippers needed to fix this past off-season was their bench. They thought they did that in signing Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith. Those two did not pan out and they released Smith early in the season and traded Stephenson and received Jeff Green in return at the trade deadline.

In 27 appearances with the Clippers, 17 of them off the bench, Green (10.9 ppg) has been like he has for most of his career, particularly when he played for head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers back with the Celtics steady, but he left you wanting more.

He has been though a better compliment to Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan and he along with “Doc’s” son Austin (8.9 ppg), Wesley Johnson (6.9 ppg), Paul Pierce, Cole Aldrich, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Pablo Prigioni have stabilized the bench.

On the surface, this is a matchup the Clippers should be able to handle the Trail Blazers very easily in this series, especially because they defend what the Trail Blazers do well.

The Trail Blazers are the fourth best three-point shooting team in the league at 37.0 percent, which is tied with the Raptors. The Clippers are the fifth best in the business at defending the three-point line giving up just 33.8 percent to their opponent’s in the regular season.

On the season, Lillard and McCollum average 45.8 points per game combined. In the four-game series versus the Clippers, they averaged just 33.7 and shot just 32.4 and 38.6 from the field and 35.5 and 25.0 percent from the three-point arc.

In the Trail Blazers loan win against the Clippers 102-91 back on Nov. 20, 2015 at the Moda Center, Lillard had 27 points and seven assists going 10 for 25 from the field, including 4 for 10 from long range.

The Clippers won the fourth and final meeting 96-94 thanks to a game-winning jumper by Redick back on Mar. 24.

The one advantage that the Trail Blazers do have is on the boards. The Clippers despite having two of most athletics front court players in the league in Griffin and Jordan are ranked just 25th in rebound differential at a -4.7 and are 28th in giving up offensive boards per contest at 11.8. The Trail Blazers on the other hand are 10th in the league in rebound differential at +1.8 and only the Oklahoma City Thunder, Pistons and Celtics get more second chances per game then the Trail Blazers at 11.6.

On paper, this has a Clippers series win written all over it. The Trail Blazers have shown us throughout this season that no matter who is in front of them on the hardwood, they will bring it no matter what. They believe they can win even if nobody else does.

Prediction: Clippers in six

           (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies 
                         (67-15)                                 (42-40)

Spurs won series tied 4-0

The Warriors have dominated the NBA headlines for much of this season and for good reason. Not too far behind were the five-time champion Spurs, who set a franchise record for wins; tied the 1985-86 World Champion Celtics for the best regular season home mark at 40-1 at the AT&T Center. Dating back to last season, they won 48 straight home games, 2nd best mark in league history to the Warriors, going 39-0 this season. That streak ended on Apr. 10 when the Warriors beat them for their 72nd victory of the season 92-86.

LaMarcus Aldridge (18.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 51.3 FG%) has been a huge addition and Kawhi Leonard (21.2-Led team ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 spg, 50.6 FG%, 44.3 3-Pt.%-4th NBA) has emerged as the Spurs best all-around player and one of the very best in the league on both ends.

The Spurs still have the “Big 3” of future Hall of Famer and former back-to-back MVP Tim Duncan (8.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Manu Ginobili (9.6 ppg, 45.3 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%) and Tony Parker (11.9 ppg, 5.3 apg-Led Team, 49.3 FG%, 41.5 3-Pt.%) and this is a time of the year they look forward to.

A big reason for that is head coach and Coach of the Year candidate Gregg Popovich has managed the “Big 3’s” minutes very while utilizing the entire roster, which has allowed the likes of Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons, rookie Boban Marjanovic to get key minutes over the course of this season and it has given the team more options to go along with the likes of Patty Mills (8.5 ppg, 38.4 3-Pt.%), Danny Green, new comer David West.

The Spurs added even more depth and experience to the roster late this season with the signings of guards Kevin Martin and Andre Miller off waivers.

For the Memphis Grizzlies, it has been a long injury-plagued struggle which has seen them play 28 different players this season, the most in NBA history.

To put this in perspective, starting center Marc Gasol (16.6 ppg-Led team, 7.0 rpg, 3.8 apg) missed the final 30 games because of a broken bone in his right foot he sustained back in February; starting lead guard Mike Conley (15.3 ppg, 6.1 apg-Led team) missed the final 20 games of the season because of Achilles Tendinitis, missing a total of 26 games; guard Mario Chalmers (10.8 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg in 55 games w/Grizzlies), who the team acquired early in the season from the Heat tore his Achilles in March and the team needed to waive him just to clear a spot on the roster; forward/center Brandan Wright and guard Jordan have missed 70 and 80 games because of right MCL sprain and right knee surgery respectably.  

Even some of the remaining healthy Grizzlies like Zach Randolph (15.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg-Led team), defensive ace Tony Allen (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.7 spg-Led team) and Matt Barnes (10.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) missed 14, 18 and six games because of injury

The midseason trade of Jeff Green brought them a jolt in the form of Lance Stephenson (14.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg 47.4 FG%, 35.5 3-Pt.% in 26 games w/Grizzlies), but 14 losses in their last 18 games took head coach Dave Joerger’s team from the No. 5 Seed to the No. 7 Seed.

Yes the injuries gave opportunity to the likes of Jordan Farmar (9.2 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.%), JaMychal Green (7.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Xavier Munford (5.7 ppg, 39.1 3-Pt.%) and Jarell Martin (5.7 ppg), but facing the Spurs in the playoffs is a complete different animal.

Prediction: Spurs in four games.

            (3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Dallas Mavericks

                    (55-27)                               (42-40)

Thunder won season series tied 4-0

When you win 55 games in the regular season, especially under a first-year head coach from the collegiate ranks that would make you one of the lead stories in your sport. The Oklahoma City Thunder though did it in the shadows of the defending champion Warriors winning an NBA record 73 games and the Spurs winning 67 games.

With that being said, this was a great season for the Thunder under first-year head coach Billy Donovan, whose team is back in the playoffs after a one-year absence.

He inherited a team that is as talented as any in the league. At the top of that talented food chain are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Durant (28.2 ppg-3rd NBA, 8.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 50.5 FG%, 38.6 3-Pt.%), who played in just 27 games a season ago because of injury, came back in a big way this season. In fact he scored at least 20 points for the 63rd game in a row, which tied future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant (2005-07) for the longest such a long streak.

His counterpart Russell Westbrook (23.5 ppg-8th NBA, 7.8 rpg, 10.4 apg-2nd NBA, 2.0 spg-5th NBA) garnered 18 triple-doubles, which led the NBA. Only the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin with 31 in 1967-68 and 1966-67 with 22 had more triple-doubles in a season. He finished tied with Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson for third most in a season in NBA history with the aforementioned number 18.

While on the surface the Thunder had a great season, there were times this season that they were vulnerable particularly in how they closed out games, which has been an issue whether it has been under Donovan or former head coach Scott Brooks.

After the All-Star break, the Thunder were outscored by 50 points in the final stanza and they were 3-12 in games within five points or less in the last five minutes.

On 14 occasions this season, the Thunder had a lead in the fourth quarter of the game and lost.

The other big issue for the Thunder is the production of the supporting cast. Other than Durant and Westbrook, Enes Kanter (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Serge Ibaka (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg 1.9 bpg-Led team) are the only other players who score in double figures.

Talent wise, the likes of Dion Waiters (9.8 ppg, 35.8 3-Pt.%), Steven Adams (8.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Randy Foye, rookie Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, Andre Roberson and Kyle Singler are solid and at times have shown they are capable of playing well.

For the Thunder to be any kind of a threat this postseason, they must get consistent production from this supporting cast and Durant and Westbrook must make it a priority while being productive themselves.

They will have a good chance to that against the Mavs who despite going 2-10 from Mar. 3-27 made the postseason for the 15th time in the last 16 seasons. They punch their postseason ticket with seven wins in their last nine games, which included a six-game winning streak from Mar. 28-Apr. 9.

Even after 16 years of carrying the offensive load for the Mavericks, future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki (18.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg. 44.8 FG%, 36.8 3-Pt.%) is still at the top of his game.

The supporting cast around him though is not the same as in the past, especially when the Mavs won it all in 2011.

Deron Williams (14.1 ppg, 5.8 apg), Wesley Matthews (12.5 ppg, 36.0 3-Pt.%), J.J. Barea (10.9 ppg, 38.5 3-Pt.%), Raymond Felton (9.5 ppg, 3.6 apg), ZaZa Pachulia (8.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg) Devin Harris (7.6 ppg) and David Lee (8.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg in 25 games w/Mavs), who was claimed off waivers has had their moments, but not enough to put them over the top against the best in the West.

While the addition of Justin Anderson to the starting five has helped the Mavericks at the defensive end, the team will have its struggles in this series at the offensive end without Chandler Parsons (13.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 49.2 FG%, 41.4 3-Pt.%), who will miss the playoffs following knee surgery.

Five years ago, these two teams met in the 2011 Western Conference Finals and the Mavs on that in five on their way to winning as mentioned earlier their first title beating the Heat in six games. The Thunder got their revenge in the First Round one year later sweeping the Mavs in four games.

Head coach Rick Carlisle will put together a game plan that will give the Mavericks a chance to be in games, but in the end the Thunder have just too much for the Mavs to deal with.

Prediction: Thunder in five.

Information and statistics are courtesy of 2016 playoff preview by John Schuhmann, Steve Aschburner, Ian Thomsen, Lang, Whitaker, Shaun Powell, Scott Howard-Cooper, Fran Blinebury and Sekou Smith;; 4/12/16 12:30 a.m. edition of “NBA Tonight” presented by Zales with Cassidy Hubbarth and Tim Legler; 4/14/16 7 p.m. edition of NBATV’s “The Starters: 2016 NBA Playoff Preview,” wit Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis and Trey Kerby; 4/14/16 8 p.m. NBATV’s Eastern Conference Playoff Preview with Matt Winer, Steve Smith and Vinny Del Negro and 4/14/16 Western Conference Playoff Preview with Vince Cellini, Dennis Scott and Vinny Del Negro.