Monday, April 24, 2017

J-Speaks: Warriors' Ailing Head Coach

On Saturday night, the defending Western Conference champion and Golden State Warriors took a commanding 3-0 series lead over their first-round opponent the Portland Trail Blazers with a 119-113 victory. They won despite not having All-Star forward Kevin Durant, who was sidelined for the second straight game because of a calf strain. The team was also without forward Matt Barnes, due to a sprained right ankle and foot sprain and backup guard Shaun Livingston, because of sprained right index finger. The 2015 NBA champions were also without another important part of their team. Their head coach.
Steve Kerr, stayed behind at the team’s hotel 48 hours ago as the Warriors overcame a 17-point deficit in the first-half in to win Game 3, due to complications from back surgery back in July 2015.
The reigning NBA Coach of the Year will also be out for Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center in Portland, OR, where the Warriors could sweep the Trail Blazers with a victory on Monday night. Mike Brown, former head coach of the Cavs and Los Angeles Lakers will be the action head coach for the second straight game.
Kerr despite not having missed a game on the sidelines prior to Game 3 continues to experience lingering symptoms from two back surgeries after the team’s run to the 2015 title over the current defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.
Kerr was on the shelf the first 43 games of last season as he dealt with those symptoms rom headaches, nausea, and an aching neck.
“This is something that I’ve been dealing with, but doing OK. Ups and downs, but consistently coaching. This past week for whatever reason, things got worse. My symptoms got worse,” the Warriors head coach, told reporters on Sunday.
Kerr also stated that his status for the remainder of the postseason is still up in the air as he is in continuous discussions with his doctors.
He went into further detail about whether he would coach for the rest of this postseason by saying, “This is not going to be a case where I’m coaching one night and not coaching the next. I’m not going to do that to our team or our staff. We’re hoping that over the next week or two, whatever it is, I can sort of make a definitive realization or deduction, or just feel it that I’m going to do this or I’m not.”
It is hard to fathom that Kerr, who has turned the Warriors from a very talented team into a three-point juggernaut that has made to The Finals in back-to-back seasons and has won 207 games the last three years, an NBA record for a three-year span could be gone just like that.
The hope is that coach Kerr can get over this hurdle and get back on the sidelines to lead the Warriors back to the promise land in June.
To put into perspective what Kerr has done in the two-plus years as the Warriors leader on the sidelines, the Warriors lost in the opening round the year prior in seven games to the Los Angeles Clippers, who they have beaten like a drum since then. The team came close to trading away one-half of the “Splash Brothers” duo in Klay Thompson. Kerr has turned the Warriors into a dynamic three-point shooting, prolific passing, lockdown defensive super-star team that has won 67, 73 and 67 games. He made Draymond Green from a high-energy second-round draft pick into the NBA’s ultimate swiss army knife as well as the emotional leader of the Warriors that is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He seamlessly integrated Kevin Durant and made JaVale McGee from a talented player who would make one bone-headed play at the drop of a hat with other organizations into a dynamic lob dunking solid player. More than anything else, he has been a major advocate and asset to the National Basketball Association off the court speaking out against injustices in our society, even when it may not be well received at that moment. Being able to speak for those who are unable to speak up for themselves.
That is what the Warriors missed on the sidelines on Saturday night and why Curry, who scored 13 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter in the Game 3 win took the game ball and passed it Warriors’ General Manager Bob Meyers to give to Kerr and was very emotional in his postgame interview with ESPN’s J.A. Adande.
“He’s obviously going through a lot physically and that’s first and foremost for him to take care of himself, make sure he’s on the road to recovery and feeling like himself,” Curry said. “We’ve got his back, we’ve had certain situations all year, previous years, where players are down you’ve got the ‘next man up’ philosophy, same with Coach Kerr.”
The good news for the Warriors is as mentioned earlier, they have a more than capable lieutenant in Kerr’s stead to fly the plane in Brown, who’s in his first season with the team.
In his first two stints with the Cavs, he led them to their first-ever Finals appearance in 2007. He himself was named the league’s Coach of the Year in 2009 when the Cavaliers won 66 games that season.
Kerr though knows his team inside and out. What to say and when to say it. What adjustments that need to be made from game to game; quarter to quarter and half to half.
How is that knowledge and ability to read your team possible, it comes from a long career on the court from his days playing for the legendary Lou Olsen; a 15-year NBA career where he won five titles with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, where he played alongside Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and great head coaches in Hall of Famer Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. Four seasons as a color analyst for the NBA on TNT, working alongside legendary commentator Marv Albert, and three seasons as the GM for the Phoenix Suns.
Adversity has been nothing new for the Warriors these past three seasons, especially this season. They have been able to win in the regular season, and the first three games of this series with the Trail Blazers, with a chance to close them out on Monday night. The hope is that Kerr will be back on the sidelines coaching the Warriors when the reach the West Semifinals. That would be good for the team and for the NBA.
Information and quotations are courtesy of 4/23/17, article “Ailing Steve Kerr Won’t Coach Golden State Warriors in Game 4,” by Anne M. Peterson; 4/24/17 5:30 p.m. ESPN news crawl during “Pardon the Interruption,” presented by Crown Royal Regal Apple with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and and   

Sunday, April 23, 2017

J-Speaks: Grizzlies Pull Even With Spurs

On Thursday night, the No. 7 Seeded Memphis Grizzlies were staring at the possibility of going down 3-0 in Game 3 of their First-Round series against the No. 2 Seeded San Antonio Spurs and the possibility by the close of the weekend being swept for the second consecutive season. Head coach David Fizdale set the tone with a memorable rant about the officiating in their 96-82 loss in Game 2 on Monday night, which led to a $30,000 fine by the NBA, but led to a massive response by his team as they won Game 3 105-94. The question is could they tie the series. Thanks to starting lead guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies pulled out a close one, despite another career performance by the Spurs new face of the franchise.
Gasol, hit a floating 12-footer with 0.7 seconds left in overtime and helped the Memphis Grizzlies beat the Spurs 110-108 on Saturday night in the FedEx Forum, also known as the “Grind House,” to even their Western Conference opening round series at 2-2.
It was the first go-ahead field goal in the final 10 seconds in Grizzlies postseason history. The team was 0 for 10 prior to Gasol’s game-winner.
While Gasol, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds was the hero with the game-winner in the extra stanza, Mike Conley was the story with scoring a playoff career-high and a franchise playoff record 35 points, to go along with nine rebounds and eight assists.
What made this victory even more impressive by the Grizzlies, who captured their first Game 4 victory in their last six chances, since May 13, 2013 over the Oklahoma City Thunder is that they blew a 10-point lead with 7:38 left in the fourth quarter and committed a franchise playoff-high 23 turnovers, which led to 31 Spurs points.
The Grizzlies did out-rebound the Spurs 58-44; went 12 for 27 from three-point range, while holding the Spurs to 9 for 30 and overall shot 46.3 percent from the field and held the Spurs to 42.3 percent.
The locals also overcame another stellar performance from reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, who scored a playoff career-high of 43 points, going 14 for 30 from the field, including 7 for 10 from three-point range and 8 for 8 from the free throw line, and is 40 for 40 from the charity stripe in the series. He also had eight boards and six steals.
Leonard in this game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau became the first player in postseason history to score at least 40 points, make five-plus three-pointers and have five steals.
His 43-point performance tied his teammate Tony Parker for the third most in Spurs playoff history. Hall of Famer George Gervin had a 44-point game in 1980 and a 46-point performance in the playoffs two years prior.
This also marked the 24th straight playoff game that Leonard scored in double-figures, which tied him with future Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion Tim Duncan for the second-longest stretch in Spurs’ franchise history behind the 25-game postseason streak of Parker from May 17, 2012 to June 9, 2013.
During the Spurs fourth quarter comeback in the final five minutes of the game, Leonard scored the last 16 points of regulation, going 5 for 7 from the floor, including 3 for 3 from three-point range and 3 for 3 from the foul line. That stretch also consisted of Leonard hitting a jumper with 12 seconds left in regulation that gave the Spurs a two-point lead at 94-92. The Grizzlies during that time scored no points, missed all four of their field goal attempts, and missing all three of their tries from three-point range.
“Honestly, I’m taking suggestions on how to guard Kawhi Leonard, because I’ve tried everything,” Fizdale said after the game. “He’s tough. Man, he’s a superstar.”
Down by two in the closing moments, Conley, hit a running floater to tie score at 96-96 with 4.5 seconds left.
Leonard had a chance to win the game for the Spurs and put them up 3-1, but his jumper over James Ennis III was short as time expired.
Leading by in the final minute of the extra frame, reserve guard Patty Mills had a breakaway layup, but Andrew Harrison blocked his attempt that led to a layup by Gasol with a foul on top Spurs forward David Lee to tie the score at 102. He completed the conventional three-point play with a free throw that gave the Grizzlies a 103-102 lead.
Down four, Leonard’s sixth triple on the night from the top of the key cut the Spurs’ deficit to 106-105 with 22 seconds remaining. He tied the game moments later with a left corner three-pointer that nodded the score at 108-108.
“That was a great game,” Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich, whose team has lost its last four postseason games on the road sad after the loss. “Just a fantastic basketball game. The fans got their money’s worth tonight for sure. At the end, Marc made a great shot. L.A. (LaMarcus Aldridge) contested it very, very well, and it went down.”
Moments later, Gasol hit the aforementioned floating jumper that won the game and nodded up the series.
“That’s was the play he [coach Fizdale] drew up and then it was up to me to make the read either to go to my right or come back to a little spin move,” Gasol, who voice was horse when he gave the answer said during the postgame presser.
Conley, who scored 16 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, going 13 for 23 from the floor on the night, including going 4 for 8 from distance said of the final possession said that coach Fizdale, “Drew up a play that was working for us. The little elbow catch and Marc had a decision. He could hand it off, or fake it and go middle like he did and he made the right decision.”
Conley went on to say jokingly that he thought that he was going to get the ball to make the winning shot in the closing seconds, but said Gasol made the correct decision.
“He really stepped up and made the play that matter,” Conley said.
For a team that struggled down the stretch of this season and has had their struggles against the Spurs in the postseason in their recent chances losing their last 10 in a row prior to these last two wins, they showed a lot and made a major statement along the way, especially Conley.
This past off-season, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2007 draft signed a reported five-year $153 million contract, which is the greatest contract by total value in NBA history.
Conley had a career season with a 20.5 scoring average in the regular season on a career-best 40.8 percent from three-point range. In the first three games of this series versus the Spurs, he is averaging 24 points on 48 percent from distance.
While he may not get a lot of recognition and respect from the public, Conley is to many in the NBA circle one of the elite point guards in the league and one person who is his biggest fan is coach Fizdale and said as much after the Game 4 win.
“I don’t think we’re going to have the discussion on how much money he’s worth anymore. I think that’s mute,” he said. “I don’t want to hear about it at least. The guys a superstar and we’re watching it. You watch it this year happen, but now you’re watching it on the biggest stage, with the biggest lights and he is really rising to the occasion. Can you think of a guy you’d rather root for? This guy is as good a human being as you can get. Whatever good happens for him, I expect it and I’m just really proud of his evolution as a player.”
Conley though is not the only Grizzlies’ player that has made an evolution this season. At the start of this season, longtime starting forward Zach Randolph was asked by Fizdale to be the team’s Sixth Man this season and have JaMychal Green be the starter.
For most player as established as Randolph, this is a conversation that could have gone in the wrong direction and complete messed things up for Fizdale, who was in his first season as a head coach after being a longtime assistant with the Miami Heat.
Randolph accepted his new role and played very well during the regular season. He returned to the starting lineup for Game 3 and was instrumental in the victory with 21 points and eight rebounds, and followed that up with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday night. Green had eight points and six boards off the bench in 23 minutes in Game 3 and had 14 points off the pine in Game 4.  
Fizdale also convinced Gasol to become a three-point shooter this season and he went from laughing at Fizdale’s suggestion to making a career-high 104 triples during the regular season and he went 2 for 2 from distance in the Game 3 win, as he scored 21 points with six boards. Conley in the win led the way with 24 points and eight assists.
Last weekend, the Memphis Grizzlies stared at the prospect at being swept by the Spurs for the third time in the postseason. After winning Game 3 and 4 in the “Grind House,” they have made this a best 2 of 3 series.
The only problem is that the Spurs are one of the best teams in postseason history when a seven-game series is even at 2-2 in the Popovich era.
When the two teams meet for Game 5 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX on Tuesday night on TNT, with the time to be determined, it will mark the sixth time the Spurs under Popovich will be in a seven-game series tied 2-2. They won their previous five chances.
“I know we’re the seventh seed, but we feel like we beat the best teams in the West and that we can at least compete with the best, so our guys have a lot of confidence that way,” Fizdale said.
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 4/23/17 1 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” with Kevin Connors and John Anderson; 4/23/17 4 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Vinny Del Negro and Caron Butler;;; and  

J-Speaks: Clippers Lose Griffin Again

One postseason ago, the No. 4 Seeded Los Angeles Clippers fell to the No. 5 Seeded Portland Trail Blazers in first-round of the Western Conference playoffs in six games. Two big reasons for that is their All-Star duo of lead guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin went down with injuries in Game 4 and that was all she wrote for them. The team, the No. 4 Seed again on Friday night garnered a huge Game 3 win 111-106 on the home court of the No. 5 Seeded Utah Jazz. Unfortunately, they lost the other half of their dynamic 1-2 punch again.
On Saturday, the Clippers announced that Griffin will be shelved for the remainder of the 2017 NBA Playoffs due to an injury to the plantar plate in his right big toe that he sustained in the second quarter off a breakaway layup in team’s victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead and recaptured home court advantage in the series.
The five-time All-Star will be re-evaluated when the Clippers return to Los Angeles following their Game 4 tilt at the Jazz. Griffin will see, as reported on foot and ankle specialist Dr. Richard Ferkel. Griffin will be on the sidelines on Sunday night in a walking boot cheering his team on, according to a report from TNT’s Rebecca Haarlow.
It is another setback for Griffin, who missed 21 games in the regular season because of knee surgery and in the last two years, including the playoffs has missed a total of 70 games.
“You just hate for dumb stuff like this to happen, when you know how hard somebody works.” Paul, Griffin’s teammate since 2011 said as he was holding back tears on Saturday. “The fans, everybody, they don’t get the opportunity to see that. Somebody who’s as dedicated to the process, and the training, and the working out and all the stuff like that. For something to happen. You hate to see it.”
In the 61 contests that he did play during the 2016-17 NBA campaign, Griffin averaged 21.6 points, 8.6 boards and 4.9 assists per contest and in the first two-plus games of the Clippers series against the Northwest Division champions, he was averaging 20.3 points and six boards on 49 percent shooting.
To bring into fuller context what Griffin has meant to the Clippers in the series against the Jazz, in the 232 minutes Griffin was on the court in the first two-plus games, Los Angeles had a point differential of +45 and a +27 differential on the boards. In the 104 minutes Griffin was on the bench, the Clippers only had a plus two-point differential and were a -5 on the glass.
That showed in the Clippers offensive attack on Friday night, where for a majority of the game, Paul ran a pick-and-roll each time, which resulted in him scoring 24 of his team-high 34 points in the second half of the victory, to go along with 10 assists and seven rebounds.
“Last night was one of those survival games. We basically ran a pick-and-roll for Chris every single play. You can’t live that way throughout a series,” Rivers said. “When you lose Blake, you lose a lot. You lose your second-best passer.”  
With Griffin gone, the spotlight falls on the likes of J.J. Redick, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, DeAndre Jordan, and Jamal Crawford to step up and make up at least for the point production of Griffin.
“I pretty direct. I told them last night Blake’s out. Next man up and that’s basically the lingo we talk in, cause that’s a fact.” Rivers, whose coached Griffin since 2013 said. Rivers added, “You can imagine how heartbroken he is over this. You just feel bad for him.”
If there is one good thing if any about this rough position that the Clippers find themselves in again, is that they are used to playing without Griffin, but in the 21 games that he was out in the regular season they were only 11-10.
While the Clippers will need more from Paul and starting center DeAndre Jordan, who had his third straight double-double of the series with 17 points and 13 rebounds, the Clippers will need J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce Raymond Felton, Luc Mbah A Moute and Marreese Speights to be just as productive. Those five combined for 37 points in Game 3, with 15 of them coming from Mbah A Moute.
The bread and butter for the Clippers of putting Paul in the pick-and-roll will not work if that is the only offensive option for the Clippers against the Jazz going forward in this series.
The other part to this that has the Clippers anxious about Griffin is that he is set to be a free agent this summer as he has the option to void the last year of his contract.
If he were play the last year of his contract, he would make near or over $21 million dollars. If he decides to opt out of the last year of his deal and hit free agency, the prospect could be deep or slim, because he is injured right now and the fact that he has played in 80-plus games just three times in his eight-year career. In the last three seasons, Griffin has only played in 67, 35 and previously mentioned 61 games the past three regular seasons.
Paul and Rivers are not only ones disappointed that Griffin will not play for the remainder of these playoffs. Three of his former teammates that are now analyst for the likes of ESPN and NBA TV feel just as bad.
“Man do I feel bad for Blake Griffin. He cannot catch a break,” Chauncey Billups said on the early Sunday morning edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter.”
Besides Griffin possibly being an unrestricted free agent this summer, so is the starting backcourt of Paul and Redick.
“You want to see him and Chris Paul obviously back together and healthy and going forward because their still young enough to do damage and continue to build,” Caron Butler, Griffin’s teammate back in the 2012-13 campaign said on NBATV on Saturday.
The coach of Clippers then Vinny Del Negro concurred by saying, “Blake is one of the Top 10 players when he’s healthy. They’re going to get the contract done. You’re not going to replace that. They’re winning 50-plus games a year. You start tinkering with it too much…At the end of the day, Blake will get healthy. Blake is a dominant player when healthy. He’s a 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. He’s dynamic and it’s just hard to break things like that up.”
For right now, it is about the Clippers taking care of business in Game 4 on Sunday night at the Jazz at 9 p.m. on TNT and trying to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, which Rivers said of his team, “We’ll be ready.” The future of the team, which will be a big topic in the NBA in the offseason will be handled down the pike in July.  
This time is also about making sure that Griffin is mentally okay and to for his teammates to let him know that they are behind in as he will have another summer of rehabilitation both physically and mentally.
“First and foremost, we got to take care of him. It puts things into perspective,” Paul said. “Basketball and the playoffs, that’s one thing, it’s life too. For us right now, we’ll worry about the game when its’ that time, but right now it’s about consoling one of the leaders of our team.”  
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 4/23/17 4 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Vinny Del Negro and Caron Butler, report from Rebecca Haarlow; 4/23/17 1 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” with Kevin Connors and John Anderson, with report from Chauncey Billups; 4/22/17 article “Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin to Miss Remainder of Playoffs with Toe Injury;” and  

Friday, April 21, 2017

J-Speaks: The Historic Comeback by the Defending NBA Champs

In the first 24 minutes of their Game 3 contest of the First-Round at the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers and all their defensive problems, particularly over the last two months of the regular season were on full display as the Indiana Pacers had their way offensively and seemed on the verge of cutting their 2-0 series deficit in half. Then the second half came and the Cavaliers put on a historic comeback and their leader LeBron James made some NBA playoff history along the way.
In the first half, the Indiana Pacers shattered their franchise playoff record, both in the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) 74 points in the opening half, led by the 23 points of All-Star swingman Paul George to go along with nine boards and five assists, and the Pacers led by 25 points at intermission.
In the second half, the Cavaliers outscored the Pacers 70-40 in the second half and overcame a 26-point deficit to win the contest 119-114, taking a strangle hold on the series at 3-0.
The 26-point comeback by the defending champion Cavs tied the largest in NBA postseason history. The Los Angeles Clippers overcame a 26-point deficit in Game 1 of their 2012 opening-round series at the Memphis Grizzlies to win 99-98. Clippers won the series in seven games.
The 25-point halftime deficit that the Cavs overcame is the largest in postseason history, overtaking the 21-point halftime comeback by the then Baltimore Bullets against the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1948 Finals.
At the head of this comeback was James and the four-time MVP garnered not only his 14th triple-double of this season, it was the 17th of his playoff career with 41 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists to go along with two blocks in 45 minutes, on 14 for 27 from the field.  
Only Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers Earvin “Magic” Johnson has more postseason triple-doubles than James’ 17 with 30. Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has 11 career playoff triple-doubles. Tied for fourth place with 10 career playoff triple-doubles are Pacers’ president Larry Bird and current Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo.  
 “We got stops. We got aggressive and we’ve been tested a lot throughout this season. Throughout the last three years and we just played Cavaliers basketball in the second half and it allowed us to get this huge win,” the four-time MVP and three-time Finals MVP said to TNT’s sideline reporter Kristen Ledlow after the game.
James, who scored 13 points in the third quarter and 15 points in the fourth quarter, moved passed future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant into third place on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list, with James having scored 5,669 points and counting in 202 career playoff games. Bryant had scored 5,640 points in 220 career games in his postseason career.
James also moved passed Hall of Famer and NBA champion Wes Unseld (1,777) into 7th place on “The Association’s” all-time playoff rebounding list with, where he now stands at 1,787 career postseason boards. He also tied Hall of Famer and “the logo” Jerry West for the second most 30-plus point, 10-plus assists games in the playoffs with 14. Only Jordan has more with 15 games.
All-Stars Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith each had 13 points, and Channing Frye had 13 off the bench. Kyle Korver also contributed 12 points off the pine.
A big part of the Cavs turnaround in the second half was their ability to hit from behind the three-point arc, going 13 for 22 in the second half. They finished 21 for 44 on the night from long distance.
James was 6 for 12 from distance, including a huge from the left corner late at the 2:51 mark in the fourth quarter that put the Cavs up 111-107. He also moved passed Bryant for fourth in the career playoff list for triples made with 295. Smith was 4 for 8 from three-point land; Korver was 4 for 5; Love was 3 for 7 and Frye, whose second triple on his fifth try sealed the victory for the Cavs.
While he had a quiet nine points, starting center Tristan Thompson had 10 big boards, three of the seven Cavs’ blocks shots and seemingly was everywhere at the defensive end. There were times in the second half he had to guard George on the perimeter and he did a tremendous job moving his feet keeping George in front of him.
On one defensive possession, early in the third quarter, Thompson stripped George of the ball, then contested a shot he put up that went wide left and forced a 24-second shot clock violation.
That effort was contagious, particularly in the final 4:23 of the third quarter, where they went on a 17-4 and in the entire fourth quarter, where the Pacers seemingly could not do anything at the offensive end. They went making every play that you could make offensively in the first half, to making every mistake possible at the offensive end.
The Pacers in the opening 24 minutes had crisp on the mark ball movement that led to easy layups and open three-point shots. In the next 24 minutes, nearly every pass and shot attempt was contested and the Cavs had the superior ball movement and man movement.
The Pacers seemingly were losing their composure from not getting any foul calls and the Cavs got wide open three-point shot, after wide open three-point shot.
“Here we are up 26 to start the second half. With a chance to put our foot on their throat and we came out relaxed,” George, who went scoreless in the third quarter said after the game.
“We didn’t pressure up on the ball. We didn’t make anything tough again not to be singling out teammates, we got to do a better job of talking, of communicating. Of knowing where everybody is on the floor. In today’s NBA, it’s tough guarding stretch teams and this is one of the toughest matchups in doing it.”   
There were a few occasions, especially in the fourth where James went to the basket uncontested where he scored or found one of his teammates for shots from three-point range. He even got of an inbounds pass out of a time out at the 4:54 mark in the final stanza from Deron Williams, who had his second assists on the night.
That not only fueled the Cavs that were on the floor, but their bench was energized and leading the cheers were Love, Smith, and Irving. The Cavs in the final period shot 63 percent and held the Pacers to just 32 percent and 40 percent for the game.
“I’ve seen two of our big three didn’t have it offensively throughout the game for Ky and Kev,” James said to Ledlow. “So, I knew I had to pick my aggression up a little bit more. Our bench gets the game ball. Kyle, Channing, Shump, D-Will. Those guys came in and gave us a hell of a boost and we needed that tonight.”  
George, who scored of a team-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, to go along with 15 rebounds and nine assists, was just 10 for 28 shooting, including 5 for 15 from three-point range and did not score in the third quarter. Lance Stephenson had 13 points, but was just 4 for 12 from the field, including3 for 7 from distance. Starting center Myles Turner had just six points on the evening, going just 3 for 12 from the floor.  
“I thought we came out kind of passive,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said after the game. “You knew they were going to be more aggressive.”
This game and this series showed the difference between these two teams and where they currently stand.
Despite a rough start to Game 3, James still stuck with it and he kept his teammates engaged and when they had their chance to make their push they did and pulled one out.

It also showed the kind of coach Lue is. How many head coaches would keep their best two players in Love and Irving on the bench during the run the Cavs had to get them back into the game and as mentioned earlier, it was Love and Irving that were leading cheers on the sideline when the Cavs were making their push in the third and fourth quarters on Thursday night.  
The Pacers on the other hand when they had their chance to make this a series, they took their foot off the accelerator. They allowed the officials to get into their heads. George lost his composure when the Cavs got physical with him and when things got tight, they tried to get the momentum back all at once instead of doing it together. That resulted on break downs on both ends of the court and are now are not only one defeat away from losing in the postseason to a James’ led team for the fourth time in the last six postseasons, but from suffering their first four-game sweep since joining the NBA.   
The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers limped into this postseason going 6-9 their final 15 games and were just 20-21 on the road in the regular season. They took care of business by winning both their home games and their historic comeback has them one game away from moving on to the Semifinals in their quest of for back-to-back titles.
The victory also gave James his 20th in succession in the opening round, which matched the great Lakers championship trio of Michael Cooper, the “Magic” Johnson and fellow Hall of Famer James Worthy and pushed his career record in the postseason with the Cavs and Miami Heat to 46-7 in the quarterfinals.
With a Game 4 victory on Sunday at 1 p.m. on ABC, James will have the longest first-round winning streak by a player under the current playoff format, which began back in 1984.
The Cavs would also tie the Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and formerly the Seattle Supersonics with a perfect 12-0 mark for the most series wins without a setback after going 2-0 in a best-of-seven series. The Boston Celtics have the best all-time mark of 34-0.
It will also improve his career playoff record to 12-0 in the first-round and it would be the seventh sweep of an opponent. It would also be the 12th straight opening round series win since James returned to his hometown team.
“We just never quit,” Cavs’ head coach Tyronn Lue said. “We knew the importance of this game. To go up 3-0, makes things a lot more difficult for those guys.”
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 4/13/17 8 p.m. NBATV’s “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview,” with Matt Winer, Steve Smith, and Sam Mitchell; 4/20/17 7 p.m. contest, Game 3 of First-Round Cleveland Cavaliers versus Indiana Pacers on TNT with Brian Anderson, Kevin McHale, and Kristen Ledlow; 4/21/17 12 a.m. edition of “Inside the NBA,” presented by Kia on TNT with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal; Year-by-Year section of the Sporting News “Official 2006-07 NBA Guide”; and  

J-Speaks: Devastating Loss for Celtics' Floor General

At the start of last weekend, the Boston Celtics and their two-time All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas were on cloud nine as they were the No. 1 Seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the 2017 NBA Playoffs. They seemed poised for a march for at least the Eastern Conference Finals with a matchup with the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Today those dreams are in jeopardy and it all began with a devastating loss before they even took the court for their First-Round tilt with the No. 8 Seeded Chicago Bulls.
Chyna Thomas, Isaiah’s young sister died in a one car accident in the early hours of Saturday morning in the Washington State. She was just 22 years old.
According to a police report, Thomas passed away at the scene of the accident after her car slipped off a highway and struck a pole at around 5 a.m. west coast time. It was also reported by the police that she was not wearing a seat belt.
A. Sherrod Blakely, who covers the Celtics for Comcast SportsNet New England said to NBATV’s Vince Cellini on the late Saturday night edition of “Gametime” that while he did not speak specifically to Thomas about this devastating loss, but he did talk to a couple of employers of the Celtics and they said to him that they are just devastated about what transpired.
“We are terribly saddened by the tragic loss of Chyna Thomas. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Celtics organization are with Isaiah and his family.”
Before the game, Thomas who the NBA nation and basketball fans in “Beantown” and across the country that seen him play, especially this year know him for having a jovial smile on his face and expressing joy and love for being on the court, that was non-existent for the most part as he warmed up prior to Game 1.
There were a couple of instances during TNT’s NBA Tip-Off Show, where he just took a seat on the TD Garden front seat and was crying.
“I’m not feeling comfortable with him sitting on the sidelines crying like that,” Charles Barkley said during the pregame show about Thomas, who was being consoled in that moment by his starting backcourt mate and longtime friend Avery Bradley, whose known Thomas since they were 11 to 12 years old growing up in Tacoma, WA. “To be sitting on the sidelines a few minutes before the game crying that makes me uncomfortable for him. That’s just not a good look in my personal opinion.”  
In leading up to Game 1, the Celtics and Thomas spoke in the lead up to the contest how they would handle the emotions that Thomas was going to experience throughout the game, which head coach Brad Stevens, whose record is 2-9 in the postseason talked to the press about prior to the game on Sunday.
“We talked little last night and again today about as he goes through it and if he feels like he needs to not, then whatever he wants,” he said.
“I think that one of the things that I’ve learned having been through situations in the past that there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s whatever is right for him.”
Prior to the introductions of the starting lineups, there was a moment of silence in the arena for the passing of Chyna Thomas, where Thomas again had tears going down his face.
That was followed by a massive ovation by those in attendance and after he Thomas was introduced, Thomas was greeted and surrounded by his teammates.
Thomas by the numbers played like the MVP candidate he was throughout the regular season with a game-high of 33 points, six rebounds and six assists on 10 for 18 from the field, and 10 for 12 from the charity stripe, but the Celtics loss 106-102 to fall behind 1-0 in the series. Thomas did not speak to reporters following the loss, but Stevens and starting center Al Horford did and gave nothing but praise to their starting lead guard.
“He was incredible,” Stevens said during the postgame presser. “He’s an amazing player. An amazing person and days won’t get any easier for him, but he somehow plays like that.”
Horford who had 19 points, seven boards and eight assists in the Game 1 loss said of Thomas during the postgame that, “It’s a difficult time for Isaiah, and his family and for us as well. We wanted to come out and be able to win this game, but there are bigger things than just basketball and for us it’s we not take anything for granted and really pull through at this time. I feel like this will make us stronger and were there to support Isaiah.”
In leading up to Game 2, the question was how would Thomas and the Celtics handle a very delicate, but real situation going forward.
It was reported by NBATV/NBA on TNT’s Dennis Scott that Thomas was going to play in Game 2 and then travel home to Washington to be with his family.
 “We’re just family and no matter what goes on, we’re always going to have each other’s back,” Bradley said on Monday after practice. “He’s a special person. Special player and I know that as this playoff series goes continues, Isaiah going to continue to play well and I’m going to continue to support him. He’s going to play for his sister.”
Stevens said to the press that Thomas is trying his best to compartmentalize when he’s around the team that he is working on what he needs to work on, despite all that has occurred.
“We were together for some film. Some walk through and we’ll be back together tomorrow, but I think he’s as good as can be I guess,” he said.
In Game 2, Thomas had 20 points, but was just 6 for 15 from the field, including 1 for 5 from three-point range and a rough 7 for 13 from the free throw line as the C’s lost versus the Bulls 111-97, losing their second straight at home to fall behind 2-0 in the series.
Whether Thomas will be back to his normal self again or not, one thing is for sure if the Celtics are going to get back into this series with Game 3 happening tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN, it is up to the rest of the team to pick up their play and be as present as Thomas has been the first two games of this series, despite the loss of his sister.
The best place that they can start is on the glass, where they are a -23 (97-74) through the first two games, including 32-23 on the offensive glass, with 20 of the second chance boards coming in Game 1 on Sunday night.
“I don’t think there’s anything bigger than that,” Celtics forward Jae Crowder, who had 16 points in Game 2 said after the game about the Celtics inability to rebound and to control their turnovers. “I just think if we take care of the stuff that we as a unit can control, will put ourselves in much better position to win the game.”
Last week, the Boston Celtics and their leader Isaiah Thomas were riding high with dreams of making a serious playoff run, which they have not done since 2010, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in The Finals in seven games. It is also the last time that the C’s made it past the opening round of the postseason.
As they head into Game 3, they are staring at an 0-2 deficit, their starting lead guard suffered tragic loss that none one would wish on their worst enemy and by the end of this weekend, their dream season could end.
If there is one thing that this group of Celtics has shown this season, especially now is that they are together. There for each other. Respect one another and they will compete to the very end.
Also, this tragedy has brought to the light for the rest of the organization is that life is precious and should not be taken for granted.
The best example of this is something Blakely said to Cellini that Thomas brings his son Jalen to practice and to every Celtics home game every chance he gets.
“It speaks to the commitment he has to family and how important it is to him,” he said about Thomas. “When you see, something happens like this with his sister Chyna, it hurts.
Sherrod also said that the entire Celtics’ family was hurt by this tragedy because Thomas is a part of this family and when he is in pain they are all in pain.
While the pain may never go away from the loss of his sister at just 22 years of age, the one thing that Thomas does have is his wife and children and his basketball family, who love him and respect him and understand that they will not have their season conclude without a fight and Thomas will be there leading the way.  
“Even though he wasn’t screaming or usual Isaiah, he still went out there and fought and made us want to fight harder for him,” Bradley said about Thomas’ Game 1 effort.
“You can say whatever to him, but our actions really let him know that we care for him. This is his sanctuary being on the basketball court. So, for us to make him feel happy. Make him feel like we have his back. I feel like as brothers, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Thomas on Wednesday released a statement where the thanked the Celtics, the fans and the entire NBA for their support following the passing of his sister that stated, “This has been without question the hardest week of my life.… I truly appreciate all of the support you’ve shown me the past several days and the thank you for respecting my privacy as I continue to grieve and heal with my loved ones at this time.”
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 4/16/17 6 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm with Vince Cellini, Caron Butler, and Sam Mitchell, with report from A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast SportsNet, New England; 4/16/17 6 p.m. of TNT’s NBA Tip-Off, presented by Autotrader with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal; 4/16/17 6:30 p.m. Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs, First-Round series Chicago Bulls versus Boston Celtics with Brian Anderson, Kevin McHale and Dennis Scott; 4/18/17 12 a.m. edition of “Inside the NBA” on TNT, presented by Kia with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, with report from Dennis Scott; 4/19/17 ESPN news crawl during the 5:30 p.m. edition of “Pardon the Interruption,” presented by Crown Royal Regal Apple with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon; and   

Monday, April 17, 2017

J-Speaks: The Palace Era Ends

An 8-14 finish to their season kept the Detroit Pistons (37-45) from making their second straight appearance in the postseason. One of those 14 setbacks came in the team’s final home game of the season, a 109-105 loss versus the playoff bound Washington Wizards. It also represented the end of an era.
The Pistons next to last game seven days ago was the final home game for the arena, The Palace of Auburn Hills where the Pistons called home for the past 29 seasons and won three championships along the way. This also where the then WNBA’s Detroit Shock won three titles in 2003, 2006 and 2008.  
As special of a night as it was for the current and past players, it gave the fans one last opportunity to be in a place where those in attendance saw a plethora of great memories.
Many of those fans in attendance were in Pistons gear from a woman that wore a shirt that said, “I Love My Pistons.” One gentlemen had on an old-school Isiah Thomas No. 11 jersey and another person had on an old black shirt that said, “Detroit. Bad Boys,” with a basketball on it with a skull and cross bone on it, which was out during the Pistons during their back-to-back titles in 1989-90.   
“When the doors close, I will take with me all my memories. All the wonderful fans I’ve helped over the years. The friendships, the alliances that I’ve built,” an employee of “The Palace” Tonia, who works in guest services said.
The highlight of the final game at “The Palace” occurred during intermission where at center court a ceremony took place that honored the top players in Pistons history, like Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, John Salley, James Edwards, Rick Mahorn, John Long, Tayshaun Prince, Jerry Stackhouse, and current Pistons’ color analyst for FOX Sports Detroit Greg Kelser and were surrounded by the three Larry O’Brien trophies the organization won.
“Seeing those fans again. To walk out there and still get the love from them it’s a great feeling,” Stackhouse, who played for the Pistons from 1997-02 said.
“Seeing everybody come back, it was a family reunion,” Thomas, who played his entire 13-year career with the Pistons from 1981-94 said. “The OJs could have been singing ‘Family reunion.’ That’s what it felt like.”
“Being here with James Edwards, John Long, Isiah, Rick Mahorn, it’s amazing,” Salley, who played for the Pistons from 1986-92 said.  
The Pistons moved into their new home court in 1988 after spending the past decade playing home games in the Pontiac Silverdome, where they played to record crowds, including ones during the 1988 NBA Finals against the eventual back-to-back NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
When the team began playing games at “The Palace,” it was a new arena that provided a different kind of atmosphere for the fans to take in. It was more intimate and brought those in attendance closer to the court.
The first official event at “The Palace” was a Sting concert that took place on Aug. 13, 1988. Other notable events that occurred include two sold out shows by New Kids on the Block on Dec. 2, 1989 and World Wrestling Federation’s (WWF) Summer Slam on Aug. 30, 1993, where a record number 23,954 were in attendance.  
The first Pistons home game at the Palace took place on Nov. 5, 1989, a 94-85 win versus the Charlotte Hornets.
The first 245 games the Pistons played at “The Palace” were all sellouts. The team, who were nicknamed “The Bad Boys” christened the first season of their new digs with a championship and followed that up with another title in 1990.
The stars of those title teams were Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer, John Salley, James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, and Mark Aguirre.
In the years that followed, the Pistons searched for the next star player to lead them back to prominence. In that time, they drafted Grant Hill; traded for Jerry Stackhouse and surrounded them with the likes via the draft Allan Houston, Theo Ratliff, and Lindsey Hunter.
While the Pistons did have some success, but did not come close to capturing another title during this time.
That all changed in 2004 when Chauncey Billups, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace led the Pistons to their third NBA title in franchise history as they defeated the Lakers 4-1 in The Finals.
While the first two championships were special, and will have a place in hearts of all in the “Motor City” forever, that 2004 title was the Pistons first one clinched at “The Palace” as they won the three middle home games, including the clinching Game 5 100-87 on June 15, 2004. The President of Basketball Operations then was Dumars, who held that post for over a decade.
This was also the season where the mantra that was heard since that season by PA announcer Mason, “Detroit Basketball,” Mason, who said that what he will remember of that that title team was the definition of, “Hard work. Blue collar.”
“Great building. A lot of great memories,” Billups, who played for the Pistons from 2002-09 and 2013-14. You think of all the great battles that we had here. I think about my kids’ kind of being raised here. Coming to these games, running around the building like it was theirs. It’s sad that it’s over.”
This building also hosted the jersey retirements of Thomas, Dumars, Rodman, Johnson, Laimbeer, Daly, former GM Jack McCloskey; the late great head coach of the back-to-back titles, Hall of Famer Chuck Daly; the late great owner of the Pistons, Hall of Famer William “Bill” Davidson and most recently Wallace, Hamilton, and Billups.
“Shows the history and what this organization means to all of us as players and as individuals,” Hamilton, who played for the Pistons from 2002-11 said.
Next season, the Pistons will be playing their home games at Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit, MI.
In 29 seasons, the Pistons were 732-431 in the regular season at “The Palace” in the regular season and 75-32 in the playoffs, that is a .629 and .701 winning percentage respectably. There were three championships that were won by the Pistons during this period and many great memories involving sports and entertainment took place here.  
Starting next season, the Pistons will be playing their home games in downtown Detroit, MI at the Little Caesars Arena and will begin making new memories in Pistons history, with one of them being a return to the postseason.  
“Things may change, but championship basketball memories last forever. Detroit is where it began, but don’t forget all those titles and rings. They happened in The Palace of Auburn Hills. I know we’ll never forget,” Thomas said.
Information and quotations are courtesy of 4/8/17 6 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm with Casey Stern , Stu Jackson and Mike Fratello; 4/15/17 1:30 p.m. edition of “NBA Inside Stuff,” on NBATV with Kristen Ledlow and Grant Hill; Sporting News Official 2006-07 NBA Guide;; and

Saturday, April 15, 2017

J-Speaks: 2017 NBA Playoff Preview

The 2016-17 National Basketball Association (NBA) Campaign was one of the very best regular seasons in a long time. An NBA record 13 players averaged 25 points or more. There 116 triple-doubles recorded, with a single-season record 42 of them coming from the lead guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder and another 22 coming from a former teammate of his, who is also a leading candidate for MVP. The No. 3 Seed in the West made a single-season record 1,181 three-pointers this season and the Top two teams in the West combined for 128 wins. Now with the regular season in the rearview mirror, the NBA’s second season, the 2017 Playoffs begin this weekend. Here is a preview and predictions of all eight Quarterfinal matchups.
Abbreviation Key: ppg: points per game; rpg: rebounds per game; spg: steals per game; bpg: blocks per game; FG%: field goal percentage; 3-Pt.%: three-point percentage; FT%: free throw percentage; T-tied.

Eastern Conference

(1)   Boston Celtics versus (8) Chicago Bulls
-Season series tied 2-2.  
Eight years ago, the then defending NBA champion Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls met in what became one of the most epic Quarterfinal series in NBA playoff history that featured four games went to overtime and a total of seven overtimes took place. The C’s won the series in seven games. The two teams in a familiar scenario meet again in the opening round for the fifth time.
While the Celtics, who have defeated the Bulls the prior four times they met in the playoffs are in a familiar territory as the No. 1 for the first time since they won their 17th title in 2008, thanks to a 112-94 win in their final game of the season versus the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, the boys from “Beantown” are the young up and comers with a rising star, and the Bulls are the ones with three top players that have been playoff tested.
The Celtics reached the No. 1 Seed for the first time since their last title season in 2008, thanks to the continued emergence of their two-time All-Star lead guard Isaiah Thomas, whose 28.9 scoring average was not just No. 3 in the league this regular season, only Hall of Famer and three-time NBA champion with the C’s Larry Bird had a better average of 29.9 points in the 1987-88 campaign.
Thomas also had career-highs in field-goal percentage (46.3); free-throw percentage (90.9) three-point percentage at (37.9); averaged 5.9 assists and led the NBA in scoring average in the fourth quarter at 9.7.
To put an even better perspective on what the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft did in the regular season, he had 43 straight games of scoring 20 points or more, beating the record set by Hall of Famer John Havlicek at 42 and he had 73 games where he registered 20 points or more total.
Unlike the past two seasons, there is pressure on the Atlantic Division champion Celtics and Coach of the Year candidate in Brad Stevens to make some noise in the playoffs having clinched the top seed in the East, and doing so with the least number of total wins for a top seed in a Conference in a decade.
This time around though, he has center Al Horford (14.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.0 apg-career-high, 47.3 FG%, 35.5 3-Pt.%) to hopefully provide a consistent scoring presence in the paint and guard Avery Bradley (16.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 46.3 FG%, 39.0 3-Pt.%), who missed the playoffs a season ago because of injury and missed 27 games because of injury/illness this season, but to provide perimeter scoring and tough defense.
“I’ve never been a No. 1 Seed. So, it’s definitely something that I’m excited about, but once you get into the playoffs, the seeding kind goes out the window,” Thomas, who had 13 points and eight assists versus the Bucks said to reporters after the game. “You got to take care of business and be locked in from the jump.”

That task will be tough for Thomas as it was revealed that his 22-year-old sister Chyna Thomas was killed in a one car crash in his hometown of Washington State early Saturday morning.

According to a police report, Chyna passed away at the scene of the accident after her car slid off the highway and struck a pole at around 5 a.m. The report also said that she was not wearing a seat belt.

"We are terribly saddened by the tragic loss of Chyna Thomas. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Celtics organization are with Isaiah and his family."

All indications from the Celtics as it was reported by A. Sherrod Blakely of Comcast SportsNet New England that Thomas will play in Game 1 of the series on Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. on TNT.
Their opponent the Chicago Bulls have dealt with a lot both on the court and in the locker, room this season.
The team of three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade (18.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.8 apg), a Chicago native, and fellow All-Stars Rajon Rondo (7.8 ppg, 6.7 apg-Led team, 5.1 rpg) and Jimmy Butler (23.9 ppg-Led team, 6.2 apg, 5.5 rpg, 1.9 spg-5th NBA, 45.5 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%), the thought was that the Bulls could pose a threat to the Cavs in the East.
The Bulls instead were plagued by inconsistent play. The in ability of their young players to raise their level of play to match the three All-Stars and that the front office and head coach Fred Hoiberg were not on the same page for a lot of this season.
When the team traded veteran forward Taj Gibson and sharp shooter Doug McDermott at the trade deadline, it seemed like the Bulls were giving up on the season and an elbow injury to Wade in the Bulls 98-91 loss versus the Memphis Grizzlies on Mar. 15 seemed to end his season.
The Bulls managed to go 7-4 without Wade and put themselves I a positon to make the postseason. Wade did comeback and the Bulls managed to outlast the Miami Heat (41-41) by winning their final two games of the season by an average of 43 points to garner the No. 8 and final playoff spot.
What gives the Bulls confidence in this series is the fact that they won both their home tilts versus the Celtics this season (105-99 on Oct. 27, 2016; 104-103 on Feb. 16) and outside from a 100-80 setback to them on Mar. 12, the first three contest were decided by a total of 14 points.
The Bulls are good in one area where the C’s are not, rebounding. They are ranked No. 3 in the league in rebound differential at a +3.1 in the regular season. They were tied for first in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game at 12.2; averaged 15.0 offensive boards against the Celtics during the regular season, and they led the NBA in second chance points per contest at 15.
The Celtics ranked 27 in rebounds differential at -2.5, but in their two home wins this season versus the Bulls, the C’s kept up with the Bulls on the glass with both squads totaling 25 second chance points.
In their 100-80 victory in Boston, MA on Mar. 12, the Celtics were a plus-10 (56-46) on the boards and they were even on offensive boards at 12.
The trio of Wade, Rondo and Butler having played 166, 94 and 32 playoff games respectably and know what this time of the year means and the challenge that stands before them in the Celtics.
“That’s a very good team over there. There very well coached. They know how to play the game,” Wade, who was 102-64 in the postseason with the Heat said on Wednesday.
“The four games we played them, it was some good things that happened there. So, our guys are going to have confidence.”
“We’ve played very well in games versus the best teams this year and we have confidence and our young guys have confidence going into that. We look at it like it’s Boston versus Chicago and we got to go in there and try to win some games and try to come out of this series and move to the next one.”
This series comes down to can the Bulls contain Thomas, who last season’s opening round versus the Hawks totaled 75 points, on just 24 for 72 (33.3 percent) from the floor, including 6 for 28 from three-point range (21.4 percent)?
That task, will go to Rondo, who will be trying to stick it to his old team, Jerian Grant, and Michael Carter-Williams.  
Will the likes of Jae Crowder (13.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 46.3 FG%, 39.8 3-Pt.%), Marcus Smart (10.6 ppg, career-high, 3.9 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.6 spg-Led team), rookie Jaylen Brown (6.6 ppg), Kelly Olynyk (9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 51.2 FG%, 35.4 3-Pt.%), Amir Johnson (6.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Gerald Green and Terry Rozier make plays and shots when called upon?
Can Grant, Carter-Williams (6.6 ppg), Bobby Portis (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Robin Lopez (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 49.3 FG%), Nikola Mirotic (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 34.2 3-Pt.%) do the same?  
NBA on TNT studio analyst and two-time champion with the Houston Rockets in the middle of the 1990s Kenny "The Jet" Smith has said that the regular season is where you make your name. The playoffs is where you make your fame. That is what the Celtics will try to do this postseason, especially Thomas and coach Stevens, who respects and accepts the challenge his team has of breaking through this postseason.
“There’s a great responsibility of the professional sports teams to play the right way and I’ve always looked at that as a huge positive,” Stevens, whose record in the postseason is 2-8 said. “I’ve never seen that as pressure because any team I’m associated with as a coach and I want think our players feel the same way. We want to be viewed as a group of people coming together for a common cause that plays hard.”
Prediction: Celtics win series in six games.

          (4) Washington Wizards versus (5) Atlanta Hawks
                              (49-33)                                 (43-39)
-Wizards won season series 3-1.
We have a rematch of the 2015 East Semifinals where it was it was the Hawks that were Southeast Division champions and the Wizards who were the up and coming bunch. TIn their sixth all-time postseason tilt, it’s the Wizards that enter as the Southeast Division champions, who are title contender and the Hawks trying to end those dreams.
The Wizards under new head coach Scott Brooks got off to a rough start this season at 2-8 and All-Star guard John Wall was trying to round into form after double-knee surgery in the off-season.
The boys from the nation’s capital hit their stride back in February when they won 17-consecutive games at Verizon Center and finished with a 30-11 record at home, tied with the Celtics for the second-best in the East as well as tied for the third best record overall in the league.
Behind Wall’s career-high averages of 23.1 points (Led team), 10.7 assists (2nd NBA), 2.0 steals (2nd NBA) and 45.1 percent from the field, and was third among guards with 50 double-doubles (7th NBA), the Wizards won their first division title since 1978-79 and garnered their most regular season wins as well.
To put that into perspective, that season when the then defending NBA champion Bullets won 54 games and captured the Atlantic Division. They lost to the then Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals 4-1.
Wall’s sidekick Bradley Beal played a career-best 77 games this season and posted career-highs of 23.1 points, 3.5 assists per contest on 48.2 percent from the floor and shot 40.4 percent from three-point range.
The Wizards also got solid play from forwards Markieff Morris (14.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 45.7 FG%, 36.2 3-Pt.%) and Otto Porter, Jr. (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.5 spg, 51.6 FG%, 43.3 3-Pt.%-5th NBA), who are a big reason the Wizards finished tied for eighth in three-point percentage in the regular season at 37.2.
The team has also got solid play in the middle from center Marcin Gortat (10.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg-Led team, 57.9 FG%-5th NBA), who will be even more important as his backup Ian Mahinmi (5.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who played in just 31 games because of injury will be shelved to start this series because of a strained left calf. He will be re-evaluated in seven to 10 days.
The acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic (13.7 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 36.7 3-Pt.%) from the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline, gave the Wizards the offensive sniper off the bench they were lacking and the pickup of guard Brandon Jennings off the waiver wire back in late March gave the Wizards the understudy to Wall that fits perfectly.
The also took the pressure off the likes of Kelly Oubre and Jr. Jason Smith to, who can contribute in small spirts, which is more of a fit for them.
The Hawks season can be described from the legend of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde.
They got off to a 9-2 start. Proceeded to go 28-34 up to Mar. 26, which included their second seven-game losing streak of this season. They did manage to win six of their final nine games, which included a victory over the No. 1 Seeded Celtics and two wins over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. 
The Hawks lost seven in a row and nine of 11 games from Mar. 18 to Apr. 6 and during that time they were without their top scorer and second-leading rebounder in All-Star forward Paul Millsap (3.7 apg, 44.2 FG%) at 18.1 and 7.7 respectably was shelved because of a knee issue. They were also without two of their best perimeter players because of injury in Thabo Sefolosha (7.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 34.2 3-Pt.%) and Kent Bazemore (11.0 ppg, 34.6 3-Pt.%).
All three of those players came back near the close of the season and the Hawks managed to reach the postseason for a 10th straight season, the longest active streak in East.
The main key to this series is can the Hawks contain Wall, who held him to 18.5 points, 8.8 assists on 32.9 percent shooting in the four games and forced him into an average of 3.8 turnovers per game.
“Their guard play is excellent,” Hawks’ center Dwight Howard said of Wall and Beal. “For us, we got to do a good job of trying to contain John Wall and Bradley Beal. Just make them take tough shots. We don’t want to get Bradley Beal going and then on the offensive end, we just got to do what we do best. Pound the ball inside. Hit our threes and move the ball well.”
That will be the job of the Hawks starting lead guard Dennis Schroder (17.9 ppg-career-high, 45.1 FG%, 6.3 apg), who in his first season as the full-time starter had some good moments, as well as Sefolosha.
They Hawks will also need Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.5 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 35.7 3-Pt.%), who really came on at the end of the season with averages of 18.3 and 18.2 scoring averages in March, Bazemore to shoot the ball better from the field than the 40.9 percent he averaged. Not to mentioned strong play from Jose Calderon; rookies Taurean Prince, who averaged 10.4 points per game in April and Malcolm Delaney, Ersan Ilyasova (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 35.3 3-Pt.%) and Mike Muscala (6.2 ppg, 50.4 FG%, 41.8 3-Pt.%).
Center Dwight Howard (13.5 ppg, 12.7 rpg-5th NBA, 63.3 FG%-5th NBA), who finished sixth in the league with 53 double-doubles and Millsap must be a presence in the paint on both ends and get the Wizards’ Gortat and Morris in foul trouble.
Whoever dictates the tempo of each game will have the greatest chance of winning the series. For the Wizards, they want to keep the speed high, especially with Wall, who at times can be a one-man fast break.
The Hawks and head coach Mike Budenholzer wants to keep the pace slow and have his team rely on ball movement and man movement, especially in the half court.
During the regular season, the Hawks ranked a solid 10th in assists per game at 23.6, but they were No. 2 last season at 25.6, and the year prior at 25.7. Unlike those two seasons though, the Hawks ranked high in committing miscues this season averaging 15.2 turnovers per game, which ranked 28th in “The Association.”
If the Hawks are lazy with the ball, that will fuel the Wizards high octane offense and fast breaks will come in waves.
If they can keep the tempo down and pound the ball inside, they have a chance, especially if the game is close. The Hawks were 26-18 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes.
The Wizards though are no stranger to close games this season as they were 32-23 in games within five points in the final five minutes.
This series also represents a chance of redemption for the Wizards, who lost to the Hawks in the Semis two seasons back in six games and Wall broke his hand missing the middle four games of the series.
The team is confident and more mature now to take the challenge of being the favorite, especially hosting their first home playoff game since the previously mentioned 1978-79 team led by Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. They will look to beat the Hawks in the postseason for the fourth time in six opportunities.
Prediction: Wizards win series in six games.

(2)   Cleveland Cavaliers versus (7) Indiana Pacers
            (51-31)                                 (42-40)
-Cavaliers won season series 3-1.
This opening round matchup represents the defending NBA champions and their challengers who are both coming off underachieving seasons.
The defending champions have dealt with injuries to key players like All-Star Kevin Love (19.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 37.3 3-Pt.%), J.R. Smith (8.6 ppg, 35.1 3-Pt.%), integrating the like Deron Williams (11.0 ppg, 5.6 apg, 36.3 3-Pt.%), Derrick Williams, and Kyle Korver (10.1 ppg, 46.4 FG%, 45.1 3-Pt.%-2nd NBA) into their program during the season and their play at the defensive end of the court has been awful.
They went from being 40-16 on Feb. 23, on the night of the trading deadline Feb. 23 to 11-15 after that and were overtaken by the Celtics for the No. 1 Seed in the East.
Most teams, that go from having home court at least until The Finals to having to start the Conference Finals on the road would have some doubt, but not the Cavs and for sure not the four-time MVP and three-time Finals MVP LeBron James., whose team will be the No. 2 for the sixth time in his career. Those team's have reached The Finals the previous five.  
“I’ve played in a lot of big games. I’m the last person to ask about a big game in the regular season. I’ve been to six straight Finals,” James said once after a Cavs loss late in the regular season.
The Cavs hope the additions of swingman Dahntay Jones, who was a part of last season’s title team and center Edy Tavares, who had six points, 10 boards and six block shots in the Cavs 98-83 loss versus the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night in the regular-season finale.
The Cavs did attempt to get a better rim protector when they signed center Andrew Bogut off waivers back in March, but he broke his left leg in his first game back on Mar. 6 in the Cavs’ 106-98 loss versus the Heat.
The Cavs defense of their title begins against the No. 7 Seeded Pacers, who needed to win their final five games of the regular season to snag a playoff berth.
Back on Feb. 6 after a win at the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Pacers were 29-22 thanks to a seven-game winning streak. A six-game losing streak followed and after a tough 135-130 double-overtime loss at the Cavs fell dropped the Pacers to 37-40 and were in serious free fall.
They managed to rebound from that and won their final five games of the regular season, led by All-Star swingman Paul George (23.7 ppg-Led team, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 spg, 46.1 FG%, 39.3 3-Pt.%), who himself has not played up to his potential in the regular season.
He managed to pull himself and his team together to close the season, and George went from a 21.7 points average on 37.8 percent from distance in March to 32.8 points on 42 percent from three-point range in April.
Second-year center Myles Turner (14.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.1 bpg-3rd NBA, 51.1 FG%, 34.8 3-Pt.%) has been up and down on both ends of the court; injuries have slowed forward Thaddeus Young (11.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 spg, 52.7 FG%); Monta Ellis (8.5 ppg, 44.3 FG%); C.J. Miles (10.7 ppg, 41.3 3-Pt.%) one night can light it up from the perimeter like the fourth of July and another night can’t ignite a spark; starting lead guard and Indianapolis native Jeff Teague (15.3 ppg, 7.8 apg-career-high, 35.7 3-Pt.%) has had solid moments, but has been inconsistent in running the offense for new head coach Nate McMillan and it has not helped that the likes of Glenn Robinson III, Al Jefferson (8.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Rodney Stuckey have been injured and unavailable.
The return of Lance Stephenson was a major shot in the arm for the Pacers, but it might be a little too late for them, especially in this matchup with the defending champs.
To put into perspective the challenge that the Pacers are facing against the Cavs, in James’ playoff career, where he has averaged 28 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists, his team’s series record with the Cavs and Heat is 11-0 and the overall record is 44-7 in the quarterfinals, which includes six sweeps. Only Hall of Famer and four-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s James Worthy has a higher winning percentage in the opening round of the postseason at .867 (26-4 record) in the current playoff format since 1984 than James' teams at .863. Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who led the Lakers to five NBA crowns in the 1980s has the third highest at .862 (25-4). The last loss James has sustained in the Quarterfinals is in Game 4 of 2012 opening round 89-87 at the the New York Knicks on May, 6, 2012. Since then James has won 17 straight opening round games.
In James career versus George and the Pacers, he is 3-0 in playoffs series, which consists of a 4-2 victory in 2012 Semis with the Heat; a 4-3 win in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Heat and again one year later in the East Finals 4-2.

"I respect him. I respect what he has done to this game. What he has been for this game. I respect the work that he's done in his career," George, who has averaged 1.84 points, 7.2 boards and 3.8 assists in his postseason career said of James.

"But, it comes a point when you're tired of losing and this is an opportunity and another chance to go toe-to-toe with one of the best or the best in the league. Again tired of losing. Tired of losing to this guy. So, I'm going to challenge him, every possession. I'm going to try to get the best of him and ultimately upset him in this series."
It also does not help that the Pacers have lost three consecutive and six of their last seven road playoff contest.
In their last encounter back on Apr. 2, George had a game-high of 43 points on 16 for 33 shooting, including 6 for 16 from three-point range with nine boards and nine assists. That was offset by the triple-double of James with 41 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists on 16 for 29 from the field.
Only future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan (9,370) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have played more minutes than the 8,384 by James, who played 822 in last season’s playoffs.
Hall of Famer Michael Jordan (5,987), Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) and future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant have scored more postseason points in NBA history than the 5,572 of James, who scored 522 points in the last season’s playoffs.
Hall of Famers and five-time champion Earvin “Magic” Johnson (2,346) and John Stockton (1,839) have more assists in the playoffs all-time than the 1,348 by James.
Of the players who made over seven consecutive trips to The Finals, they are all Celtics in Hall of Famers Bob Cousy (7), Frank Ramsey and K.C. Jones (8), Sam Jones and current Celtics color analyst for Comcast SportsNet New England Tom Heinsohn (9) and the 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell (10) and James will be looking to join this list.
Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue, who became the first rookie head coach to win a title since Heat president Pat Riley did it leading the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982 is very confident in his team’s ability to hit that preverbal switch and put themselves in position to get back to The Finals and repeat.  
“I’m going into the playoffs thinking we can win,” he said this week. “That’s my job to make sure everybody in that locker room understands that we’re going to win. That’s on me, but I’m pretty sure a lot of guys in that locker room feel the same way.”
Prediction: Cavaliers win series in five.

(3)   Toronto Raptors versus (6) Milwaukee Bucks
          (51-31)                                  (42-40)
-Raptors won season series 3-1.
A season ago, the Raptors made it all the way to the Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual champion Cavs in six. The Bucks on the other hand missed the postseason after making it the prior season. Both teams trying to make that next step in their maturation meet in the opening round for the first time.
The Raptors won 51 games, capturing the team’s first back-to-back 50-plus win seasons in franchise history, despite seeing their three-year run as Atlantic Division champions end as the Celtics won it.
A career-year turned in by All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan (27.3 ppg-5th NBA, 5.2 rpg-career-high, 3.9 apg, 46.7 FG%-T-career-high), who finished just .3 behind current Memphis Grizzlies’ guard Vince Carter’s 27.6 scoring average in the 2000-01 season is a big reason for the Raptors winning 51 times. He was especially good in the absence of the team’s starting lead guard in All-Star Kyle Lowry (22.4 ppg-career-high, 7.0 apg-Led team, 4.8 rpg-career-high, 1.5 spg-Led team, 46.4 FG%, 41.2 3-Pt.%-career-high), who missed 21 games after the All-Star break because of surgery on his right wrist.
In the first 11 games without their floor general, the Raptors were just 6-5, averaging 99.9 points per game from Feb. 23rd- Mar. 16th. In the 10 games that followed, they were 8-2 and scored an average of 106 points per contest.
DeRozan during this 21-game stretch where the team was 14-7, he scored 30 points or more eight times.
With Lowry back in the fold, the Raptors feel they are primed for a major playoff run, but they know things will not be easy.
“For us, we have to go out there and continue to be us,” Lowry, who garnered two double-doubles out of his four games he played prior to the end of the regular season.
“We got to be defensive minded. Play hard and understand it’s not going to be any easy games. Every single game will be a tough game. Every single game will be a different game, but all we can do is prepare for Game 1 and that’s all we can prepare for.”
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri also made a couple key trades to bring more depth to the Raptors in bringing in acquiring forward Serge Ibaka (14.8 ppg 6.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 48.0 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%) from the Orlando Magic on Feb. 14 and then acquiring P.J. Tucker on Feb. 23 from the Phoenix Suns (6.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 35.7 3-Pt.%).
Those additions added not only more depth to the roster, but gave the Raptors interior and exterior defense as well as solid offensive threats from the perimeter.
Ibaka has been a solid compliment to starting center Jonas Valanciunas (12.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg-Led team, 55.7 FG%) and solidified the front court, which also consists of rookie Jakob Poeltl, shot blocking ace Lucas Nogueira (1.6 bpg-Led team), Pascal Siakam and sharp shooter Patrick Patterson (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 37.2 3-Pt.%).
Tucker addition provides another wing who can score when called upon, but more important be another deterrent to the opposing team’s best player on the perimeter, which is also the role of DeMarre Carroll (8.9 ppg, 34.1 3-Pt.%) and Norman Powell (8.4 ppg, 44.9 FG%)
Tucker, Powell, and Carroll will have a tough assignment against the Bucks’ long and athletic first-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had a breakout season leading the Bucks in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.9), while shooting a career-high of 52.1 percent from the floor.
The Bucks were dealt a major setback to their season on Feb. 8, when in their 106-88 loss versus the Heat also lost their second-leading scorer Jabari Parker (20.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 49.0 FG%, 36.5 3-Pt.%) to a torn ACL in his left knee. This happened just as they got back Khris Middleton (14.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 45.0 FG%, 43.3 3-Pt.%), who missed the first 50 games from a pulled hamstring he sustained before training camp.
Instead of completely falling apart the Bucks went 19-12 from that point on and finished with a winning record for the first time in a few years.
For them to have a chance to win this series, their first since 2001 when they made it to the Conference Finals, the Bucks need for Antetokounmpo to be at his best against the Raptors like he was during the regular season, when he averaged 24.8 points, 7.8 boards and seven assists on 58.8 percent from the field.
They need solid perimeter shooting from the likes of veteran Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic (6.4 ppg, 34.1 3-Pt.%), Matthew Dellavedova (7.6 ppg, 4.7 apg, 36.6 3-Pt.%) and Tony Snell (8.5 ppg, 45.5 FG%, 40.6 3-Pt.%).
Front court player like Michael Beasley (9.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 53.2 FG%, 41.9 3-Pt.%), Greg Monroe (11.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 53.4 FG%) and John Henson (6.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 51.5 FG%), must bring a presence in the paint on both ends.  
Rookie of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon (10.2 ppg, 4.2 apg, 45.7 FG%, 40.4 3-Pt.%) must make Lowry expend some energy in trying to check him and Brogdon must do his best to stay out of foul trouble.
The fact that the Milwaukee Bucks got to the playoffs especially after a lot of ups and downs early in the season is an accomplishment in itself and it shows this young team under head coach Jason Kidd is heading in the right direction.
Even if they did have Parker in toe, winning this series was going to be a challenge still, especially the fact that the Bucks have lost to the Raptors 13 times in their last 15 chances, and they Warriors had a better record since Mar. 17 than the 12-2 mark of the guys whose mantra is "We the North." 
In three of their four wins against the Bucks this season, the Raptors have outscored the Bucks in the fourth quarter and have a +14.7 point-differential in the three wins against them in four tries.
The other thing the Raptors have in their favor is the fact that the last two seasons, they led the NBA in wins after trailing by 10 points or more. The have garnered 21 wins this season, which represents 41 percent of their 50 victories in the regular season, with a 21-25 record, which is on the heels of a 15-22 record a season ago.
Prediction: Raptors win series in six games.

Western Conference
(1)   Golden State Warriors versus (8) Portland Trail Blazers
                    (67-15)                                      (41-41)
-Warriors won season series 4-0.
Say hello to this year’s NBA First-Round tilt of David, the Portland Trail Blazers, versus Goliath, the Golden State Warriors.
After blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Cavs in last season Finals, the Warriors went out and got perennial All-Star Kevin Durant in free agency and he has done nothing but be a perfect fit for the defending Western Conference champions.
In the first 60 games with Durant (25.1 ppg-Led team 8.3 rpg-career-high, 4.8 apg, 53.7 FG%-career-high, 37.5 3-Pt.%) the Warriors averaged 118.1 points per game and allowed 105.5 and their record was 50-10.
Then the end of second month of 2017 came and they not only lost at the Wizards 112-108 on Feb. 8, but Durant injured his left knee just 1:33 seconds into the game and was shelved for the next 19 games.
Without their best player, and in the middle of their toughest part of the season, the defending Western Conference champions struggled losing two straight for the first time in the last two seasons and wound up losing four out six in that stretch.
Did the Warriors panic? No. They went back to basics that helped them become one of the best teams in the league. Ball movement. Playing for each other. Defending. Rebounding and getting back to having fun.
That resulted in the reemergence of reigning back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry (25.3 ppg, 6.6 apg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 spg, 46.8 FG%, 41.1 3-Pt.%) and his fellow “Splash Brother” in All-Star Klay Thompson (22.3 ppg, 46.8 FG%, 41.4 3-Pt.%).
The ultimate swiss army knife Draymond Green (10.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.0 apg-Led team) put played even harder and did all the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Andre Iguodala (7.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.4 apg), chipped in the scoring column, where in March he averaged 12.0 points, 3.7 boards and 3.4 assists on 59.4 percent from the field and 41.0 from three-point range.
The rest of the supporting cast in Ian Clark (6.8 ppg, 48.7 FG%, 37.4 3-Pt.%), ZaZa Pachulia (6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 53.4 FG%), Matt Barnes, Shaun Livingston and rookie Patrick McCaw stepped up and contributed as well.
Simply the Warriors just played harder and better and head coach Steve Kerr’s team won 13 straight games and went 15-4 without Durant and while the scoring output was at 109.9, the Warriors allowed just 100.9 to the opposition in that stretch.  
When Durant, whose 28.8 scoring average in his playoff career is the fourth highest all-time returned last Saturday night versus the New Orleans Pelicans (34-48), 16 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in the 123-101 win. Two nights later, same production of 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the Warriors 105-99 loss versus the Utah Jazz. In the regular-season finale versus the Los Angeles Lakers (26-56), Durant had 29 points, eight boards and five assists in the 109-94 win. After going a combined 12 for 27 (44.4 percent) from the floor the first two games, including 0 for 9 from three-point range, Durant was a solid 11 for 16, and 5 for 7 from distance showing he is slowly round back into form for the what hopefully is a run to a championship.
“We learned to win a lot of different ways and we got to do that in the playoffs,” Curry, who averaged 27.3 points, 4.7 boards, 4.7 assists on 49.1 percent from the field, including 48.4 from long range in three games against the Trail Blazers this season, said to NBC Sports Bay Area’s Ros Gold-Onwude after the win. “We had a good end to the season this year. Built a lot of momentum going into the playoffs.”
The first opponent for the back-to-back-to-back Pacific Division champions are last season’s opponent in the Semis, the Portland Trail Blazers, who had their own highs and lows this season.
With three losses in four games bridging the beginning and end of the All-Star break, the Trail Blazers were sitting at 24-35, giving up an average of 110.2 points to the opposition and had a point differential of -2.7. That is a recipe for a lottery bound team.
When the calendar changed to March, so did the play of the boys of "Rip City," as they won 13 of 16 and overtook the Denver Nuggets for the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the West. In that stretch where they won 17 of their last 23 games, the Trail Blazers gave up 6.1 points less and their point differential was +5.1.
While the dynamic guard duo of Damian Lillard (27.0 ppg-T-6th NBA, 5.9 apg-Led team, 4.9 rpg, 37.0 from three-point range) and last season’s Most Improved Player C.J. McCollum (23.0 ppg, 48.0 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.) played at a high level, it was the play of the newest sensation in “Rip City” Jusuf Nurkic (10.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 50.7 FG%), who averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per contest in the 20 games he played for the Trail Blazers, who acquired him from the prior mentioned Nuggets and a First-Round pick for popular player  Mason Plumlee.
Nurkic has been on the shelf the past seven games after an MRI two weeks ago revealed a non-displaced fracture in his right leg. The status to play in the series is still uncertain.
If Nurkic cannot play or is limited in any fashion, picking up the slack falls in the hands of Allen Crabbe (10.7 ppg, 46.8 FG%, 44.4 3-Pt.%-3rd NBA), Maurice Harkless (10.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 50.3 FG%, 35.1 3-Pt.%), Evan Turner (9.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Al-Farouq Aminu (8.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh, who produced back-to-back double-doubles of 12 points and 11 rebounds in the Trail Blazers’ 99-98 last second win versus the might Spurs on Monday and 12 points and 19 boards in the 103-100 loss versus the Pelicans on Wednesday.
There have been five No. 8 Seeds in NBA history to defeat a No. 1 Seed. If the Trail Blazers want to join the 1994 Denver Nuggets, who upset the then Seattle Supersonics 3-2; 1999 New York Knicks, who upset the Miami Heat 3-2; 2007 Warriors, who upset the Dallas Mavericks 4-2; 2011 Grizzlies, who upset the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 and the 2012 Philadelphia 76ers, who upset the Bulls 4-2, you first must believe they can do it. To a man, the Trail Blazers believe they can do it.
“It’s a matchup that we’re excited about. We respect them a lot and we know that they’re going to come for us and we’re going to come for them,” Lillard, a native of Oakland said of the team, which had the fourth best points per contest scoring margin in NBA history at +11.6.
“We know how hard it was to get to this point and between the way we started the season, our experience last year in the playoffs and what it took to get to this point, I think all those experiences are going to help us,” Trail Blazers’ head coach Terry Stotts, whose team lost to the Warriors 4-1 in the Semis last year said.
In reality though, the Trail Blazers were swept by the Warriors in the regular season, but all four games took place before the All-Star break.
In those four games, the Warriors were a plus 90 in the first and third quarters, outscoring the Trail Blazers 146-104 in the opening stanza and 140-92 coming out of intermission.
In the opening stanza, Durant and Curry combined for 26 of the Warriors’ 39 first quarter points in the 135-90 win versus the Trail Blazers in the Dec. 17, 2016 meeting at Oracle Arena. In their Nov. 1, 2016 meeting in Oakland, Curry scored 23 of his 28 points in the third quarter in the 127-104 win.
It is those small things that represent why the Warriors have won an NBA record 207 games in 246 opportunities over the past three seasons. They are primed to make up for the losing in The Finals to the Cavs after leading 3-1.
Prediction: Warriors win series in five games.

(4)   Los Angeles Clippers versus (5) Utah Jazz
            (51-31)                                (51-31)
-Clippers won season series 3-1.
In this Quarterfinal match-up we have the up and coming, young and talented immovable object in the Utah Jazz versus the hungry, eager to prove themselves irresistible force in the Los Angeles Clippers, who have dominated the Jazz in recent years.
The past six years have been the best stretch of Clippers’ basketball in their history in Southern California, which includes five straight 50-plus win seasons, including this year’s and six straight trips to the playoffs.
However, they have had one postseason disappointing finish after another. Their latest, last season when All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were injured in the opening round against the Trail Blazers and they lost the last three games of that series to fall 4-2.
The Clippers got off to a 14-2 start and looked like a team that was going to take a wrecking ball to their playoff failures. But after that great start, they were just 30-29 near the end of March.  
A 98-97 head scratching loss versus the Sacramento Kings (32-50) on Mar. 26th put a major damper on a big win the Clippers had just one day before.
They finished the season strong with seven straight wins and earned home court advantage versus the Jazz thanks critical 108-95 victory in their fourth regular season matchup one day prior to their setback versus the Kings.
The Jazz meanwhile are trying to build their own legacy having gone the slow, but steady route of allowing their young cast led by first-time All-Star Gordon Hayward (21.9 ppg-Led team, 5.4 rpg-career-high, 47.1 FG%, 39.8 3-Pt.%) and his teammates like Rodney Hood (12.7 ppg, 37.1 3-Pt.%), Derrick Favors (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 48.7 FG%) and Rudy Gobert (14.0 ppg, 12.8 rpg-4th NBA, 2.6 bpg-Led NBA, 66.1 FG%-2nd NBA), who averaged 13.8 points and 11.8 boards against the Clippers this season., garnering double-doubles in three of those four games.
Their first appearance in the postseason since 2012 matches them against a confident Clippers bunch, who they have lost 18 of the last 21 meetings they have played against them.
To put their regular season series into clearer context, the Jazz only averaged 73.5 points in their first two encounters, shooting just 36 percent from the field in losing by 13 points (88-75) on Oct. 30, 2016 and by 16 points (88-72) on Feb. 13. The Jazz went just 11 for 42 from three-point range, registered just 16 assists on average and committed 14.5 turnovers per game.
The lone win the Jazz had versus the Clippers on Mar. 13 114-108, they outscored the Clippers 65-52 in the second half, including exploding for 40 points in the third quarter. They shot 52.6 percent from the field; went an incredible 14 for 21 from three-point range; out-rebounded L.A. 49-36; committed just nine turnovers and outscored the Clippers 36-30 in the paint.
The Clippers turn the tables as mentioned 13 days later winning by 13 points and clinched a playoff berth. They held Utah to just 43 percent shooting, including 8 for 26 from distance. The Clippers were 25 for 28 from the charity stripe, while the Jazz were just 13 for 18; forced them into 14 turnovers, turning them into 12 points and outscored them in the paint to the tune of 58-46.
Even winning three of the four meetings and having dominated the Jazz in recent years, the Clippers are not taking their first-round opponent lightly.
“There a great team. Well coached. They run their offense all the way through,” Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said about the Jazz.
“With us, we cannot let those guys connect the dots. We got to make it tough on them. Push their catches out. Be more physical… and dominate on both ends of the floor.”
As all series do, it comes down to which star or stars rise to the moment. Will it be the “Big Three” of the Clippers in Paul (18.1 ppg, 9.2 apg-4th NBA, 2.0 spg-3rd NBA, 5.0 rpg, 47.6 FG%, 41.1 3-Pt.%), Griffin (21.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.9 apg, 49.3 FG%) and Jordan (12.7 ppg, 13.8 rpg-3rd, NBA, 1.7 bpg-T-7th NBA, 71.4 FG%) or the up and coming first-time All-Star of the Jazz in Hayward.
Along with the stars, the so-called “others,” as NBATV/NBA on TNT analyst and four-time champion Shaquille O’Neal likes to call the role players will play a major factor in this series.
For the Clippers, that is the likes of starting shooting guard J.J. Redick (15.0 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 42.9 3-Pt.%-6th NBA); the son of head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers in Austin (12.0 ppg-career-high, 37.1 3-Pt.%), who is questionable at the start of this series because of a left hamstring strain; forward Marresse Speights (8.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 44.5 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.%); Sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford (12.3 ppg, 36.0 3-Pt.%), understudy guard Raymond Felton and Luc Mbah a Moute.
For the Jazz, it veterans George Hill (16.9 ppg-career-high, 47.4 FG%, 40.3 3-Pt.%), Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson (9.2 ppg, 41.1 3-Pt.%), who were brought in this year just for this moment. There will also be a microscope on Dante Exum, and Shelvin Mack (7.8 ppg, 44.6 FG%), Alec Burks (6.7 ppg) and Trey Lyles (6.2 ppg).
What will also be key is who can play the game at their tempo? The Clippers are a team that wants to get up and down the floor, ranking sixth in the NBA in scoring at 108.7 ppg; second in field goal percentage at 47.5 percent and tied for sixth in three-point percentage at 37.5 percent.
The Jazz on the other hand, their strong suit is playing defense, led by Gobert in the middle, ranking No. 1 in points allowed at 98.6; are tied for second in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.3 and are second in fast break points allowed and in second chance points allowed at 10.5 and 10.6 respectably. They are tied for eighth in blocks per game at five and are fourth in rebound differential at plus three.
This series will also come down to a war of nutrition. Over the course of the season, the Clippers and Jazz dealt with injuries to key personnel.
Paul and Griffin missed 21 games each because of injury and the Jazz between Hayward, Hill, Hood, Favors, Mack, Gobert, Burks and Exum missed a total of 165 games. The projected starting quintet of Hayward, Favors, Gobert, Hood and Hill played a total of just 14 games together, but that unit for head coach Quin Snyder was 12-2.
The Clippers are the more experienced team and have a lot to lose if they have an early flame out this postseason.
Aside from making All-Star teams, playing for our country for Team USA and being in a lot of commercials, the core group of Paul, Griffin, Redick, Crawford, and Jordan have not done a lot in the postseason. Paul has played in 69 career postseason games entering these playoffs and has yet to appear in the Conference Finals. That is the second most in NBA postseason history.
Paul and Griffin can opt out of their contracts and become free agents this July, and Redick, whose understudies in Crawford and Austin Rivers make more money than him will be a free agent this off-season.

So, if there was a time for them that elusive playoff run, it must happen this year. If not now, when?
“We’ve been together a long time and it’s weird to say and it’s bad to say, but our goal isn’t to make it out the second round. It’s to win a championship, but we haven’t done that,” Jordan said.
“We obviously want to contend for a championship and win a championship, but in order to do that, we have to find a way to get over this hump. We’ve been trying to do that. We’re building on it every year. We just got to figure it out.”
Prediction: Clippers win series in seven games.

(2)   San Antonio Spurs versus (7) Memphis Grizzlies
              (61-21)                                 (43-39)
-Season series tied 2-2.
For the fifth time since the 2004 and the fourth time in the last seven seasons, the Southwest Division rivals the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, making their 20th straight playoff appearance match up with the Memphis Grizzlies, making their seventh straight playoff appearance.
The Spurs have won three of the four postseason encounters, with all three ending in sweeps, including last season’s opening round tilt, where the Grizzlies were being held together with sticks and glue with several key players like starting center Marc Gasol and starting lead guard Mike Conley were shelved because of injuries.
Six seasons prior though, the Grizzlies as the No. 8 Seed upset the then No. 1 Seeded Spurs in six games.
Since then however, the Spurs have won eight consecutive postseason meetings against their division rivals, which is the third longest active streak in "The Association."
Despite the retirement of Tim Duncan, the continued emergence of MVP candidate and reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard (25.5 ppg-9th NBA, 5.8 rpg, 1.8 spg-T-7th NBA, 48.5 FG%, 38.0 3-Pt.%) is a big reason why the Spurs won 60-plus games for the seventh time in franchise history and did it in back-to-back seasons.
The Spurs also maintained the streak of consecutive 50-plus win seasons, extending the NBA record to 18 and have the longest active streak of consecutive postseason appearances in North American sports at 20 in a row.
For the Grizzlies in their first season under new head coach David Fizdale, a major change occurred in the starting unit as veteran power forward Zach Randolph (14.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg-Led team) came off the bench and JaMychal Green (8.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 50.1 FG%) started in his place.
While Randolph adjusted well to his new role, the Grizzlies as a team were inconsistent for much of this season and 13 losses in their last 20 games is why they dropped to No. 7 in the West.
This matchup features two teams that like to get down and dirty where games are in the high 80s and low 90s in terms of scoring.
In three of the four meetings between the division rivals this season, both teams scored under 100 points.
The Grizzlies won the Mar. 18 encounter 104-96 versus the Spurs at FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN, where the team used a 29-18 first quarter to charge their way to a victory. Starting lead guard Mike Conley led the way with 19 points, seven boards and six assists. Randolph had 18 points and seven boards off the bench. Gasol had 16 points, seven assists and five boards. Green chipped in with 13 points, while Troy Daniels had 11 points off the bench and Vince Carter had 10.
In their final match-up back on Apr. 4 at AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX, the Spurs beat the Grizzlies 95-89 in overtime, outscoring them 11-5 in the extra frame. They were able to force overtime thanks to inbound lob pass from Pau Gasol to LaMarcus Aldridge that he scored to nod the game at 84 after 48 minutes.
What gives the Spurs the advantage in this series is that they have proven guys that have seen everything and nothing will phase them at this time of the year.
Led by Leonard, the previously mentioned Pau Gasol (12.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg-Led team, 50.2 FG%, 53.8 3-Pt.%), who will be going against his young brother Marc for the first time in postseason; Patty Mills (9.5 ppg, 41.4 3-Pt.%), veterans Manu Ginobili (7.5 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%) and Tony Parker (10.1 ppg, 4.5 apg-Led team, 46.6 FG%), Danny Green (7.3 ppg, 37.9 3-Pt.%), David Lee (7.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 59.0 FG%), Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon and rookie Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson.
For the Grizzlies, to pull the upset again and end an eight-game postseason losing streak against the Southwest champions, the younger Gasol (19.5 ppg-career-high, 6.3 rpg, 4.6 apg-career-high, 45.9 FG%, 38.8 3-Pt.%), who made a career-high 104 triples this season and Randolph must dominate inside. Conley (20.5 ppg-career-high, 6.3 apg, 45.9 FG%, 40.7 3-Pt.%-career-high) must dominate Parker and the Grizzlies need strong performances from Daniels (8.2 ppg, 38.9 3-Pt.%), Carter (8.0 ppg, 37.8 3-Pt.%) and James Ennis III (6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 45.5 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.%).
That will be even more necessary as the father of the team’s mantra “Grit and Grind,” in swingman Tony Allen (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.6 spg-Led team) is down because of a strained right calf. That means they are going to have a devil of a time slowing down Leonard, who had 32 points, 12 rebounds and two steals on 10 for 24 shooting, including 5 for 8 from three-point range in the Apr. 4 loss.
After falling in the Semis to the Thunder a season ago after winning a franchise record 61 games, the Spurs want a crack at the Warriors and a chance for title No. 6. With Leonard playing at a high level, the Spurs have a chance, but they need Parker to play at a high level as well for that to happen.
Prediction: Spurs win series in five games.

(3)   Houston Rockets versus (6) Oklahoma City Thunder
           (55-27)                                        (47-35)
-Rockets won season series 3-1.
They have been the headliners of this remarkable NBA season. Putting up triple-doubles and double-doubles at the drop of a hat and leading their teams to improbable seasons. Now the former teammates and leading MVP candidates and their squads fittingly square off in the postseason for the second time, only this one, both are the headliners for their respective teams.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder have engaged in a long distance statistical war from the jump of this season and they will get to do it head-to-head in what is anticipated to be the most entertaining of all the first-round battles.
With Kevin Durant leaving OKC to join the Warriors, the Thunder became Westbrook’s team and all he did was show the Thunder can move forward with him at the helm as he became the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season with 31.6 points (Led NBA), 10.7 rebounds (10th NBA) and 10.4 assists (3rd NBA), matching Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson’s.
Westbrook, who averaged the most points per game of any player against the Rockets in the regular season at 36.3, along with 9.3 assists and nine boards in their four matchups also broke the single-season NBA record for triple-doubles in a single-season with 42 passing the “Big O,” who had 41 back in the 1961-62 season.
If that was not enough, three of those triple-doubles authored while scored 50 points or more, a new NBA record.
The Thunder when Westbrook garnered a triple-double were 33-9 in the regular season and he moved up to fourth all-time on the triple-double list with 79 in his career passing the late Wilt Chamberlin and the Thunder in that span are 66-13.
After a disappointing 41-41 season a year ago and a five-game opening round exit at the hands of the Warriors, the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni as their new head coach and his decision to make James Harden the point guard took his game and the Rockets offense to historic heights.
They matched half their win total from a season ago just from Dec. 1, 2016 to Jan. 10 alone with a 20-2 mark that essentially sealed them into the No. 3 spot in the West behind the Spurs and Warriors.
After not making any either the All-NBA First, Second or Third team’s a season ago, all Harden did was put up career-highs averages of 29.1 points (2nd NBA), 11.2 assists (Led NBA), 8.1 boards and 1.5 steals.
He was second to Westbrook in triple-doubles this season with 22, which gave him 31 for his career and two of those were when he scored 50 points, which tied him all-time with Hall of Famers Robertson and the late Wilt Chamberlin, who had just two in their entire careers. Harden also led the league in double-doubles with 64, two more than Westbrook.

Harden outscored Westbrook 145-82 in their four regular season meetings.  
While Westbrook and Harden are the headliners of the series, there is more to this series than just them and that will determine who advances.
The Rockets this season shattered the NBA record for three-pointers made this season with 1,181 connections in 3,306 attempts. They led the NBA in triples made per game at 14.4; shattered their own record for attempts per contest at 40 per game, and 37.7 percent of their points on the season came from distance, which led the NBA.
Anderson (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 40.3 3-Pt.%), hit 204 three-pointers on the year, the second time in his career he made over 200 triples.
The Thunder rode Westbrook’s magical season to the playoffs, but for them to advance, they must get solid production from Victor Oladipo (15.9 ppg, 36.1 3-Pt.%) on both ends.
Steven Adams (11.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 57.1 FG%), Enes Kanter (14.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 54.5 FG%), Taj Gibson (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 51.5 FG%), rookie Domantas Sabonis (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Jerami Grant must be a factor especially in the paint on both ends for the Thunder, who ranked second in percentage of points scored in the paint at 46.8.
Rookie Alex Abrines (6.0 ppg, 38.1 3-Pt.%), Doug McDermott (9.0 ppg, 44.7 FG%, 37.0 3-Pt.%) and Oladipo need to make plays on the perimeter on both ends.
Perhaps the most important role player of the Thunder in this series will be starting shooting guard Andre Roberson (6.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), who did as good a job at guarding Harden as anyone in the league this season.
While, Harden averaged 20.5 points, 12.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds against the Rockets in the regular season, Roberson held the MVP candidate to 34.3 percent shooting (10-33) from the field; to just 2 for 14 from three-point range and averaged 6.3 turnovers. Only the Warriors held Harden to a lower field goal percentage on the season at 32.1.
While the role players of the Thunder may not be able to match the offensive output of the Rockets, they need to as productive to the likes of the previously mentioned Anderson and Gordon, Clint Capela (12.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 64.3 FG%-3rd NBA), Patrick Beverly (9.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.2 apg, 38.2 3-Pt.%), Trevor Ariza (11.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.8 spg-Led team, 34.4 3-Pt.%), fellow Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams17.5 ppg, 36.5 3-Pt.%), Nene (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 61.7 FG%) and Montrezl Harrell (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 65.2 FG%) and Sam Dekker (6.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg).
In the four regular season matchups with the Thunder, the “others” for the Rockets went 77 of 134 in the two wins at Toyota Center.
The other major key in determining which team wins this series is who can minimize their miscues?
The Rockets and Thunder average 14.5 and 14.6 turnovers per game, ranking 25th and 26th respectably in the NBA. Westbrook averages 5.4 turnovers himself and Harden coughs it up 5.7 times per game in the regular season.
If this Harden and Westbrook bring to the table what they have all season long, we are in for a treat in this series.
Prediction: Rockets win series in seven games.
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 4/16 17 6 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime," presented by State Farm with Vince Cellini, Caron Butler and Sam Mitchell; 4/15/17 2:30 p.m. edition ESPN's "NBA Countdown," presented by Straight Talk Wireless on ABC with Michelle Beadle, Jalen Rose and Chauncey Billups; 3/25/17 3:30 p.m. contest Utah Jazz versus Los Angeles Clippers on FOX Sports Prime Ticket with Ralph Lawler, Mike Smith and Kristina Pink; 4/13/17 6 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith, and Dennis Scott; 4/13/17 6 p.m. edition of “Time to Schein,” on CBS Sports Network, with Adam Schein; 4/13/17 7:30 p.m. edition of NBATV’s “The Starters: Playoff Preview,” presented by Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey with Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis, and Trey Kerby; 4/13/17 8 p.m. NBATV’s “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview,” with Matt Winer, Steve Smith and Sam Mitchell; 4/13/17 9 p.m. NBATV’s “Western Conference Playoff Preview,” with Jared Greenberg, Steve Smith and Sam Mitchell;;;;;;;;;