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National Basketball Association Playoff     15042601

The Gilmer Free Press

►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Saturday, April 25)

Final Score: Brooklyn 91, Atlanta 83

Brooklyn, NY - The Brooklyn Nets got the result they desperately needed in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, using a huge second-half run and a stout defensive effort to pull off a 91-83 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Saturday’s Game 3. Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Joe Johnson all recorded double-doubles, and each scored six points during a pivotal 18-0 tear that bridged the third and fourth quarters and propelled the Nets to a crucial win after dropping the series’ first two games in Atlanta. Lopez finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, Young bounced back from a two- point effort in Wednesday’s Game 2 by posting 18 points and 11 boards and Bojan Bogdanovic added 19 points for Brooklyn. Johnson contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds. The top-seeded Hawks managed to overcome a 15-point first- quarter deficit to briefly move ahead in the third, but were ultimately done in by a wretched shooting display. Atlanta made just 6-of-30 attempts from 3- point range and ended 35.6% overall. Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ top scorer through the first two games, was held to a mere two points on a 1-of-8 success rate, while Al Horford was 3-of-12 from the floor in a seven-point performance. DeMarre Carroll did register a playoff career-high 22 points for Atlanta, with Paul Millsap tallying 18 points and 17 rebounds in defeat. The Hawks will attempt to regroup when Game 4 takes place Monday at Barclays Center.

Final Score: Golden State 109, New Orleans 98

New Orleans, LA - The Golden State Warriors wouldn’t need a monumental comeback to secure a series sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night. Instead, they were the ones who brought a healthy, double- digit lead into the final quarter before advancing to the next round. Stephen Curry posted 39 points, nine assists and eight rebounds as the Warriors earned a 109-98 series-clinching win over the Pelicans in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

Final Score: Milwaukee 92, Chicago 90

Milwaukee, WI - After Bucks coach Jason Kidd was awarded a timeout with 1.3 seconds remaining, Jerryd Bayless made a layup at the buzzer to keep Milwaukee alive in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Chicago Bulls. Jared Dudley got the assist on a perfectly constructed inbounds play that gave the Bucks a 92-90 victory over the Bulls in Game 4. With a chance to wrap up the series for Chicago, Derrick Rose turned the ball over. Khris Middleton was going the other way with the ball when Kidd called a timeout. The officials then put 1.3 seconds on the clock before the Bucks drew up a perfect inbounds play, with Bayless cutting to the basket and Dudley lobbing a pass over the defense for the winning layup as time expired.

Final Score: Memphis 115, Portland 109

Portland, OR - Marc Gasol registered 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists to help the Memphis Grizzlies take a 3-0 series lead over the Portland Trail Blazers with a 115-109 win on Saturday night. Courtney Lee had 20 points and Zach Randolph added 16 for the Grizzlies, who look to finish off the Blazers on Monday night in Game 4. No team has ever won a best-of-seven series when trailing 3-0. The win may have come at a cost, however, as point guard Mike Conley left the game bleeding from his face after taking an elbow in the third quarter. The Grizzlies were already without reserve guard Beno Udrih due to a right ankle sprain. Nick Calathes came up big with 13 points off the bench in place of Conley and Udrih. Nicolas Batum led all scorers with 27 points, C.J. McCollum netted 26 points and Damian Lillard went for 22 points and nine assists in the loss. LaMarcus Aldridge chipped in with 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

National Basketball Association Playoff   15042501

The Gilmer Free Press

►  Stretching the Field: Lots of Love in maiden postseason

Kevin Love spent six years in NBA purgatory playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

So when he had a chance to finally get a taste of playoff basketball, he took the first flight to Cleveland to whet his appetite.

Love’s choice was an easy one because he can play alongside his Pepsi Max sidekick Uncle Drew, a character portrayed by All-Star Kyrie Irving. Love goes by the name Wes in the hilarious advertisements, which features the two Cleveland stars as old men re-capturing their affinity for basketball.

Irving wasn’t the only attraction for Love, with freak of nature LeBron James back to his roots in the Forest City. James recruited Love and it wasn’t so divine early on for the talented power forward in his new digs.

James has a knack for the passive-aggressive approach of inspiring teammates. He questioned Love’s confidence in February following a five-point performance in a 97-84 win versus Philadelphia.

Love didn’t attempt a shot after going 1-for-7 from the floor in the opening quarter.

“I think Kev had some shots that he passed up on,“ James said. “Maybe he felt that he just wasn’t in a good rhythm, but I know I hit him with a few (potential) shots after the first quarter where he had some good looks when he decided to swing-swing (with a pass), which is OK, it kept the ball moving. So, I think for Kev, I think his confidence maybe shooting the ball is a little down, but for me as a player, I get him good looks. I want him to shoot the ball and he needs to shoot it with confidence.“

James and Love have hugged it out since and are looking toward the main goal, winning an NBA championship. Love has acclimated himself nicely to playoff basketball and the Cavaliers are one win away from sweeping the Boston Celtics out of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Love scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Game 1, added 13 points and six boards in Game 2, then finished with 23 points and nine rebounds in Thursday’s Game 3 victory.

This is Love’s first appearance in the playoffs, but you wouldn’t think it.

“He’s played an unbelievable series,“ James said.

He wasn’t done there.

“The one thing about him, he’s always stayed positive, I’ve always believed in him. I don’t really get too involved in what everybody says. I know what type of player he is, what type of competitor he is, and I know he relishes this opportunity to be part of this franchise and be a part of the postseason.“

King James believes Love is using the early criticism as motivation and has himself to thank for the encouragement. Love has been as advertised in three games this postseason, averaging 18.3 points and nine rebounds.

“People have focused my whole career on what I couldn’t do rather than what I could do,“ Love said. “So, I know that my teammates and the coaching staff has my back and the organization has my back, and I’m sending love right back to them.“

Love has the chance to send the Cavaliers to the next round Sunday in Boston. It appears the Chicago Bulls will sweep their series as well against the Milwaukee Bucks, setting up a huge semifinal series between Central rivals.

“I think he’s a big-time player,“ James said. “He’s a very cerebral basketball player, and in order for us to be the team that we want to be long term, Kevin is going to be Kevin.“  ~~  Shawn Clarke ~~

►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Friday, April 24)

Final Score: Houston 130, Dallas 128

Dallas, TX - James Harden and Dwight Howard set playoff career highs on Friday night. The Houston Rockets needed every bit of their production. Harden netted 42 points, Howard snatched 26 rebounds and the Rockets edged the Dallas Mavericks 130-128 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their Western Conference first-round series. After Harden found a huge crease along the left wing, he slashed through it and layed the ball in for a three-point play and a 127-123 Houston lead with 56.8 seconds left. Dirk Nowitzki exhibited a nice use of the pump fake and was fouled on right wing 3-pointer at the other end before sinking all three free throws. Harden then knocked down a step-back left elbow jumper over Tyson Chandler which bounced in and out, ricocheted off the glass and rattled in to put Houston up 129-126 with 12.9 ticks to play. Monta Ellis answered by lofting a high-arching floater high off the glass and over the outstretched arms of Josh Smith and Corey Brewer split a pair of foul shots at the other end with seven ticks on the clock. Ellis, though, couldn’t come through as his jumper from the top of the key over Smith was nowhere close to the rim, bounced off the right side of the backboard. The MVP candidate Harden was 15-of-24 from the floor, knocked down 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and sunk all seven of his free throws. He had connected on just 9-of-28 shots from the field over the first two games of this set.

Final Score: Washington 106, Toronto 99

Washington, DC - Paul Pierce was the man down the stretch for the Washington Wizards as they took a commanding 3-0 series lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Pierce scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter—including a couple of clutch 3-pointers—to help the Wizards to a 106-99 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 on Friday night. Marcin Gortat had 24 points with 13 rebounds, John Wall contributed 19 points and 15 assists and Bradley Beal added 16 points for Washington, which will look to close out the series at home on Sunday. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. DeMar DeRozan scored 22 of his playoff career-high 32 in the first half to lead the Raptors, who had won three straight in Washington. Amir Johnson finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds in the loss. Kyle Lowry, who fouled out in Game 1 and left Game 2 with an ankle injury, scored 15 points on 5-of-22 shooting and dished out seven assists.

Final Score: San Antonio 100, LA Clippers 73

San Antonio, TX - Kawhi Leonard added to his growing collection of hardware on Thursday when he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. He put his complete game on display in Friday’s Game 3. Leonard scored a career-high 32 points in less than 29 minutes and anchored an incredible defensive effort to guide the San Antonio Spurs to a 100-73 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard showcased his two-way dominance from the opening tip. He finished 13- of-18 shooting with three steals and two blocks, playing less than two minutes in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand. Boris Diaw chipped in 15 points and six rebounds off the bench to make up for the relative lack of production from Tim Duncan, who scored 28 points to carry the Spurs to their overtime win in Game 2. The two-time MVP was quiet in this one, netting just four points on 2-of-6 shooting. The Spurs will look to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in Sunday’s Game 4. The Clippers won Game 1 in convincing fashion and lost a heartbreaker in Game 2, but they looked overmatched in their first game in San Antonio. Blake Griffin was the lone bright spot with 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Chris Paul was limited to seven points and committed six turnovers, but perhaps the bigger issue for LA was the lack of production from its reserves. Jamal Crawford’s 1-for-11 highlighted an abysmal night for the Clippers reserves, who contributed just 30 points on 41 shots.

National Basketball Association Playoff (NBA)  15042401

The Gilmer Free Press

►  Nothin’ but Net: The sad tale of Rajon Rondo

It’s hard to recall a cautionary tale spiral downward so quickly as that of Rajon Rondo.

The final ending has not been written, but the beginning of the end has.

On Tuesday, during Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, Rondo let his Dallas Mavericks’ teammates down in the most inexcusable of all ways - he stopped trying.

His line was pathetic - four points, one assist, two rebounds, one turnover, four fouls, a technical and a benching after 9:55 of action. In a winnable battle for their season’s lives, head coach Rick Carlisle believed in Raymond Felton more than Rondo.

What brought about the benching was telling. It was a clear lack of effort in defending Jason Terry, who most in the league can stay in front of, and know, all he’s going to do is shoot 3-pointers.

It was an eight-second violation for no better reason than he just wasn’t paying attention, or, because his unhappiness led to an outright refusal to pay attention.

It was the baiting the refs to call a foul on him by low-bridging James Harden while the two were jockeying for position. That came after officials stepped in before the start of play to knock it off. Then, a technical, for shoving Harden. That was all Carlisle could stomach.

Rondo never returned. In fact, Rondo will never return to the Mavericks again. He “injured” his back and his status is questionable, however, Carlisle left little ambiguity.

“Do you expect Rajon Rondo to ever wear a Mavericks uniform again?“

Carlisle said, “No, I don’t.“

Rondo is a free agent at season’s end and it’s clear there’s no mutual interest in staying with Big D. He’s not wanted. Rondo may not want to be there, but if options aren’t what he thought they’d be, the Mavs made it clear they are no longer a possibility.

One doesn’t have to possess kinetic powers to have seen this coming. Rondo, even in his All-Star prime with the Boston Celtics, was not an easy man to handle. Doc Rivers had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to police him.

By all accounts closer to the situation than I was, Rondo was a pretty solid citizen when the Big Three left. He got along with head coach Brad Stevens, but Danny Ainge decided to accelerate the rebuilding process and in doing so, actually improved the team to the tune of a playoff appearance. That, in itself, doesn’t reflect glowingly on Rondo.

When Rondo was traded to the Mavs, there was a great early period, especially when Dallas returned to Boston. Rondo finished with 29 points, five assists and six rebounds in a 119-101 triumph.

A month-and-a-half later, it fell apart. Against the Toronto Raptors, Carlisle was unhappy with something Rondo did and the two argued loudly and clearly. Rondo was benched, suspended the next game and it seemed clear this was a terrible fit.

Carlisle is long known as one of the most controlling coaches in the league. That’s not a knock, but just a fact. Carlisle likes calling more plays than most coaches do.

Rondo is a freestylist. He likes running the offense on his own. You can’t fault him for that thinking. Rondo is a four-time All-Star and championship- winning point guard. He has a body of work that supports his ability to run a team.

But ...

Time has not been kind to Rondo. A January 2013 torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee robbed Rondo of his aggressiveness, not so much offensively, but defensively. He was a four-time All-Defensive player and can no longer sustain that level of play. Rondo probably sunk to the bottom half of NBA point guards defensively. Watch Chris Paul, or Russell Westbrook fully engaged on the defensive end. Then watch Rondo from some games this season. Rondo can no longer influence a game that way.

Couple that without the opportunity to run an offense the way he wants to, and blowups are the result. Rondo’s never been a gifted scorer, or shooter, but he was a great facilitator. That hasn’t left totally. He had 18 games with double-digit assists this season.

But Rondo became ineffective with the Mavericks. It was a bad fit. When the Mavs acquired him, they led the NBA in offensive efficiency. When the season ended, Dallas finished fifth.

This was a splashy move by Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and the Mavs front office. Rondo was the best available player this season. They tried to improve something that didn’t need improvement. The Rondo deal was trying to add another superstar-caliber player to a conference littered with multi-studded teams.

So, it was a bad move for Dallas. That, however, does not exonerate Rondo’s behavior. When watching Game 2, Rondo performed like a man who wanted to be ejected or benched. That’s unacceptable behavior. Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and everyone else in a Mavericks’ uniform worked an entire season to make the playoffs. The Mavs have a fair chance of upsetting the Rockets, so to have a teammate undermining their own ability to win is indefensible. It’s treason in team sports.

Is there a market for step-slower, mercurial genius who can’t suppress his feelings to help his team? Of course. Rondo and Kobe Bryant have enjoyed a public flirtation that makes you want to tell them to get a room. The Los Angeles Lakers will have cash and if the interest is mutual, which, it appears is the case, that’s the fit.

Rondo won’t move the needle. Bryant is at the end of the string and the Lakers are years away from relevance. The worst idea is to waste money on Rondo. They should develop youngsters like Jordan Clarkson and wait out Kobe’s contract.

But Rondo will find a home. What he did in Game 2 was reprehensible to me. He quit on his team. That’s a big enough flaw for me to be wary in perpetuity. Rondo won’t get a max deal. His decline on the court is why, not as much as the implosion with the Mavs.

Either way, an All-Star point guard, who isn’t even 30 yet, is putting his career in a hideous light before he was supposed to cash in significantly. Point guard is a brutal position right now in the NBA. Westbrook probably won’t make First-Team All-NBA.

Rondo is no longer on that level. He will have to reinvent himself to stay an important figure in the league. He could become a reliable jump-shooter with hours in the gym. He could become a more physical point guard down on the post.

What he has to stop doing is being so difficult. It could be a product of his intelligence, but it’s painful to watch. Hopefully, the true final chapter of Rondo’s career is a little more positive than the beginning of the end.    ~~  Jim Brighters ~~

►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Thursday, April 23)

Final Score: Cleveland 103, Boston 95

Boston, MA - LeBron James and the Cavaliers finally shook the Celtics, building a series lead no NBA team has ever squandered. Kevin Love helped them do it, hitting a couple of late 3-pointers in his best game of the series so far. James had 31 points and 11 rebounds and No. 2-seeded Cleveland beat Boston 103-95 on Thursday night for a 3-0 lead in their first- round set. Love, playing in the postseason for the first time, added 23 points and nine rebounds. He made six 3-pointers, including two in the final 2 1/2 minutes as the Celtics tried to scrape their way back into it. He had 12 points in the first half after scoring 13 in all of Game 2, which the Cavs won 99-91 on Tuesday. J.R. Smith chipped in 15 points, Kyrie Irving scored 13 and Tristan Thompson had 12 for the Cavs. The Celtics will also host Game 4 on Sunday, but no NBA team has ever won a seven-game series after trailing 3-0. Evan Turner led them with 19 points, Avery Bradley scored 18 and Jae Crowder added 16 off the bench.

Final Score: Chicago 113, Milwaukee 106 (2-OT)

Milwaukee, WI - The Chicago Bulls were resilient on Thursday night and no one more so than former MVP Derrick Rose. Rose bounced back from a subpar performance to score 34 points with eight assists and five rebounds and help the Bulls take a 3-0 series lead with a 113-106 double- overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks. Rose, who was held scoreless in the first half of Game 2 and finished with 15 points, spearheaded a 12-0 run to open the second overtime period. Jimmy Butler deposited 24 points and Pau Gasol chipped in 17 points, 14 rebounds and five assists for Chicago, which squandered a 10-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation before battling for the win. Giannis Antetokounmpo had the best playoff game of his young career, pouring in 25 points with 12 rebounds in for Milwaukee. Michael Carter-Williams went for 19 points and nine assists.

Final Score: Golden State 123, New Orleans 119 (OT)

New Orleans, LA - They’ll talk about Stephen Curry’s shot for a long time—a 3-pointer from the corner with two players charging right at him. But this Warriors comeback started closer to the rim. Curry knocked down a game-tying 3 in the final seconds of regulation and No. 1-seeded Golden State beat New Orleans 123-119 in overtime on Thursday night to take a 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series. Curry’s shot brought the Warriors all the way back from a 20-point deficit at the end of the third quarter and came after the team’s 10th offensive rebound of the fourth, on a Curry miss. Golden State, which was pestered by the eighth-seeded Pelicans while winning Games 1 and 2 at home, will have a chance to close out the series on Saturday. The Pelicans will play host again, but are facing historically bad odds. No NBA team has ever won a postseason series down 3-0, and trying to do it after a letdown as big as this might put them in an even steeper hole. The Warriors were only the third team in NBA history to win a playoff game after trailing by 20 points entering the fourth quarter. Curry was 7-of-18 from long distance and had 40 points, including seven in overtime, which he opened with a 3 to give the Warriors the lead for the first time since there were two minutes left in the first quarter. Klay Thompson added 28 points and Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston each scored 12, but made even bigger contributions on the offensive glass. Anthony Davis had 29 points and 15 rebounds to lead New Orleans. Ryan Anderson contributed off the bench, scoring 26, and Tyreke Evans added 19 points.

National Basketball Association Playoff   15042301

The Gilmer Free Press

►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Wednesday, April 22)

Final Score: Atlanta 96, Brooklyn 91

Atlanta, GA - The Atlanta Hawks continued this year’s playoff trend simply by doing what they do best. Paul Millsap scored 19 points and led a strong performance from the perimeter that carried the Eastern Conference regular-season champions to a 96-91 win over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 of their opening-round series on Wednesday. The Hawks vaulted to the top of the East behind a 38 percent success rate from 3-point range, second only to Western Conference-leading Golden State for the best in the NBA. They made good on 12-of-31 attempts from beyond the arc on Wednesday, while staving off a determined late rally from the Nets to become the sixth team during this postseason to claim a 2-0 lead in the quarterfinals. Millsap went 4-for-4 from long distance and 7-of-11 overall from the floor, Kyle Korver buried a trio of treys en route to 17 points and Jeff Teague hit a pair of triples while compiling 16 points and six assists. Al Horford added an inside presence as well for Atlanta, putting up 14 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in addition to dishing out seven assists. Just as they did in Game 1, the Nets controlled the paint and put up a spirited comeback effort in the fourth quarter that ultimately fell short. Brooklyn cut a nine-point deficit down to 92-91 with under a minute to go, but the Hawks closed out the game at the foul line after Deron Williams’ short baseline jumper rimmed out in the final seconds. Jarrett Jack tallied 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting for the eighth-seeded Nets, with Brook Lopez finishing with 20 points and Joe Johnson scoring 19 in defeat.

Final Score: Memphis 97, Portland 82

Memphis, TN - Mike Conley had 18 points and six assists as the Memphis Grizzlies cruised to a 97-82 win over the Portland Trail Blazers to jump out to a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference first-round series. Marc Gasol posted 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists, Zach Randolph provided 10 points and 10 boards and Courtney Lee netted 18 points for the Grizzlies, who turned the ball over just six times. LaMarcus Aldridge tallied 24 points and 14 rebounds to lead Portland, which was without Arron Afflalo and Chris Kaman due to injury. Game 3 is Saturday in Portland.

Final Score: San Antonio 111, LA Clippers 107 (OT)

Los Angeles, CA - The Spurs faced their first 0-2 series deficit since 2010, but Tim Duncan had other plans in mind. Duncan posted 28 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and San Antonio picked up a crucial 111-107 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers to even their first-round playoff series at one game apiece. Duncan was forced to play 44 minutes, more than he logged in any of San Antonio’s 23 playoff games last season, but the 38-year-old still found a way to produce when it mattered most. It was tied at 101-101 with less than two minutes to play in OT when Duncan hit an off-balance hook shot over the NBA’s leading shot blocker, DeAndre Jordan. Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard put in layups on the next two trips to make it 107-101. The Clippers wouldn’t go down without a fight. Chris Paul hit a 3-pointer on their next trip and after Mills made it a five-point game with a pair of free throws, J.J. Redick potted a 3 to make it 109-107. Mills, who forced overtime with two foul shots late in regulation, stepped up to the line once again and put the game away with two more. He finished with a playoff career-high 18 points off the bench, while Leonard tallied 23 points and nine boards for the reigning champs. The Spurs will host Game 3 on Friday.

National Basketball Association (NBA)    15042201

The Gilmer Free Press

►  Stretching the Field: NBA’s no-playoff All-Stars

Watching the NBA playoffs from the cozy cushions of my couch this weekend got me thinking.

I usually employ the mind rationally and objectively in an area reserved for privacy, but this time the living room fired the nerve impulses in my brain.

If my eyes are gazed upon LeBron James, Chris Paul or Anthony Davis in high definition, then there must be some NBA players doing the same thing.

The league’s postseason tipped off this weekend with exciting finishes, blowouts, close calls and satisfaction from fans around the world. There were also teams that didn’t belong in the 16-team playoffs, but that’s the way the ball bounces (pun intended).

I’m speaking directly to you Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn—all losers in the opening game of their respective best-of-seven first-round series.

Oklahoma City had 45 wins and missed out on the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Put the Thunder in the East and they’re the sixth seed. Imagine how OKC stud and NBA MVP candidate Russell Westbrook must feel about watching middling teams like the Bucks, Celtics and Nets have a chance to move on to possible greatness.

That’s not going to happen, however, because the Bucks will lose to Chicago, Boston’s probably going to be swept by Cleveland and the Nets have no chance at unseating top-seeded Atlanta.

Still, Westbrook is one of several stars who deserve to play under the burning spotlight of the NBA playoffs. If I had to construct an All-Star team from the players who have booked vacation plans, Westbrook is running the point.

Below I will pick the rest of my starting five and five reserves from a batch of ballers-turned-spectators for the NBA playoffs.

POINT GUARD - RUSSELL WESTBROOK: Westbrook edged Houston Rockets star

James Harden for the scoring title with a 28.1-point average. Harden had 27.4 ppg in the regular season and is leading the Rockets against Dallas in the opening round of the playoffs. Westbrook carried the Thunder all the way to the end of the regular season and made fans temporarily forget about reigning MVP Kevin Durant. How awesome would it have been to see Westbrook check it up with Golden State’s Stephen Curry in the Western Conference quarterfinals?

SHOOTING GUARD - KOBE BRYANT: Father Time is undefeated in his career and will soon lay a hand on the shoulders of Bryant, though he is nowhere near retirement and hopes to be back at full strength for the 2015-16 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Black Mamba appeared in 35 games this season for the lowly Lakers, averaging 22.3 ppg. There’s not a snowball’s chance in Arizona I would keep this hardwood assassin, future Hall of Famer and five-time champion off the list.

FORWARD - CARMELO ANTHONY: Anthony has one of, if not, the best stroke in the NBA. It’s a shame he was limited to half the season due to a nagging knee injury that required surgery and hampered the All-Star during the first half of the season. Anthony, who just beat out Durant, can take over a game just like Bryant and Westbrook, and the New York Knicks hope to land a stud in the upcoming draft to join Anthony. ‘Melo makes a boat-load of money and should be making shots in the playoffs. Perhaps in a few years, Anthony will return to the postseason.

POWER FORWARD - MARKIEFF MORRIS: A somewhat surprise pick to the starting five, Morris has a bright future with the Phoenix Suns and proved his durability by playing in all 82 games this season. Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly would love Morris as a tight end or wide receiver because of his availability, which the innovative Kelly believes in strongly. Morris averaged 16.4 points over the last 17 games and came up short in getting the Suns back into the playoffs. Next season should be different.

CENTER - DEMARCUS COUSINS: Cousins made his first All-Star team in 2014-15 and was tied for third in the NBA with 47 double-doubles in 59 games. The Big Cuz was hampered by injuries throughout the season for a Sacramento team good enough to make a playoff run. Now that coach George Karl gets a full offseason with the team, perhaps Cousins will have his bad-boy image on the big stage. The Kings were 6-17 without Cousins, who had consecutive triple-doubles in early April and seems to have turned the corner from his immature ways. Still, Cousins is one of the best big men in the game, playoffs or not.


POINT GUARD - BRANDON KNIGHT: A fringe All-Star for the Eastern Conference, the Bucks opted to send Knight to the Suns in February and got Michael Carter- Williams and others as part of the deal. Knight runs the point much better than MCW, who’s more of a No. 2 guard instead of a natural point guard. Knight spelling Westbrook on this All-Star team is a drop-off, but not a major one.

GUARD - DWYANE WADE: Wade is not used to playing the spectator role this time of year, especially after reaching the NBA Finals in each of the previous four seasons. The Heat were third in the Southeast Division and Wade finished 10 points short from tying Isiah Thomas (18,822) for 53rd on the all-time scoring list. Wade is always dangerous in the clutch, especially when healthy, and finished third in fourth-quarter scoring (6.92 ppg) behind Westbrook and James.

FORWARD - PAUL GEORGE: George made his 2014-15 debut right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but it wasn’t enough to bring the Indiana Pacers back to the postseason. George, of course, took several months to recover from a gruesome broken leg suffered with Team USA last summer and his absence at the start of the season put Indiana in an uphill climb. The Pacers were lost without their rising star, but there’s always next year.

POWER FORWARD - GREG MONROE: Are Monroe’s days with the Detroit Pistons over? Maybe, but the next team to get his services will be a delighted one if the Pistons fail to keep the coveted power forward. I know I’m pleased with Monroe coming off my bench. The Pistons and Monroe were unable to strike a new deal last summer. Monroe played 69 games in 2014-15 and averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds. Detroit should consider keeping Monroe and center Andre Drummond together for the long haul.

CENTER - NIKOLA VUCEVIC: Backup center was a tough one to pick, narrowing it down to Vucevic, Drummond or Chris Bosh. Vucevic boxes out Drummond for the spot and averaged 19.3 points and 10.9 rebounds. Former NBA coach and fantastic analyst Doug Collins made a mistake letting Vucevic get away from Philly and still says he needs a more powerful man in the middle to play alongside. I disagree. Vucevic has Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris to feed him the ball and rookie Elfrid Payton has potential. The Magic could make a run toward the postseason in 2015-16 and it starts in the middle.

HONORABLE MENTION: Durant, Drummond, Bosh, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker,

Serge Ibaka, Kevin Garnett, Andrew Wiggins and Al Jefferson.  ~~  Shawn Clarke ~~

►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Tuesday, April 21)

Final Score: Cleveland 99, Boston 91

Cleveland, OH - LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are headed to Boston with a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. James scored 30 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out seven assists as the Cavs held off the upset-minded Celtics 99-91 on Tuesday. James committed six of Cleveland’s 18 turnovers but came through down the stretch. He also passed Jerry West for seventh on the NBA’s all-time postseason scoring list. Kyrie Irving followed up his 30-point playoff debut with 26 points for the Cavaliers, while Timofey Mozgov and Kevin Love chipped in 16 and 13 points, respectively. Isaiah Thomas once again led the Celtics with 22 points, but it wasn’t enough for the underdogs to steal homecourt advantage. They will host Game 3 on Thursday night.

Final Score: Washington 117, Toronto 106

Toronto, ON - John Wall was at his very best on Tuesday, tallying 26 points and 17 assists and the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards stunned the Toronto Raptors 117-106 to take a commanding 2-0 series lead in their first-round matchup. Bradley Beal scored a playoff career-high 28 points and Marcin Gortat added 16 and eight boards for the Wizards, who shot 53.2 percent and posted a dominant 45-28 advantage on the boards. The Wizards finished the regular season 17-24 on the road, but the playoffs have told a different story over the past two seasons. With this win, they improved to 7-1 in their last eight postseason games away from home. DeMar DeRozan and Lou Williams, who was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year on Monday, paced Toronto with 20 points apiece. Game 3 is set for Friday at Verizon Center.

Final Score: Houston 111, Dallas 99

Houston, TX - The Houston Rockets turned a nip-and-tuck affair through three quarters into a rout after exploding during the first half of the fourth. And that was with MVP candidate James Harden on the bench. Josh Smith came alive in the second half, posting 13 points, nine assists and six rebounds after the break to lead the Houston Rockets to a 111-99 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. Smith tallied just two points on 1-of-5 shooting during a woeful opening 24 minutes.

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►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Monday, April 20)

Final Score: Chicago 91, Milwaukee 82

Chicago, IL - Jimmy Butler is quickly proving he may be the go-to guy for Chicago in crunch time. That’s nice for the Bulls to know if Derrick Rose has a dismal first half like he did Monday night. Butler scored 14 of his playoff career-high 31 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Bulls to a 91-82 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of their first- round playoff series. The 25-year-old Butler’s previous playoff career-high of 25 points was set in Saturday’s Game 1 win over the Bucks. Rose scored all 15 of his points after halftime and added nine assists and seven rebounds. Pau Gasol had 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks and Joakim Noah ripped down a game-high 19 rebounds for the Bulls, who have won eight of the last nine against their Central Division rival. Khris Middleton, playing in his second career postseason game, led Milwaukee with 22 points. Michael Carter-Williams was the only other Buck in double figures with 12 points. Game 3 is Thursday in Milwaukee.

Final Score: Golden State 97, New Orleans 87

Oakland, CA - Klay Thompson scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to help the Golden State Warriors to a 97-87 win and a 2-0 Western Conference quarterfinal series lead over the New Orleans Pelicans. Thompson scored 12 of Golden State’s final 16 points to lead a late charge that turned a one-point game into a double-digit win. Stephen Curry, who was held scoreless in the fourth quarter, finished with 22 points and six assists in the win. Draymond Green added 14 points and 12 rebounds for Golden State. Anthony Davis went for 26 points and 10 rebounds in the loss, while Eric Gordon chipped in 23 points. Game 3 will be Thursday night at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

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►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Sunday, April 19)

Final Score: Cleveland 113, Boston 100

Cleveland, OH - Kyrie Irving swished a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer and held out his arms, extending three fingers from each hand. With all the noise made about LeBron James leading the Cleveland Cavaliers back to the postseason and Kevin Love making his playoff debut, it was easy to forget about the player who had the two highest-scoring games in the NBA this season. Irving also made his postseason debut, scoring 30 points to lead Cleveland to a 113-100 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. Irving scored 20 of his 30 points in the first half, including 12 in the second quarter when he made all four of his 3s, including the buzzer-beater to give the second-seeded Cavs a 62-54 lead after they trailed by eight. James scored 20 points in a game-high 42 minutes and Love had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Isaiah Thomas had 22 points and 10 assists off the bench to lead the seventh- seeded Celtics, who are back in the playoffs after missing them last season for the first time in seven years. Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Tuesday in Cleveland.

Final Score: Atlanta 99, Brooklyn 92

Atlanta, GA - Kyle Korver buried five 3-pointers and scored 21 points and the Atlanta Hawks held on for a 99-92 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll added 17 points each for the top-seeded Hawks and Dennis Schroder scored 13 off the bench. Brook Lopez scored 17 points with a game-high 14 rebounds and Joe Johnson also supplied 17 points for the Nets, who clinched the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot on the last day of the regular season. Thaddeus Young added 15 points and 10 rebounds and Jarrett Jack scored 13 off the bench in the loss. Brooklyn’s only lead of the game was 2-0. Atlanta led by as many as 16 points and held off several runs in the second half. Hawks center Al Horford suffered a dislocated little finger on his right hand in the fourth quarter but had it taped up and returned to the game. He ended with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Budenholzer said X-rays taken on Horford’s hand were negative. Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday in Atlanta.

Final Score: Memphis 100, Portland 86

Memphis, TN - Despite going just three games above .500 after the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies had all the confidence in the world entering a playoff matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers, who they swept in four regular-season meetings. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph anchored a tremendous defensive effort and Beno Udrih provided a spark off the bench to lead the Grizzlies to a 100-86 win over the Blazers in Game 1 of their first-round series on Sunday. Gasol flashed his usual two-way dominance, finishing with 15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, while Randolph spent most of the game bullying LaMarcus Aldridge on the block. He had 16 points and 11 boards. Udrih posted a playoff career-high 20 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists for Memphis, which held Portland to 33.7 percent shooting. Mike Conley missed the final four games of the regular season with a foot injury, but he returned and contributed 16 points in 24 minutes for the Grizzlies. Aldridge led the Blazers with 32 points and 14 rebounds but missed 21 field goals and finished with more shots (34) than points. Portland’s other All-Star, Damian Lillard, also had a forgettable game from the floor, shooting 5-for-21 for 14 points. Game 2 is Wednesday in Memphis.

Final Score: LA Clippers 107, San Antonio 92

Los Angeles, CA - Midway through the third quarter, Matt Barnes wrestled Aron Baynes into the photographers while battling for a loose ball along the baseline. A sign of things to come for what promises to be a physical series between two heavyweights. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers landed the first blow, beating the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs 107-92 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. The third-seeded Clippers led by eight following Barnes’ triple just before his tie up with Baynes at 4:41. Less than a minute later, Paul fed a cutting Griffin for a thunderous slam over Baynes, bringing the raucous Staples Center crowd to their feet. Griffin embarrassed Baynes with another dunk at 1:02, this time after putting a spin move on Cory Joseph. The Clippers embarked on a 17-7 run following Barnes’ scrum, giving them a commanding 79-61 lead. Griffin posted 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists and Paul had 32 points, seven boards and six helpers for the Clippers, who entered the postseason having won 14 of 15. DeAndre Jordan gave 14 rebounds and four blocks, and Jamal Crawford scored 17 off the bench.

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The Gilmer Free Press

►  National Basketball Association Playoff Game Capsules

(Saturday, April 18)

Final Score: Washington 93, Toronto 86 (OT)

Toronto, ON - After blowing a fourth-quarter lead, the Washington Wizards only allowed four points in overtime in their 93-86 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. The fifth-seeded Wizards led by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter but could not hang on. But in overtime, they limited Toronto to 2- of-9 shooting and 0-of-4 from 3-point range. Paul Pierce scored five of his 20 points in overtime to pace Washington. Bradley Beal added 16 points and Nene scored 12 with a game-high 13 rebounds. Toronto has reached the postseason seven times in franchise history, and it lost its opening game for the seventh time. Amir Johnson led the fourth-seeded Raptors with 18 points off the bench and was a part of a second unit that outscored Toronto’s starters by a 48-38 margin. DeMar DeRozan scored 15 points and added 11 boards and six assists. Toronto will host Game 2 of the series on Tuesday.

Final Score: Golden State 106, New Orleans 99

Oakland, CA - Every time New Orleans dented Golden State’s lead, the Warriors responded. Until the Pelicans ran out of time. Stephen Curry netted 19 of his 34 points in the first half and Golden State held off New Orleans 106-99 in Game 1 of this Western Conference quarterfinal. A 14-0 Pelicans run that bled into the early stages of the fourth quarter trimmed a 25-point deficit to 11. Curry and Klay Thompson, however, hit consecutive 3-pointers to begin a 7-0 swing and temporarily put the game out of reach again. A 7-0 New Orleans spurt later in the frame cut the gap to 93-83 with under four minutes left, but the Warriors kept the Pelicans at bay down the stretch. New Orleans was within four in the final minute but never got over the hump. Game 2 is Monday night in Oakland. Draymond Green posted 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, Andrew Bogut tallied 12 points, 14 boards and five assists and Thompson scored 21 for Golden State, which won an NBA-best 67 games and went 39-2 at home during the regular season. Anthony Davis had a fantastic playoff debut, pouring in 20 of his 35 points in the fourth for the Pelicans, who played in their first postseason game since 2011. They beat out the Oklahoma City Thunder for the final playoff spot after beating the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs on the NBA’s last day of the regular season Wednesday.

Final Score: Chicago 103, Milwaukee 91

Chicago, IL - The Bulls will be a tough out if Derrick Rose plays like he did on Saturday. Rose looked as healthy as he has all season and netted 23 points to lead third-seeded Chicago to a 103-91 win over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Rose’s career has been filled with injuries and lost seasons since his MVP campaign in 2010-11. He’s missed nearly 50 games per season over his last three, including 31 this season, and hadn’t appeared in a postseason game since tearing his ACL in 2012 against Philadelphia. But the explosiveness and creativity that made Rose one of the league’s best talents four years ago made a timely cameo, helping him finish 9-for-16 from the floor with seven assists. Jimmy Butler scored a game-high 25 points and Pau Gasol posted 10 points and 13 rebounds for the Bulls, who will host Milwaukee in Game 2 on Monday. Khris Middleton scored 18 points to lead five Bucks in double figures.

Final Score: Houston 118, Dallas 108

Houston, TX - James Harden had 24 points and 11 assists, Terrence Jones and Trevor Ariza did a little bit of everything and the Houston Rockets beat the Dallas Mavericks 118-108 on Saturday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. Harden, who became the first Rockets player to record at least 20 points and 10 assists in a playoff game since Tracy McGrady in 2007, carried Houston for long stretches this season, but it was a balanced effort on Saturday. Jones finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists while Ariza totaled 12, 11 and six. Dwight Howard added 11 points and five blocks while battling foul trouble, and Jason Terry made four 3-pointers en route to 16 points for the second-seeded Rockets. Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki scored 24 points on an efficient 10-for-14 shooting and Tyson Chandler had 11 points and 18 rebounds in the loss. Game 2 is set for Tuesday.

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►  Wizards shut down Raptors in OT for Game 1 win

Toronto, ON - After blowing a fourth-quarter lead, the Washington Wizards only allowed four points in overtime in their 93-86 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

The fifth-seeded Wizards led by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter but could not hang on. But in overtime, they limited Toronto to 2-of-9 shooting and 0-of-4 from 3-point range.

Paul Pierce scored five of his 20 points in overtime to pace Washington. Bradley Beal added 16 points and Nene scored 12 with a game-high 13 rebounds.

Toronto has reached the postseason seven times in franchise history, and it lost its opening game for the seventh time.

Amir Johnson led the fourth-seeded Raptors with 18 points off the bench and was a part of a second unit that outscored Toronto’s starters by a 48-38 margin. DeMar DeRozan scored 15 points and added 11 boards and six assists.

Toronto will host Game 2 of the series on Tuesday.

Although Washington’s young backcourt of Beal and John Wall received the bulk of the attention, it was the 37-year-old Pierce that spurred the Wizards’ comeback early in the game. They were down 36-29 when he made his first shot of the day, a 3 with 6:16 left in the second period. Shortly after, he scored seven points in a 9-0 run that gave Washington its first lead at 43-38.

Up 46-42 at the half, Washington’s defense continued to frustrate the Raptors in the third quarter. Toronto shot just 7-of-25 in the period, missed all seven 3-point attempts and did not have an attempt at the free-throw line.

With a 65-56 lead with 12 minutes to play, the Wizards expanded the margin to 15 points thanks to a 9-3 run to open the final quarter. After Drew Gooden’s tip-in put them up 74-59, it was Washington’s offense that went cold as the Raptors clawed their way back into the game.

A quick 7-0 Toronto run got it within eight, and Lou Williams hit a pair of triples around a Beal free throw to cut the deficit to 77-75 with 2:55 left. Beal made an acrobatic three-point play to extend Washington’s edge back to five, and the lead was again five when Wall answered Greivis Vasquez’s floater with a layup.

With time running down, Vasquez pulled up for 3 at the top of the key with 25.9 seconds left that tied the game at 82-82. Wall missed a jumper that could have won the game in regulation, and Terrence Ross could not complete an alley-oop pass from Vasquez on the inbounds pass with less than a second left.

Pierce began the scoring in overtime with a 3 on the opening possession, and Washington was up 89-82 after Otto Porter’s shot with 36.9 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, DeRozan’s dunk finally got the Raptors on the board in the extra session after they missed their first seven attempts from the field.

Wall hit a layup at the other end, and Vasquez scored for Toronto before the Wizards dribbled the clock out.

Neither team could find an offensive rhythm at the start of the game. Toronto led 8-7 through seven minutes before the game opened up in the period’s last five minutes. Johnson’s shot with 28 seconds to play gave the Raptors a 23-19 lead after one.

Washington’s reserves kept the Wizards in the game. After Beal’s layup with 2:52 left in the first cut Washington’s deficit to 14-13, no Wizards starter scored until Marcin Gortat’s layup with 7:01 to go in the second. Johnson’s bucket that followed gave the Raptors a 36-29 lead.

Game Notes

This is the first postseason meeting ever between these teams ... Toronto swept the three-game season series ... Washington has won the first game in its last three playoff series ... The Raptors have not advanced past the first round since 2001 ... The Wizards were 4-4 in overtime in the regular season, while Toronto was 4-3 ... Patrick Patterson, Vasquez and Williams all finished with 10 points for the Raptors ... Kentucky coach John Calipari was in attendance with two former players, Patterson and Wall, going head-to-head.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Houston vs. Dallas

Houston Rockets: 2nd Seed, West (56-26)

Dallas Mavericks: 7th Seed, West (50-32)

Nothing like an old-fashioned Texas tussle in the postseason.

The Houston Rockets won the Southwest Division for the first time since this realignment took place 10 years ago. They did it on the last day of the season and they boast an MVP candidate in James Harden.

The Mavericks collected another 50-win season, but only finished seventh, a slot they were pegged in for much of the final weeks of the regular season.

These teams haven’t met in the postseason in 10 years. Dallas won that first- round matchup in seven games, but a lot has changed since then.

The Mark Cuban/Dirk Nowitzki era Mavericks finally won a title and remained a deep threat in the postseason. Since that first-round war with Dallas 10 years ago, Houston has made the playoffs five times since, but advanced just once.

There’s pressure on the Rockets. This unit, led by Harden and Dwight Howard, has been together just two seasons, but a first-round upset last season by the Portland Trail Blazers has Houston in need of some series victories.

Winning the Southwest Division was a major accomplishment. The Memphis Grizzlies led through much of the campaign and the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs charged emphatically late in the season.

But Harden kept them afloat. Those in the Harden-for-MVP camp (myself included), champion the fact that the Beard earned this team of role players a No. 2 seed. Howard missed exactly half the season with knee injuries and the next-leading scorer for the Rockets after Harden and Howard was Trevor Ariza at 12.8 ppg.

The team lost starting point guard and All-Defensive second-teamer Patrick Beverley to a wrist injury. Donatas Motiejunas, who really emerged with full- time minutes, is done because of a back problem.

Yet, through it all, Harden got them a division title, the franchise’s first since winning the Midwest Division back in 1993-94. Center Clint Capela was born weeks after they clinched that title under the stewardship of Hakeem Olajuwon.

The Rockets were the sixth-best scoring offense in the league. Defensively, they were average. They’ll need to be better against the Mavs, the NBA’s fifth-most efficient offense.

Dallas was first early in the season in that category, but made a major acquisition in the form of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Things didn’t go smoothly as the offense sputtered and Rondo butted heads with coach Rick Carlisle, which is nothing new in Rondo’s career.

Nowitzki is still a premiere player, especially with that one-footed, high- arching fadeaway. Monta Ellis led the team in scoring and Chandler Parsons was very good in his first season with the Mavs. He signed in Dallas this past offseason after playing with the Rockets, thus adding to the intrigue.

Tyson Chandler is still excellent defensively. Amare Stoudemire has even been very good off the bench.

The Mavs were a trendy pick as an upset special earlier in the season, but finished a little weakly. They were under .500 since late February and the glow on the Mavericks has dimmed some.

“I’ve got great confidence in our team. And the fact that the period since the All-Star break has been difficult is something that helps us,“ Carlisle said. “Even though we haven’t played our best all the time, we’ve played rugged opponents for 27 games now since the break, and we’ve had to earn every win.“


BACKCOURT: Harden was extraordinary. He averaged 27.4 ppg, 7.0 apg, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 steals per game all while shooting 87% from the foul line, 37.5% from the 3-point line and 44% from the field. He attempted 10.2 free throws per game and, his once-laughable defense, improved. Harden carried the Rockets. There’s no other way to say it. When Howard was down, Harden carried them to wins. When Beverley went down, he played facilitator. Heck, even when Beverley was there, Harden ran the offense. He is capable of carrying a team to postseason victories all by the hair on his chinny chin chin. Jason Terry will start at the other guard spot, but is long past his expiration date as a starter. He is still a capable 3-point shooter, has bucket loads of postseason experience and a swagger that is valuable this time of year.

Ellis continues to be under-appreciated. The theory is people still remember the selfish player in Golden State and Milwaukee, but Ellis averaged 18.9 ppg, 4.1 apg and shot 44.5% from the floor. He’s a very talented scorer and a good one in pressure moments. Rondo is the wild-card. In him, Carlisle has maybe the smartest player in the league, although a temperamental one. Rondo did nothing to improve Dallas’ offense since his arrival. However, Rondo has as much postseason experience as any guard in the league. When properly motivated, can Rondo still be an elite passer and defender, two traits he hasn’t displayed in Big D? Without that, it’s hard to imagine Rondo being a tremendous difference-maker. He can’t shoot from the perimeter and his defense has regressed over time.


FRONTCOURT: Howard was alright when he was healthy. He’s no longer a dominant interior force offensively, but he can certainly still alter shots on the defensive end and he’s still a double-digit rebounder per game. If Howard’s minutes are still restricted come playoff time, it could be a problem because Houston does not have good depth in terms of big men. Trevor Ariza was a great addition to this team. He’s an infinitely better defensive player than Parsons, who, Ariza will most likely be guarding this series. Ariza started and played in every game this season and averaged 12.8 ppg. His 35% 3- point shooting was down from recent campaigns, but during the playoffs last season with Washington, he shot 44% from long range. Terrence Jones is a capable player, who most likely won’t see as many crunch-time minutes as Josh Smith, or Corey Brewer. Jones was pretty solid in the division-clinching finale with 15 points in 20 minutes.

Nowitzki is timeless. He played 77 games, averaged 17.3 points and almost six rebounds. He is still difficult to guard with his size and the apex of his shot. Is he tired from so many games? Maybe not, because he didn’t average 30 minutes a night. Chandler is such an important part of this team. This group didn’t recover when he left via free agency after the title in 2011. He owns the paint. He’s a communicator in the back line of the defense and grabbed 11.5 rebounds per game. The blocked shots aren’t there as much, but he’s still a force at the basket. Parsons was good, but the concern is about his health. He missed the last six games of the regular season with a knee issue. He should be ready for Saturday’s series-opener.


BENCH: The Rockets finished 23rd in bench scoring, but that’s a tad misleading. Houston suffered so many injuries, players were plugged in unexpected roles. However, there’s no denying Motiejunas’ absence will hurt. He’s a great spacer on the floor. Smith signed after his shocking release from the Detroit Pistons and fit in well. He scored well enough, rebounded decently, didn’t jack up an unreasonable amount of 3’s and didn’t rock the boat. Brewer is a good player. He scores close to 12 a game, but is not a reliable long-range shooter. Pablo Prigioni is backup point guard now. He’s a tenacious defender, even for his age, and can manage a game to give Harden and Terry a blow.

The Mavs’ second unit is a very dependable group. Stoudemire came over and has played a nice role as a different-look scoring option in the pivot. He can’t replace Brandan Wright defensively. J.J. Barea is a score-first point guard who can score. Al-Farouq Aminu is an energetic hand. Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva have even contributed some. Devin Harris is Dallas’ best bench player, but his toe injury could keep him out of at least Game 1. He’s vital to any chance for the Mavericks.


COACHING: Rockets coach Kevin McHale was thought to be on the hot seat after last year’s upset in the first round. He brought the team a division title and earned a contract extension. McHale also did it without Howard for half the season, without Beverley for a quarter of it, without Jones for a huge chunk and with the midseason additions of his three most important reserves. He’s done a very good job with this group. It’s not sophisticated in Houston. Harden does his thing, makes everyone better and the Rockets win.

Carlisle is a genius coach. He’s not the first to butt heads with Rondo, but he uses his team’s strength to its advantage. Carlisle’s offense is sophisticated, and, as a former NBA Championship-winning coach, nothing will rattle him in the months of April and May, maybe even June.


PREDICTION: This is an even matchup.

Does Harden have enough left in the tank to will this group to a first-round victory? That’s the biggest question facing Houston.

For Dallas, it all comes down to Rondo. If he plays at an elite level, the Mavericks could easily upset the Rockets. (Houston did win three of four this season and one in Dallas.)

This has the makings of a long series.

“Dallas will be tough. Rick is a helluva coach and they’ve got a good team. We’re going to have to play how we play and attack them. I’m sure it will be a good series,“ McHale said.

The Mavs won four of five heading into the postseason while nothing could improve their standing. Is that enough good play to forget the second half? Probably not.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Chicago vs. Milwaukee

Chicago Bulls : 3rd Seed, East (50-32)

Milwaukee Bucks : 6th Seed, East (41-41)

The Chicago Bulls hope to make their stay in the playoffs last a little longer this season and will take on the Central Division-rival Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

The series begins Saturday at the United Center.

Chicago fell short in its quest for a Central crown and beat out the Toronto Raptors for the third seed in the East. The Bulls went through more injury drama with point guard Derrick Rose, who’s back healthy and ready to roll in the postseason.

The Bulls have reached the playoffs in each of the past seven years and 10 in the previous 11. They went 50-32 in the regular season and lived up to their defensive reputation thanks to the offseason addition of power forward Pau Gasol. Gasol adds another dimension to what head coach Tom Thibodeau preaches and led the NBA with 54 double-doubles.

Gasol and Joakim Noah will be hard to beat inside this series.

“We have to want it more than anybody else,“ Gasol said. “The resiliency that we have, we’ve got to turn it into a determination and understand that every game in the playoffs is critical.“

Gasol, a five-time All-Star, has plenty of postseason experience with the Los Angeles Lakers and won two titles with them before heading to the Windy City.

The Bulls, who ended the regular season with 10 wins in 14 tries, were eliminated by the Washington Wizards in five games in last season’s quarterfinals.

Milwaukee finished with a franchise-worst 15-67 record in 2013-14, so the Bucks decided to shake up the coaching staff. Larry Drew was replaced by Jason Kidd and the Bucks responded with their third playoff appearance in the previous nine years.

“I think it’s a great start for our foundation, for this young group. Understanding what it takes to win,“ Kidd said. “Only 16 teams make the playoffs now and we’re one of them.“

Kidd has reached the playoffs in both of his first two seasons as a head coach and guided the Brooklyn Nets to the postseason in 2013-14.

Much like the Bulls, the Bucks stressed defense and allowed 97.4 points per game. The Bulls surrendered 97.8 ppg.

The last time Milwaukee made the playoffs was in 2012-13, when it was swept in the first round by the Miami Heat.

Milwaukee went just 1-3 against Chicago in the regular season and hasn’t faced the Bulls in the postseason since the 1989-90 campaign. The Bucks are 8-4 all- time against the Bulls in the playoffs.


BACKCOURT: Rose played in 51 games this season, averaging 18.0 points and 5.0 assists, and is at full strength. Rose hasn’t been able to contribute much in the postseason in recent years because of his health, which will be a major factor for the Bulls moving forward. Still lightning quick and willing to feed off his teammates, Rose is the impetus of the offense and will appear in a playoff game for the first time since tearing his left ACL in the Bulls’ 2012 postseason opener against Philadelphia. He did have soreness in his left knee in the season finale. Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 20.0 ppg and had no issue taking over the point when Rose was nursing his injuries. Butler can’t get to the basket as quick as Rose, but is bigger and has more power. Butler is more efficient from the floor, too.

The Bucks needed to bolster their backcourt and traded for Michael Carter- Williams at the deadline. Carter-Williams was the Rookie of the Year for the 76ers last season and is a stat stuffer. With the Sixers and Bucks, MCW averaged 14.8 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Carter-Williams is turnover prone and must protect the ball if the Bucks have any chance at winning a game in this series. His defense will be tested as well. Khris Middleton averaged 13.4 ppg this season and played 30 minutes a game. Kidd, a former guard himself, needs his backcourt to keep pace with Chicago’s.


FRONTCOURT: The Bulls went 16-5 this season with Rose, Butler, Gasol, Noah and Mike Dunleavy as the starting five. Gasol and Noah are towers in the middle and it will be tough sledding for Milwaukee to penetrate at will. Gasol recorded 18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds, while blocking 1.9 shots per game, while Noah was second with 9.6 boards to go along with 7.2 points. The Bulls don’t rely on Noah to score, but his intensity on defense and passing ability are crucial. Dunleavy is a sharp-shooter and will do damage from outside.

“I came here to win,“ Gasol said. “I came here to have an opportunity to win a title and I hope we can accomplish that. You don’t take anything for granted. You never know what will be the next year, tomorrow for that matter. So you have to really embrace and enjoy the point you find yourself in.“

Milwaukee’s frontcourt doesn’t have as much talent as Chicago’s, but it’s still learning with young forwards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ersan Ilyasova. Antetokounmpo averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds, and scored in double figures in 60 of his 81 games played. His nearly 7-foot frame and athleticism makes it difficult for other defenders, so the Greek star has to attack early. Ilyasova may look like James Franco, but plays with heart and averaged 11.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. He’s not afraid to bang inside. Center Zaza Pachulia has the challenge of posting up against Gasol and Noah. Good luck. Milwaukee’s chances of making this a series would be better if rookie Jabari Parker was healthy. He was lost for the season in December with a torn ACL.

“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,“ Pachulia said. “We’ve kept building. We’ve kept working hard and getting better. We’ve had good days and bad days. Compared to last year, obviously there’s been a huge difference. We’ve made a lot of improvement, but we can’t be satisfied with that.“


BENCH: Chicago’s bench is better than Milwaukee’s. The Bulls have guards Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell, and forwards Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. Gibson is a no-nonsense player and averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He will spell Gasol and Noah in the paint. The rookie Mirotic has great range from downtown and posted 10.2 ppg. He led the NBA with 136 fourth-quarter points in March (15 games). Brooks and Hinrich have experience starting and are more of a threat coming off the bench. Hinrich has been hobbled recently with a knee strain.

“Our goal is as any other team, to win a championship,“ Brooks said. “To do that you can’t pick and choose who you want to play and who you want to go through. If we want to win a championship we have to beat everybody.“

Milwaukee was seventh in bench points (37.3 ppg) this season and is long in the tooth with reserves Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo. Mayo averaged 11.4 ppg and can still dial it up when he wants to, while Dudley brings a veteran presence and stability to the younger players. John Henson and Jerryd Bayless see action off the pine for the Bucks, who have scored more points than Chicago’s reserves (32.2 ppg) and have less talent.


COACHING: Thibodeau is 17-22 in the playoffs with the Bulls and has guided them to the postseason in every year since taking over in 2010. His philosophy is defense and the Bulls have soaked up his coaching technique like a sponge. The Bulls made Thibs’ job a lot easier with Gasol in the middle and who knows how much better the team would have been if Rose was 100% for 82 games.

Kidd guided the Nets to the semifinals last season, defeating Toronto in seven games in the quarters before losing to Miami in five games the next round. How can players not listen to Kidd and his basketball prowess? He has the numbers and experience. Kidd is a Coach of the Year candidate for turning this Milwaukee squad around, and his players believe in the system.

“We had a lot of bumps in the road this season as far as injuries, new members on the team, other members off the team,“ Mayo said. “It’s been a long year, but at the end of the day, we’ve stayed collectively together and continued to work hard each and every day. The coaching staff has pushed us to get better, and that’s what we’re trying to do every day we step on the court.“


PREDICTION: The Bulls will be a tough out this postseason, especially if Rose shows no signs of fatigue in those injury-riddled legs. Rose is happy to be a part of this postseason experience and it all rides on him.

“We have a deep team,“ Rose said. “Not only our starters are good, some of our bench players could start on other teams. We definitely have options. We’ve just got to find out how to use everybody. I’m just happy to be playing in the playoffs, to tell you the truth. It’s going to be a fun series. They’re a young, great team, great coach. They’re really going to push us to play hard.“

Familiarity breeds contempt and there will be no love lost between these two Central foes. Chicago, though, moves on because of its defense and the scoring duo of Rose and Butler. Gasol will help push the Bulls into the semis, too.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Los Angeles Clippers vs San Antonio

Los Angeles Clippers: 3rd Seed, West (56-26)

San Antonio Spurs: 6th Seed, West (55-27)

The two hottest teams in the NBA heading into the postseason clash in a wonderful first-round matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

The Clippers have won seven in a row and 14 of their last 15. San Antonio had an 11-game winning streak halted on the final night of the regular season, and they had a lot at stake in losing.

San Antonio, with a victory, could have won the Southwest Division and earned the No. 2 seed. Instead, thanks to a loss in New Orleans, the Spurs will try to defend their title for the first time primarily on the road.

“This will be another journey and hopefully it’ll be a fun one,“ said Spurs forward Tim Duncan.

That recent run has a lot of people thinking the Spurs are headed back to the Finals.

Not everyone.

“We’re pretty hot, too,“ Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “Our goal is to win a title. You’re not going to avoid anybody. You’ve got to play.“

The Clippers are the NBA’s second-highest scoring team, while San Antonio is seventh. The big difference comes, not only in championship pedigree, but on the defensive side. The Spurs are ranked No. 7 in opponents’ scoring, while LA is in middle of the road.

The Clippers boast two of the best players in the NBA with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The Spurs have two studs, if not more, with Duncan, who is continuing a late-career renaissance that rivals only Betty White’s, and Kawhi Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP.

The coaches are outstanding as well. Gregg Popovich is on the Mount Rushmore of coaches and Doc Rivers has a title and the respect of everyone involved in the sport.

It’s as even a matchup one can find, including the fact the two teams split four meeting this season.

That one glaring difference is postseason experience.

Duncan and Popovich have five titles together, while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren’t far behind. They are so tough to beat because their ball movement is the best in the league and their defense is still so strong. San Antonio is the most unselfish team anyone’s seen in decades.

The Clippers’ organization has never won more than one playoff series in a season. They’ve made the postseason the last three campaigns, and won in the first round twice, but that’s all. Paul and Griffin are dynamic, but together, they haven’t made it to a Game 7 of the second round.

That’s a big disadvantage to overcome for Los Angeles.

San Antonio has its issues as well. Parker has struggled this season and the starters haven’t been able to rest late in the season when they normally would have the No. 1 seed wrapped up with a tiny bow.

This one could be the most interesting of the first-round series.


BACKCOURT: Paul is once again an MVP candidate. He played all 82 games for the first time in his career. He led the league in assists for the second season in a row and scored 19.1 ppg. Paul is a shoo-in for the All-Defensive first team and is just a special, special player. J.J. Redick enjoyed his best season in the league. His scoring, field-goal and 3-point percentages were all career-bests. Redick is a legitimate NBA two guard and a valuable part of the Clippers’ offense. When a team doubles Paul or Griffin, there’s Redick to knock down open jumpers.

Parker’s scoring was down 2.3 ppg from last season and was his lowest since the 2003-04 season. His assists were down to 4.9 per game, which was his worst since his rookie campaign. The good news is Parker played his fewest total minutes in a season since an injury-ravaged 2009-10 year. In a free-agent season, Danny Green enjoyed his best. Green posted his highest scoring, rebounding, assist, block averages since joining the league in 2009. Green is a big-time 3-point shooter and emerged as an excellent defensive wing player. Green has gained more respect from Popovich, too, but this feels like a big season for a better contract. Won’t matter if the Spurs win another title.


FRONTCOURT: Griffin missed significant time with a staph infection on his elbow that required surgery. A season after finishing third in MVP voting, Griffin’s numbers sunk in 2014-15. His scoring was down more than two points a game, same for his rebounding. Griffin shoots a high percentage and should be a little more rested than anyone else in this series. DeAndre Jordan is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged a staggering 15.0 rebounds per game and 71% from the floor. Jordan is more than a high- flying big man, but his 39.7% free-throw shooting can hurt the Clippers in crunch time. Pop will start fouling him if it’s needed. Matt Barnes is an unsung glue guy. He’s seen mostly as a master agitator and good defender, but Barnes is also 36% 3-point shooter, which is not shabby.

Duncan is a marvel. In his 18th season, Duncan played 77 games, which is the most since the 2009-10 campaign. He only scored 13.9 points per game, but averaged 9.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Duncan’s impact on the defensive side is astronomical. He’s still a great rim protector and lane-clogger. Duncan will turn 39 a week from Saturday. He hasn’t had a game off since December 20. Leonard is the most underrated star in the league, and also, the quietest. He’s up to 16.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 2.5 apg, all the while, shooting 35% from deep. Leonard led the league in steals at 2.3 per game. He’s the best defensive wing wearing sneakers. Aron Baynes has started while Tiago Splitter has nursed a calf injury for the last six games of the regular season. Baynes is a big boy.


BENCH: Jamal Crawford is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, but missed a lot of time since the beginning of March. He’s healthy now and played the final three games of the regular season to tune up for the playoffs. When at full strength, Crawford is still a very good scorer. They need him, because the bench is woefully thin after him. Austin Rivers and Spencer Hawes are the primary backups, with Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis in some sort of roles. This is not a strength of the Clippers.

It is a strength of the Spurs. Nine different San Antonio players started more than 10 games during the course of the campaign. Eleven Spurs averaged 15 minutes or more a night. Eleven Spurs averaged 6.5 points per game or more. Manu Ginobili is still the star of the second unit, averaging 10.5 ppg. Marco Belinelli is a great shooter. Patrick Mills and Corey Joseph are both excellent backup points. Matt Bonner can shoot. And that leaves Boris Diaw. He could have easily been the MVP of the Finals. When Popovich inserted him into the starting lineup, the offense hummed. His versatility and passing are top- flight for a big man. This group has Pop’s confidence.


COACHING: Doc Rivers is a championship-winning coach. He has no weaknesses on the sideline and is one of the top-three lead men in the NBA.

He’s not Popovich.


PREDICTION: There are so many variables in this matchup, you almost feel like Will Hunting will start figuring it out on a mirror.

For the Clippers, they have a ton of momentum, but 10 of those late-season victories came against teams with losing records. LA also has never made it to the conference finals in the history of the organization.

For the Spurs, they are peaking at the right time, but they’ll need the Dallas Mavericks and Pelicans to advance for homecourt advantage in the Western Conference. That likely means they’ll have to beat the Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors just to make the Finals.

And, the Spurs will have to do all of that without the customary rest their starters get at the end of the season. Their fight for the No. 2 seed meant Duncan, Parker, Leonard and Ginobili played a lot at the end of the campaign. Are they rested enough to make another deep run?

Can anyone bet against the Spurs? I’m not.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Toronto vs. Washington

Toronto Raptors : 4th Seed, East (49-33)

Washington Wizards : 5th Seed, East (46-36)

The two-time defending Atlantic Division-champion Toronto Raptors are back in the playoffs for the second time in the last seven years and hope this run has more life than ones in the past.

Standing in the way of the fourth-seeded Raptors are the No. 5 Washington Wizards. This best-of-seven series kicks off the NBA postseason Saturday at Air Canada Centre.

“The real season starts this weekend, what we’ve been building for,“ Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.

Toronto set the franchise-record for wins in a season with 49 (49-33) and lost in seven games to the Brooklyn Nets in last season’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Raptors haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2000-01.

The Raptors ended the regular season with seven wins in the final 10 games, and put a lid on the schedule with Wednesday’s 92-87 victory over the Charlotte Hornets. Kyle Lowry scored 26 points and the All-Star is feeling good after missing some time with an injury.

“This is what we play for,“ Lowry said. “Now it’s the time where it gets a little bit more serious.“

Wizards veteran forward Paul Pierce said the Raptors lack the “it” factor and will get a chance to see what’s in store this series.

“Paul Pierce has always got to say something,“ Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. “He said something last year, he’s always got to say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he says.“

Toronto is 1-6 in the opening game of a playoff series and the only time it won Game One was in the semifinals versus Philadelphia in 2001. The Raptors start a playoff series at home for the third time in franchise history.

Meanwhile, the Wizards have reached the postseason for a second straight year after missing the playoffs the previous five. They recorded 46 wins - the most since posting 54 in 1978-79 - and struggled down the stretch, losing two straight, three of four and eight of the last 14 contests.

The Wizards struggled with the Raptors this season, losing all three matchups, and are 1-7 in the past eight encounters. The Wizards and Raptors have never met in the postseason. DeRozan and reserve Lou Williams averaged 21.0 and 19.7 points, respectively, in three games against the Wizards this season.

Wizards guard John Wall posted an average of 19.0 ppg versus Toronto in 2014-15. Wall’s teammate, guard Bradley Beal, talked about this upcoming series.

“We have to bring our “A” game,“ Beal said “We have to do whatever it takes to take care of the ball. Regardless if we’re at home or away we have to win on the road. That’s definitely our main goal is to go in there and get a win.“


BACKCOURT: This Eastern Conference quarterfinals will be decided by the backcourt play of each team. Beal claimed before the season started that the Wizards have the best guard tandem in the league with All-Star Wall. But Lowry is an All-Star and DeRozan was a season ago. The Wizards and Raptors started hot this season, then both clubs waded through some rough times with scoring issues, injuries and poor defense. Defending any of these guards is a tough task. Wall can do it all and Beal plays as if he’s a forward at times, driving the lane and creating opportunities.

“We all have to be ready to go, myself included,“ Beal said. “Everybody has to bring their game in the playoffs. Everybody’s fighting for the same goal and the same dream, so we all have to come together individually and win our matchups and then as a team collectively beat them.“

Lowry was nicked up toward the end of the regular season and is a tough defender. DeRozan missed a lot of time early on, and now both floor generals are anxious for the challenge. While Wall and Beal have Marcin Gortat and Nene to work with inside, Lowry and DeRozan must get the ball to big men Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross or the upstart Tyler Hansbrough. This backcourt matchup is a must-see event.

“I can’t wait,“ Lowry said of matching up with Wall. “It’s my All-Star backcourt mate. We’re both starting All-Stars. I think his talent is unbelievable. He’s one of the fastest guys in the league, most athletic point guards and he’s only getting better. But, it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to and I’m sure he’s looking forward to it.“


FRONTCOURT: Gortat is a scary presence in the paint. Whether he’s working the pick-and-roll or sitting back in the box, Gortat is a steady force for the Wizards. He had eight games this season with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, and was even better after the All-Star break, averaging 13.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. Nene is a nice compliment to Gortat inside, but won’t be much of a factor in this series save a few points and rebounds. Pierce is the more experienced member of the Wizards and won an NBA title in 2008 with Boston. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and already gave Toronto bulletin board material. Pierce is still confident in his 3-point shooting. The Wizards were ninth in 3-point percentage at 36.0.

“They present a lot of different challenges for us,“ Casey said. “Their speed and athleticism, the way they run the floor is huge. Rebounding is another area which the team should really be focused in. That’s a challenge. In transition with Wall pushing the ball at you 100 miles an hour is another challenge. Getting back with Nene’s post-ups is another.“

Valanciunas will renew his battle with Gortat, but isn’t used that often in crunch time because that’s when Lowry and DeRozan take over. However, the giant Lithuanian nearly averages a double-double with a career-best 12.0 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds. He had 22 double-doubles this season. Terrence Ross posted 9.8 points and 2.8 boards in a career-high 82 games this season. Don’t count on Ross to make any impact. It appears Hansbrough is the flavor of the month and is expected to start at the power forward spot. He can clog the middle, but that’s about it. He is no match for Gortat down low.


BENCH: Williams is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and provides a spark off the bench for the guard-heavy Raptors. Williams has scored 13 or more points in a season-high 12 straight games, averaging 18.6 ppg in that span. He ranks first among all reserves in the NBA for total points (1,242), 3-pointers made (152), free throws made (340) 10-plus point games (64) and 25-plus point games (11). He averaged a career-high 15.5 ppg in 80 games as a reserve. Guard Greivis Vasquez and forward/center Patrick Patterson will also come off Toronto’s bench, which was tied for fifth in scoring (38.6 ppg). Williams, Vasquez and Patterson are all dangerous from downtown.

The Wizards’ bench is not as dynamic as Toronto’s with Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden, Rasual Butler, Kevin Seraphin and Ramon Sessions at coach Randy Wittman’s disposal. Humphries led the bench players with 8.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. Gooden and fellow reserve DeJuan Blair have playoff experience, but won’t see much action to prove it.


COACHING: Wittman guided the Wizards back to the postseason for a second straight season and managed to keep the team’s spirits up during some rough patches. The Wizards were the early favorite to win the East until Atlanta exploded, Cleveland got its act together and Chicago played its type of basketball. Wittman should feel more comfortable now that Wall and Beal have playoff experience.

“That was their first experience and it should help them a lot in these playoffs,“ Wittman said of the duo learning from last year. “Also having Paul (Pierce) this time will be a plus for everyone.“

The Raptors have increased their win total each season Casey took over as coach in 2011-12. He, too, has several players with playoff experience. Hansbrough has participated in a team-high 38 postseason contests, averaging 5.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 15.7 minutes.

“They’ve been there,“ Casey said. “They won’t be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed when the crowd comes out and the intensity level goes up 10 decibels.“

Williams leads the team with 391 points and 91 assists in 37 career playoff games. Casey said his team is not satisfied with what it has accomplished so far and the real season starts this weekend.

“We’ve seen it happen over the years and have been a part of different organizations that have won and we are getting to that level,“ Casey said. “We are not there yet, but we are getting there and this year is another step.“


PREDICTION: This a tough series to predict because of the guard play.

“We know everything is going to go through us,“ Lowry said of himself and DeRozan. “We’re going to (be) the focal point in every single game, every single minute of play is going to go through us.“

The case is the same for Wall and Beal. Toronto may have won all three games in the regular season, but this is the time of year when players get stiff and can’t handle the playoff pressure. Washington opens this series on the road and will be loose and ready.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Portland vs. Memphis

Portland Trail Blazers: 4th Seed, West (51-31)

Memphis Grizzlies: 5th Seed, West (55-27)

Rare is the occasion where a higher seed does not have homecourt advantage in a first-round series, but that’s the case when the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers start the postseason on Beale Street against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Memphis had a better record than Portland, but, by virtue of winning the Northwest Division, the Blazers were the fourth seed and the Grizzlies the fifth.

“Everything is different,“ said Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge of the playoffs. “Last year, Houston had more wins than us too. I think things just change in the playoffs. I feel like everybody is ready to take on that challenge of going to Memphis, or whatever. So I feel like that don’t matter now.“

The Blazers did upset the Houston Rockets in last year’s playoffs, but Aldridge is right, everything is different.

First, Portland is dinged up heading into this postseason. Aldridge and fellow All-Star Damian Lillard are around, but starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews suffered a torn left Achilles tendon and is out. His replacement, Arron Afflalo, has a strained right shoulder and is expected to miss at least Sunday’s Game 1. The next in line, C.J. McCollum, has a left ankle sprain, missed the season finale, and is questionable for Sunday.

Another starter, Nicolas Batum, has a right knee contusion and also missed the final game of the regular season. But, like McCollum, he expects to play in Game 1.

The Blazers have health concerns, but that’s not the worst of it. The Grizzlies swept the season series against Portland and is 9-1 in the last 10 meetings. Memphis has won four straight at home and two straight in Portland.

“Last year Houston beat up on us in the regular season 3-1,“ said Lillard. “We got the best of them in the playoffs, we locked in and got it done.“

These two teams were second and third in the Western Conference through most of the regular season, but suffered late-season swoons. The Trail Blazers went 3-6 in April, while the Grizzlies went 5-6 over their final 11.

However, Memphis is built for the postseason. The Grizzlies finished second in the NBA in opponents’ scoring and are known for their rugged defense. They feature the league’s best big-man combination with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but the emergence of Mike Conley made Memphis an apparent contender.

But, like the Blazers, the Grizz are experiencing injury problems as well, especially Conley. He’s been dealing with a foot issue and Tony Allen, arguably the best defensive guard in the association, has a hamstring problem. Head coach Dave Joerger indicated there is no timetable for a return.

“When you’re missing two starters, it’s very difficult to gauge,“ said Joerger. “You don’t know when they’ll be able to play. I’m won’t be able to prognosticate if they’ll be able to play Sunday or Wednesday. I don’t know if either one of them will be play.“

Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes will handle the point guard duties if Conley can’t go. Courtney Lee and Jeff Green were part of a three-man wing rotation with Allen, although neither is the defender Allen is.

Injuries are a reality at this point on the calendar. What’s more interesting is the contrast in styles between these two teams. Portland is a 3-point shooting team and likes to get up and down the floor. Memphis is physical, punishing and awful shooting the ball from long range.

It makes for an intriguing series.


BACKCOURT: Lillard is a killer. He averaged a career-best 21.0 ppg with 6.2 assists. He’s started and played in every possible game in his career and logs heavy, heavy minutes. But that’s what Lillard wants. He loves the spotlight and the more pressure-filled the moment, the more Lillard responds. Fatigue might be an issue, but his defense is a bigger one. Lillard is just not a good defender. McCollum saw an increase in minutes and output this season. In the seven games before his ankle injury, McCollum averaged 17.2 ppg. Offense won’t be an issue for the Blazers backcourt.

Let’s assume Conley can play some during this series. Conley averaged 15.8 ppg, 5.4 apg and 1.3 steals per game. He’s a premiere defender at the point guard and is a dog-nosed competitor. Conley is the most under appreciated contributor to a great team in the league. He’s a fringe All-Star. Courtney Lee had a decent season. He shot the ball very well from deep, shooting 40% from beyond the 3-point arc. Lee’s a pretty solid defender, which goes with the identity of Memphis. If Conley is out, Lee will need to pick up his scoring to some degree.


FRONTCOURT: Aldridge is one of the best forwards in the league. He’s a multi- talented threat, shooting from the perimeter with a vaunted inside game to boot. Aldridge’s rebounding has been steadily over 10 a night the last two seasons, which coincides with his rise to elite level. Aldridge has a hand injury, but played through it, pretty miraculously. Can he match up physically with Randolph? That will go a long way to determining the outcome of this series. Batum is an all-around talent, including defensively. His scoring dipped 3.0 points a game this season, but he rebounds well for a small forward and hands out assists very well for a small forward. If his knee is fine, he’ll be fine. Robin Lopez is limited offensively, but his presence is gigantic in this series. He’ll be covering Gasol and Gasol can pull him away from the basket.

Speaking of Gasol, he’s the best overall center in the NBA. He averaged 17.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.8 apg and 1.6 blocks. Gasol is still the premiere defensive big man, not just for the rim protection, or lane clogging, but his athleticism allows him to switch on the perimeter to some extent. Gasol’s an excellent passer and his ability to knock down the jumper allows Memphis to do a lot of high-low work with Randolph. Randolph is a brute. He averaged a double-double for the third consecutive season and fifth in the last six. Almost everything written about Gasol is true of Randolph, except for the defensive capability on the perimeter. Green hasn’t been a great fit since he was acquired from the Boston Celtics. He can score and shoot, but it hasn’t worked well. They’ll need more from him in this series.


BENCH: Neither bench is very formidable.

With all of the injuries the Blazers are dealing with, the second unit is depleted. If Afflalo comes back, McCollum will be a solid hand. The big men are capable with Chris Kaman, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard. Steve Blake is the primary backup in the backcourt and Alonzo Gee has seen more time in recent weeks.

Calathes and Udrih are good reserves and Kosta Koufos is a very strong third big man. If Allen can play, he’ll be on the floor late because of his defense, energy and faith Joerger has in him. Vince Carter is going to do something for this team at some point. He has too much experience and still enough pop to contribute in an impactful way for the Grizzlies.


COACHING: Stotts is 138-108 in three seasons with the Blazers and 5-6 in the playoffs. He knows his team and is an offensive specialist.

Joerger is 105-59 in just two seasons and 3-4 in the playoffs, but that was just last season’s seven-game loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.


PREDICTION: Injuries are brutal, especially as a team hits the playoffs. If all healthy, this is a compelling series of physicality versus finesse.

Can Aldridge bang with Randolph for seven games? Can any team survive the rugged nature of the Grizzlies for seven games and live to tell the tale? Can Conley, Allen, or Afflalo play in this series at all?

It’s hard to look past the Grizzlies’ record against the Blazers. Tough interior play, like Memphis’ style, is a terrible matchup for Portland. The Trail Blazers are also going with their third-best shooting guard in this series.

If Conley and Allen sit for the whole series, Portland might have the advantage. Aldridge and Lillard are both All-Stars with a shine for the spotlight. It just won’t be enough to stop Gasol and Randolph.

National Basketball Association (NBA)  15041801

The Gilmer Free Press

►  NBA players to get tested for HGH next season

The NBA has been long been criticized for holes in its drug-testing program. The league patched one of those holes Thursday, announcing that, starting in the 2015-16 season, players will get blood tested for human growth hormone.

The announcement was issued jointly by the league and the NBA Players Association, who said that testing for HGH would begin at the start of training camps. The 2011 collective bargaining agreement had called for a study on how to implement blood testing for HGH, and now the league is ready to move forward.

Players will get three random, unannounced tests; two during the season and one in the offseason. A player who fails a test will get a 20-game suspension the first time and a 45-game suspension the second time. A third failed test will result in that player getting kicked out of the NBA.

Currently, the NBA administers random urine tests to players four times during the season and twice in the offseason. A failed test for “drugs of abuse,” such as cocaine and heroin, can lead to immediate expulsion, while penalties for marijuana use are more lenient.

In 2012, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency criticized the NBA for “gaps in their program.” Last year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told GQ that, compared to marijuana use, “we’re much more concerned about HGH testing and designer performance-enhancing drugs.”

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Atlanta vs. Brooklyn

Atlanta Hawks : 1st Seed, East (60-22)

Brooklyn Nets : 8th Seed, East (38-44)

“Wait’ll they get a load of me.“

Those words spoken by Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie “Batman” sums up what the Atlanta Hawks are feeling about the rest of the NBA’s playoff field.

The Hawks aren’t about to be played like jokers and look to prove their regular-season success was no fluke, as they take on the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The best-of-seven series gets underway Sunday at Philips Arena.

Atlanta cruised to the top seed in the East with a franchise-best 60 wins in the 82-game schedule, breaking the previous record of 57 victories set in the 1993-94 campaign, and captured a division title for the time since 1993-94.

“We feel like we can really do something,“ Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. “It’s up to us going out there and proving it.“

The Southeast champions clinched a spot in the postseason for an eighth straight season, but haven’t made it out of the first round in each of the past three tries. The Hawks were eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in seven games last season.

Atlanta ripped off 19 straight wins at one point this season and went 17-0 in January. It was 25-16 on the road, setting a franchise mark in wins as the guest, and went 35-6 at Philips Arena.

The Hawks were 38-14 in conference action and didn’t need the final day to determine their playoff status like the Nets. The Nets punched their ticket to the postseason when they defeated Orlando on Wednesday, coupled with an Indiana Pacers loss at Memphis.

Now Brooklyn faces the East’s top team.

“They’re the second-best team in the NBA, record-wise. They’ve shot the ball extremely well all year. When they lose they don’t shoot the ball well,“ Nets coach Lionel Hollins said of the Hawks. “We’ve got to figure out how to make them shoot the ball a little bit less than what they normally do and control the glass and score.“

It will be hard to control the glass against Millsap and Horford, but the Nets have Brook Lopez, former Hawk Joe Johnson and newcomer Thaddeus Young in the frontcourt.

“We hadn’t played well the last couple of games but we found ourselves tonight and if we can get back to playing the kind of ball we’ve been playing since the All-Star Break, the skies the limit for this team,“ Young said Wednesday.

The Nets have made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and reached the semis in 2013-14, defeating Toronto in seven games in the quarterfinals before losing to Miami in five games the next round.

Brooklyn went 0-4 against Atlanta in the regular season, while the Hawks averaged 114 points in those games and won by an average of 17.3 ppg. The Hawks and Nets have never met in the playoffs.


BACKCOURT: Nets point guard Deron Williams is a streaky player and perhaps the playoff environment will keep him on a more consistent wavelength. Williams averaged 13.0 points and 6.6 assists this season, and even spent time coming off the bench under Hollins. D-Will is still one of the best distributors in the league when he’s on his game. In 63 career playoff games, Williams is posting an average of 19.8 points, 8.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds. Nets rookie Markel Brown will get his taste of the playoffs and doesn’t give his team much of an advantage in this series.

Jeff Teague was second on the Hawks with 15.9 ppg this season and led them with 7.0 assists per game. Atlanta was second in the NBA and first in the Eastern Conference with 25.7 assists per game, a necessity for a team that has several playmakers and shooters. The Hawks were second in the NBA and first in the East with a 38.0 percentage from downtown. Teague is averaging 11.4 ppg in 36 postseason games (25 starts). Kyle Korver is the other guard for the Hawks and the main reason why they’re so dangerous at shooting threes. He averaged 12.2 ppg and will keep Brooklyn on its toes defending the perimeter.


FRONTCOURT: The Hawks’ frontcourt carried them to the playoffs with Millsap, Horford and DeMarre Carroll. Millsap had team highs of 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds, while Horford posted 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds. Millsap and Horford face a stern challenge inside with Lopez and Young, who can create mismatches with his quickness. Johnson’s not much of a defender, so Millsap and Horford will have to be creative in taking advantage of Brooklyn’s weak spots. Carroll averaged a career-high 12.6 points and gives Atlanta another scoring option when, and if, things go cold. Carroll has limited playoff experience, but Millsap and Horford have been around the block.

Lopez is one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference and recorded 17.2 points and 7.4 rebounds. Lopez wasn’t around for the Nets’ playoff run last season and saw action in seven games the year before, averaging a team-high 22.3 points with 7.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. Johnson isn’t the dynamic scorer he once was, but one can never measure how bad a man wants to win. Johnson had 14.4 ppg and has appeared in 81 playoff games, recording 17.3 ppg. Young hopes to bring his limited playoff experience to another level.

“Anything can happen in the playoffs,“ Young said. “Anything.“


BENCH: The Hawks will miss defensive stalwart Thabo Sefolosha off the bench and he is done for the playoffs after suffering a broken leg and ligament damage during a struggle with police in New York last week.

“I am extremely disappointed that I will not be able to join my teammates on the court during the playoffs and apologize to them for any distraction this incident has caused,“ Sefolosha said in a statement. “I will be cheering for them every step of the way and will be diligent in my rehabilitation.“

Atlanta has a bunch of role players coming off the bench in Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott, Pero Antic, Kent Bazemore, Shelvin Mack and veteran Elton Brand. Schroder led the reserves with 10.0 ppg this season. Atlanta averaged 32.2 ppg from its bench and Brooklyn was slightly ahead at 35.4 ppg. The Nets have the advantage here with Bojan Bogdanovic, Jarrett Jack and Mason Plumlee. Jack saw action in the starting lineup, too, and is a nice weapon for Hollins.

“We’ve all seen strange things happen in the playoffs because it’s different than the regular season,“ Jack said. “It comes down to matchups and who’s playing well and who has momentum. When you get into the playoffs like we did, that’s a lot of momentum right there.“


COACHING: Hollins took over the Nets in July last summer after Milwaukee hired Jason Kidd. Hollins is no stranger to success in the NBA and recently served as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2012-13, when he guided the team to a franchise record 56 wins and reached the Western Conference Finals. He’s hoping to have the same effect on this Brooklyn bunch.

“I am just thankful that our guys stepped up and did what they had to do,“ Hollins said Wednesday. “That is the only thing that they had control of.“

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer learned his trade from one of the best in the business, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. So it’s fair to say Budenholzer, a candidate for Coach of the Year, knows what he’s doing. His Hawks were one of the best in field goal percentage, 3-point shooting, assists and free throws. Atlanta was also stingy on defense and allowed 97.1 ppg. The Hawks went 35-6 at home and 25-16 on the road, the best mark as the guest in the conference.


PREDICTION: The Hawks didn’t dominate the Eastern Conference during the regular season to fizzle out in the playoffs like they have the last three years. They’re on a mission that many believe is an impossible one when it comes to hoisting the Larry O’Brien championship trophy. With a talented roster and even more dominant frontcourt, the Hawks will probably have one hiccup in this series before putting the Nets away. The Nets making the postseason in a weak conference isn’t something to brag about and they needed the 82nd game of the season to get here. Brooklyn better not get used to the atmosphere because it’s going to vanish quickly.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Golden State vs. New Orleans

Golden State Warriors: 1st Seed, West (67-15)

New Orleans Pelicans: 8th Seed, West (45-37)

The Golden State Warriors had one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. In fact, their 67-15 mark is tied for the sixth-best on the all-time list.

To say it was unexpected would be fair. The Warriors made the playoffs the last two seasons under former head coach Mark Jackson, but relationships, as they do, became strained and Steve Kerr went from the broadcast booth to Oracle Arena.

One of his first moves was to insert Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes into the starting lineup in favor of a pair of expensive veterans, Andre Iguodala and David Lee.

The move paid off dramatically considering both improved the team defensively, although Jackson left Kerr in good shape on that front. By featuring Green especially, it allowed the Warriors to switch almost everything and the result saw the team finish first in opponents’ field-goal percentage.

Golden State also led the league in field-goal percentage offensively. The Warriors finished atop the NBA in scoring average at 110.0 ppg and that finally leads us to Steph Curry.

The guard is the front-runner for the MVP award. There will be more about him statistically later, but it’s all very, very good. Curry has improved each season in the league and is poised to take his team to the next level.

Curry didn’t do it alone. Klay Thompson is an All-NBA player. Green might be the Defensive Player of the Year and Andrew Bogut won’t be too far behind in votes.

There’s depth and a sense of purpose in Golden State.

“We have a goal to beat the Pelicans four times and then figure out who we play next,“ said Curry. “That’s the expectation we’ve had and we have right now.“

In New Orleans, it’s a return to the postseason for the first time since the 2010-11 season, head coach Monty Williams’ first at the helm. Since, the organization changed its name to the Pelicans, but the most important factor in New Orleans’ success doesn’t have anything to do with bird names.

Anthony Davis, had he been healthy all season, might have battled Curry for the MVP award. Davis, like Curry, is a fixture in the top 10 of several statistical categories and impacts the game more from a defensive side than Curry.

He is the centerpiece of a still-young team sprinkled with underrated veteran talent. Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday compliment Davis well.

If you believe in momentum, the Pelicans secured the final playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. All they did was knock off the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who came into the contest with an 11-game winning streak and the Southwest Division and No. 2 seed at stake.

“When you think about it, the Western Conference is so tough,“ Anderson said. “There are so many great teams. To play against San Antonio, the defending champs, in one game that really, really matters, it makes this so much sweeter.“

A first-round matchup between two first-team All-NBAers is about as good as one can hope for in a one-versus-eight battle.


BACKCOURT: Curry averaged 23.8 ppg, 7.7 apg, 2.0 spg. He shot 91% from the foul line, which led the league, and 44% from long range. He made 286 3-pointers this season, which, in addition to be ludicrous, is an NBA record, topping his own mark from two seasons ago, by 14. And, Curry didn’t even play in 17 fourth quarters this season because the Warriors were dominating so thoroughly and because Kerr has a heart. Plus, Curry’s defense improved. Thompson is most likely going to make one of the All-NBA teams at the guard spot. He’s one of the 10-best defensive guards, averaged 21.7 ppg, shot 44% from 3 and 88% from the foul line.

Jrue Holiday missed 42 games with a foot injury, but returned for three of the final four. His minutes increased to 25 in the finale. Williams didn’t start Holiday when he came back, but the playoffs might be the time to do it. When healthy, Holiday is steady and a decent defender. Eric Gordon averaged his fewest points in seven seasons and shot his second-worst field-goal percentage. His 44% from behind the 3-point arc was a career-best.


FRONTCOURT: Green has turned into one of the most versatile and important players in the association. He can defend all five positions, and has. Green averaged 11.7 ppg and shot a respectable 33.7% from deep. Green is valuable in the postseason because he’s an instigator and not afraid of the physicality of the playoffs. Bogut is all about defense and rebounding at this point in his career, finishing second in defensive rating. Sure, he could get Golden State a bucket here and there, but he patrols the paint and protects the rim and he’s very good at both. Barnes started and Kerr did wonderfully bringing him along. When the team signed Iguodala last offseason, Barnes fell out of the starting lineup and drifted a bit. He was engaged this season, despite playing the same minutes per game, and shot 48% from 3-point territory.

What can anyone say about Davis? Fourth in scoring, eighth in rebounding, first in blocks, first in player efficiency, ninth in offensive rating, 12th in defensive rating and fourth in win shares. Analytically, statistically, or with the good-old eye-ball test, Davis is one of the best in the league. Evans enjoyed a very good campaign. His scoring was his highest since 2011-12, his rebounds, assists, field-goal and 3-point percentage all improved from last season. Evans was the only dependable option every night for Williams. His versatility is still strong. Asik is similar to Bogut in that he’s not counted on for scoring. Asik is a rebounder and paint presence.

EDGE: WARRIORS (slightly)

BENCH: The Warriors’ bench was the ninth-best scoring second unit in the league. Iguodala is still a plus-defender, who will finish games if defense is required. Marreese Speights is instant offense. Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa are excellent bench guards. Will Lee do anything for them in the playoffs? The two-time All-Star was a DNP-CD several times, but it’s nice to have someone like him around if Kerr needs him. Festus Ezeli became a good big off the bench.

The Pelicans’ bench didn’t provide much outside Anderson. He missed significant time, but is still one of the best stretch fours in the business. Anderson shot 34% from beyond the arc. Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole will round out the rotation.


COACHING: Kerr has been masterful. Everything he has done has worked perfectly. Every decision has been worked better than originally imagined. Does he have what it takes to lead a team in the postseason? Kerr’s two mentors in this sport have been Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, and they have more rings than a Kay Jeweler. He should be the Coach of the Year.

Williams had as much pressure to make the postseason as any coach in the league. The Pelicans made significant moves in order to be in this position, and, despite injuries to everyone but Evans, he led them to the playoffs. You have to respect that. He made the postseason his first season in New Orleans and lost in six games.


PREDICTION: The Warriors are the 10th team in NBA history to finish with a 67-15 record or better. Seven of the previous nine teams to do it won the title. The 1972-73 Boston Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals and the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks fell in the first round to ... the Warriors.

The Pelicans took a game from the Warriors at the end of the season in New Orleans. Prior to that win, the Pels dropped 10 in a row to Golden State.

This Golden State group is headed toward at least an appearance in the conference finals. They are clearly better than the Pelicans, who should feel good about the progress made this season.

►  NBA Playoff Preview - Cleveland vs. Boston

Cleveland Cavaliers : 2nd Seed, East (53-29)

Boston Celtics : 7th Seed, East (40-42)

LeBron James made ripples in the NBA world when he told SI’s Lee Jenkins his reasons for returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He didn’t promise multi championships like he did when he took his talents to South Beach and knew there was work to be done in Cleveland.

James and the Cavaliers were able to capture a Central Division crown, the first since the 2009-10 season, the No. 2 seed in the East and the second-best record in the conference.

The Cavs will face the No. 7 seed Boston Celtics in the quarterfinals, which begins Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena.

Cleveland is a place James learned to run, where he cried and where he bled.

“People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me,“ James told Jenkins. “I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.“

James, who opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Heat and left $42 million on the table, helped the Cavs end a four-year playoff drought and teamed up with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Love, of course, landed in Cleveland after being dealt by Minnesota and the start of his new job didn’t go so smoothly.

It took a while for everything to click, and after some criticism by James, a two-time NBA champion and four-time MVP, the Cavs started to roll and later grabbed their fourth Central title in franchise history. The Cavaliers, who won 12 in a row from January 15 to February 5, started the season 19-20, then went a 34-9 run over the final 43 games.

The Cavs took time to flourish under new coach David Blatt and even won 18 in a row at one point at Quicken Loans Arena.

Meanwhile, the Celtics benefited from a weak East to reach the playoffs for a seventh time in the past eight tries. They recorded 25 wins a year ago and are seven years removed from winning an NBA title.

Boston didn’t make an impact on the postseason race until early February, when it opened a stretch of 14 wins over 20 games. It got a bit rough after that when the Celtics dropped five of seven games before ending the regular season on a high note and punching a ticket to the playoffs.

“To have a chance to compete against the very best in the league is a great opportunity,“ Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of facing Cleveland.

The Celtics and Cavaliers split four meetings in the regular season. Boston eliminated Cleveland in six games in the 2010 semifinals and is 18-12 all-time against the Cavs in postseason play. In 158 career playoff games (all starts), James is averaging 28.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists.


BACKCOURT: Irving is arguably the best point guard in the East and averaged more than 20 points for a third consecutive season. He has posted an average of five or more assists since breaking into the league in 2011-12. Irving is the reason why the Cavs finished in the top 10 in scoring with more than 100 points per game and his job is fairly easy dishing to James, Love and backcourt mate J.R. Smith. Smith did a 180-degree turnaround when he came over from New York and is a dangerous threat from 3-point range. Smith can learn a thing or two from Irving on defense, however.

The Celtics traded their top point guard in Rajon Rondo back in December, leaving backcourt duties to Avery Bradley and rookie Marcus Smart. Smart is supposed to be one of the building blocks of the future for the Celtics and will get his feet wet in the playoffs. He’s not as quick or generous as Rondo, but Smart plays with intensity and grit. Boston, though, will not rely on Smart for points. Bradley led the Celtics in scoring and will give Cleveland issues with his quickness.


FRONTCOURT: There’s no need to decipher which team has the best frontcourt, but a breakdown must be made. James, who was third in scoring with 25.3 ppg, is in line for another MVP honor and is the best in basketball. His leadership skills are beyond reproach and he can distribute the ball when scoring isn’t an option. James plays tough defense and will make it difficult for Boston to keep pace. Love posted almost 40 double-doubles and at times seemed out of place in his new digs. He got over it, though, and will get a taste of the postseason for the first time. Love is a deep threat as well as an inside presence, but likes to catch and shoot.

Big man Timofey Mozgov filled a glaring need when he was acquired from the Denver Nuggets in early January. His services were needed when Anderson Varejao was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Mozgov has been to the playoffs before, but hasn’t had much success.

“We’ve been playing the right way - win, lose or draw - we’ve played the right way,“ James said. “We’ve stuck to our system and I think it’s built some great habits for us going into the postseason.“

Evan Turner has never lived up to his No. 2 overall selection status back in 2010, but has been an admirable piece to the Boston puzzle. Turner recorded three triple-doubles this season and has an average all-around game. He is smooth on the dribble and an accurate shooter. Still, he has his hands full with James on the wing. Brandon Bass is a savvy veteran and has flown under the radar most of his career. Bass can break out at times, too.

Celtics center Tyler Zeller won’t be much of a factor in this series. Zeller played his first two seasons in the league with Cleveland, but this a different Cavs team he is used to.


BENCH: If there’s any advantage the Celtics may have in this series, it’s their bench. Isaiah Thomas, who deserves to start but does damage off the pine, was a major acquisition this season and will be relied on heavily to put the ball into the basket. Thomas is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger will be at Stevens’ disposal when the starters need a breather. Not too long ago, Sullinger made a surprise return from a stress fracture in his foot and is getting back into the flow.

Boston led the NBA in bench points with 41.4 ppg.

“It’s all coming together. It’s pretty cool to see,“ Olynyk said. “We’re excited to get this next chapter rolling.“

The Cavs, who had the lowest point total from their reserves (24.2 ppg), landed Iman Shumpert when they received Smith from the Knicks and he has contributed sparingly. After landing Smith and Shumpert, the Cavs led the league in 3-pointers made per game at 11.6. Tristan Thompson is Blatt’s best option from the group of reserves, while James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova see a healthy amount of action off the bench. Veteran Shawn Marion’s defensive prowess will make an appearance in his final season in the NBA.

“I’m not on the committee and I’m not the determining vote, but in my opinion there will come a time where Shawn Marion will be in the Hall of Fame. That is my true belief,“ Blatt said. “That’s not a vain attempt to push his chances. I truly believe that. That’s a deserving, long-time, high-level, championship- winning, impactful player in the NBA.“


COACHING: Coaching will be an even aspect for this series, as Blatt is in his first season as an NBA head coach and Stevens is in his second. Stevens had a bevy of success with Butler at the NCAA level and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is mapping out a plan for his baby-faced coach. Defense was an issue in the regular season and the Celtics allowed more than 100 points.

“You get a chance to participate in the playoffs, you get a chance to play against the best, and we’re getting a chance right out of the gate to do both,“ Stevens said. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to see where we stand.“

Stevens was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for April.

Blatt’s club allowed almost 100 points and it took time for the first-year coach to adjust to the new players, especially James. Blatt was recently the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel and spent 33 years as a player and coach in Europe after playing collegiately at Princeton. Blatt maximized the talents of Maccabi Tel Aviv and guided the team to the Euroleague championship. He also led Russia to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Blatt and Stevens are no stranger to pressure games in their coaching tenures.


PREDICTION: The Cavaliers were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Atlanta Hawks, and this series will be an appetizer for the semifinals. There will be at least two games in which Blatt rests his starters in the fourth quarter en route to a sweep of this first-round series. Boston should have nothing to feel sorry about because they persevered and took advantage of a feeble conference. Boston didn’t expect to be in this position at the start of the season and will learn a few lessons from Cleveland on what it takes to be a contender.

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