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Previewing Sunday’s Series in the NBA Playoffs

After an excellent first day of NBA playoff basketball, the second day should provide the same level of excitement. Here’s what’s going on Sunday. (all times ET)

2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 7 Boston Celtics (ABC, 3:00 P.M.)

Season Series: 2-2

The last time we saw this matchup, LeBron James was walking out of the TD Garden, the last game of his first stint as a Cleveland Cavalier. This time, he’s back, but now the Cavs are the team to beat, not the Celtics. When James joined the Cavaliers, forming the formidable Irving-James-Love trio, expectations skyrocketed with anything short of a title seen as a bust. Meanwhile, Boston has shocked many across the league. No one expected coach Brad Stevens and such a young roster to have this kind of success; not this soon anyway.

Although the dramatics may lack compared to past James-Celtics matchup, it should still be an exciting series nonetheless.

The road that both of these two teams took to get here weren’t ideal. At one point in the season, Cleveland was 19-20. Yes, a LeBron James team, in the prime of his career, was under .500 through 39 games. After their loss that dipped them under .500, they would go on to lose just nine games in their next 43 games, the second-best record during that time.

Cleveland proved to be the Eastern Conference favorite once again.

Boston and its illustrious championship history have some work to do before they get back on top of the totem pole. A trade for Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline bolstered Boston’s bench, and they went 20-11 since the trade. Closing the season out with a six-game winning streak clinched this great matchup.

Stevens and the young talent on this Boston roster should have Celtics fans salivating for the future. Although it may be a new era in Boston, this is their time to put a stamp on this playoff series, warning the NBA of their imminent return to greatness.

Series Prediction: Cleveland in 6

The season series may have been a split, but it could have swung in either direction. However, the difference in this series is some guy named LeBron James. The greatest basketball player on the planet is the difference maker for every game, and this series will be no different.

In the season series finale, James sat out of the contest and the result was a 117-78 blowout victory for the Celtics.

Boston won’t go down without a fight. Coach Stevens has his team believing that they can win any game as long as they properly prepare. How much of a fight will Boston put up? The likes of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Thomas will be pests throughout the whole series. Their grit will be their biggest weapon, giving them an opportunity to steal a game or two.

1 Atlanta Hawks vs. 8 Brooklyn Nets (TNT, 5:30 P.M.)

Season Series: Atlanta 4-0

Atlanta is headed back to the postseason for the eighth straight time, except this time their expectation is to win the NBA title, while Brooklyn is attempting one last hoorah with their trio of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez.

Both teams started the season off in sub-par fashion, but it was Atlanta that took control of the reins and went on an unbelievable run that culminated in accolades that only seemed to fit the mold of super-teams: four All-Star selections, an undefeated January and all five starters being selected for Player(s) of the Month for January.

Although Atlanta’s record may have been a surprise, Brooklyn’s was far from it. They were already devoid of Paul Pierce, who Brooklyn didn’t re-sign in the offseason, and Kevin Garnett was no longer the KG of old. However, when they shipped KG back home and received Thaddeus Young, Brooklyn went on its own improbable 17-13 finish to set up the matchup with the top-seeded Hawks.

Pierce stirred the pot on ESPN by throwing some shade at Brooklyn, essentially calling them whiny crybabies that couldn’t meet the expectations placed upon them as professionals. Can they respond? Especially Williams, who Pierce looked at as a “MVP candidate” who didn’t live up to that.

Series Prediction: Atlanta in 6

Pierce feels this way about his former team for a reason. He has lived through it, played through it and lost. Brooklyn will do much of the same without him. Some of you may feel that the two games for Brooklyn may be generous, but the reality is Atlanta picked the worst time for things to go wrong: right near the end of the regular season.

Thabo Sefolosha’s impact on the floor makes Atlanta miles better defensively as well as making them a better rebounding team. Atlanta’s defensive rating was 97.6 when Sefolosha was on the floor compared to 105.2 when he was on the bench, per Basketball-Reference.com. They also rebounded the ball significantly better at a rate of 51.9 percent compared to 46.9 percent when he was off the court.

Brooklyn will have its hands full, but if they can rebound the ball well and take care of the ball, Atlanta could have a tough time.

4 Portland Trail Blazers vs 5 Memphis Grizzlies (TNT, 8:00 P.M.)

Season Series: Memphis 4-0

If you had to seed the Western Conference solely on record, Memphis would be four and Portland would be six. Instead, we have a 4-5 matchup with contrasting styles. Memphis’ tough, rugged style of play goes up against the smooth jump-shooting team in Portland.

Memphis has had an excellent year, and it’s largely in part of Marc Gasol, who averaged a career-high 17.4 points. The acquisition of Jeff Green was made just for the playoffs, where the extra offensive firepower could help them take the next step. However, both teams are limping into the postseason.

Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph are all dealing with some sort of nagging injury, with Conley and Allen missing some game action because of it. On the flip side, Portland has been struggling to deal with injuries for as long as we can remember.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s thumb injury early in the season provided a scare, but he now has a foot issue as well. Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles back in March, and now his replacement in Arron Afflalo is questionable for Game 1 because of a shoulder sprain! Nicolas Batum and C.J. McCollum should be ready for Game 1, but Dorell Wright will be M.I.A. with a broken hand.

If the season series is any kind of predictor for this series, it could end rather quickly. Portland didn’t have any success against Memphis, losing games if they were close or out of reach. It’ll be up to Conley to make the difference against Portland, as he averaged 19 points and 8.7 assists in three matchups against Portland.

The real question is: who’ll be healthy enough to make it through the whole series?

Series Prediction: Memphis in 4

A sweep in the Western Conference might be harder to find than a four-leaf clover, but this series might be most susceptible to it. Memphis is a team that’s better built for the playoffs. When the game slows down, Memphis can trust in Gasol and Randolph to make the defensive stops when needed.

Portland, on the other hand, has struggled without Matthews and will continue to do so. Since Matthews went down with a torn Achilles, Portland has given up 102.8 points per game, compared to 97.0 points per game before the injury. Although Memphis isn’t a dominant offensive team, they’re still a NBA team nonetheless, ready to pounce on any mismatch when presented to them.

3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6 San Antonio Spurs (TNT, 10:30 P.M.)

Season Series: 2-2

The Clippers continue their postseason streak while the team they share the Staples Center with, the Lakers, have missed the postseason for another year. Returning to the postseason post-Donald Sterling scandal, the Clips are hoping for a distraction-free postseason. The Spurs are looking to do something that they haven’t done under the Popovich Era … repeat as champions.

The last time these two teams met in the postseason, the Spurs made short work of the Clippers, winning in four games. However, the improvement for the Clippers has been steady, with many saying this could be their best chance to win, especially with DeAndre Jordan’s expiring contract.

Don’t expect the Spurs to bow out easy. We’re talking about the team that has won five championships in three different decades; the team that has been called old since Tim Duncan’s rookie year, although they’re actually kind of old now.

Kawhi Leonard offsets that.

We saw the coronation of Leonard when he was named Finals MVP last year, and it looked like the Spurs era would be prolonged. He’s the next guy in the illustrious San Antonio superstar line. Now, can he build off the success from last postseason? His emergence has lengthened the careers of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, who are going through the twilight of their careers.

Right when we thought last year was their last year, the Spurs did Spurs-like things by winning over 50 games yet again despite injuries. Think about this: they’re one win off from being the second seed. Instead, they’re the sixth seed, and the last time the champions from the previous year earned a sixth seed the next? The 1994-95 Houston Rockets.

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Series Prediction: San Antonio in 7

This series is set to be an absolute slug fest, and to be completely honest, it could go either way. What we can expect is the same from coach Pop and the rest of the Spurs: a display of excellence that’ll frustrate opponents.

A little bit of hack-a-DeAndre will probably occur, too.

As disappointing it may be, the hack-a-DeAndre might be the deciding factor in this series. When these two teams faced on February 19, Jordan was sent to the line 28 times. The Spurs shot 23 free throws as a team that night.

Jordan knocked down 10 of 28 (35 percent) and will need to do much better if Popovich breaks out all the stops. He says he’s ready for it, though. 

Who comes out on top? Simple. Never count out Pop.

 





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