By Anthony Macri

The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming off one of the most impressive feats in NBA history, winning four times in a row against a team that had previously won 20 straight. With a young, talented triumvirate in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the Thunder possess a burst quality that makes them explosive offensively despite the tendency to revert to isolations and poor decisions. Their lack of true depth is something to consider, though it may be a mirage given the quality of their core group of players.

LeBron James’ play in the Eastern Conference finals was fantastic. He harnessed the Miami Heat to his back and carried them against the Boston Celtics despite the absence of Chris Bosh for most of the series and the inconsistency of Dwyane Wade in the last three games A man possessed for the entirety of Game 6 and in spurts of Game 7, James seems prepared to battle the demons of last year with a strong NBA Finals performance this season. However, he cannot do it alone. Wade must have a resurgence of mind and body, especially on the defensive end, and Bosh has to be ready for a much bigger share of the minutes. Heat coach Eric Spoelstra also has as much to prove as anyone going into this series, and must demonstrate the ability to manage emotions as this series promises to be full of runs for both sides.

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Eastern Conference Finals Preview: (2) Heat vs. (4) Celtics

By Anthony Macri

Things have started to appear normal again for the Miami Heat. After losing Chris Bosh in Game 1 of their conference semifinal series with the Indiana Pacers, the Heat have managed to stabilize their team and actually look better in some ways than they did when Bosh was healthy. Their quest for a championship, however, will require a lot more than they were able to give against the Pacers. After overwhelming the New York Knicks in their opening round matchup, the Heat encountered a foe that refused to back down in Indiana -- but that may have been just the wake-up call Miami needed, as the Heat closed that series out looking very strong down the stretch. Led by a big two of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the real question for Miami is where its other production comes from -- and, maybe more importantly, if it needs it.

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By Anthony Macri

The San Antonio Spurs are, in a word, rolling. Winners of 29 of their last 31 games (and 18 in a row), including playoffs, the Spurs look as dominant as any team in the past decade. After dispatching the Utah Jazz in four games, they took out the Los Angeles Clippers in convincing fashion, defeating their two playoff opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. Second in the league during the regular season in points scored, their offense was the most efficient, while their defensive efficiency was in the top third of the league. The three-headed monster of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are the core of the team, but the real story is in their reserves, where the Spurs are a legitimate 12 deep, with seven of their top 10 achieving a PER over the league average during the playoffs.

Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, and proved they were on the way to success by making the conference finals before bowing out to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. With only one postseason loss this year, OKC looks every bit like the team poised to actualize the potential shown last season. The second most efficient team on the offensive end (to San Antonio), the Thunder are also just behind the Spurs in defensive rating as well. Oklahoma City plays its top eight players a lion’s share of the minutes available, and of those eight, only four are over the league average in PER during the playoffs. Those four, however, are pretty good: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

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By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.

Oklahoma City Thunder

• The Thunder has a chance to win a NBA championship because of their “Big Three” of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They combined for 68.4 points per game during the regular season, which was 66.3 percent of Oklahoma City’s scoring. These three players put tremendous pressure on opponents because of their one-on-one skills and abilities to get to the free throw line. They combine to get to the line 19.9 times per game and all three of them are low-to-mid 80 percent free throw shooters.

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By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.

The Miami Heat were focused and locked in for their first round series with the New York Knicks. When they play with that type of intensity no one in the Eastern Conference can beat them. If the Pacers are not able to handle the one-on-one abilities of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, if they turn the ball over at a high rate or cannot keep the Heat from scoring in transition this could be a short series. The Pacers will have to be disciplined in their offensive approach and if they deviate they will struggle to score. They must move the ball from the strong side to the weak side with crisp passing and exact spacing. If they attempt to play primarily post up or isolation basketball they will struggle.

These two teams met four times during the regular season and the Heat won the series 3-1. The Pacers will be the underdog in this series because of the experience of the Heat, the talents of James and Wade, and because the Heat have home court advantage. The Heat went 31-5 at home over the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. The Pacers will struggle to win in Miami.

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By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.

The Boston Celtics have the experience, the home court and four All-Star players. That should be enough for them to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But the playoffs are all about matchups and the Celtics have a true advantage at only one position in this series. Therefore, this has the makings of a very close series.

Both teams are well coached with experienced playoff leaders. Both teams play tremendous defense, so each and every basket will be hard earned. This series will not be pretty, and it will not be high scoring. In fact, some of these games might be played in the high 70s to low 80s due to the healthy defenses and anemic offenses of both teams. That said, this promises to be extremely entertaining series because each and every game should be close.

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By John Carroll

Tom Thibodeau won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award a year ago and he deserves tremendous consideration again this year for having the Chicago Bulls back atop of the Eastern Conference. He repeated the feat of a year ago with last year’s MVP Derrick Rose out for 26 games this season, and locked down the No.1 seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Howeverm with Rose out for the season after tearing his ACL, Thibodeau and his team will be tested in a much different way.,

The Bulls won 18 regular-season games with the combination of C.J. Watson and John Lucas III at point guard. But winning playoff games will be extremely different. The Bulls will miss Rose’s ability to get into the teeth of the defense and create baskets for him and others. This is what makes the Bulls special offensively and is what is needed at playoff time. Without Rose the Bulls are much more limited offensively. They must find a way to get each other easy, open looks and shoot a high percentage in order to get by Philadelphia. Although the Bulls' chances of winning this series have lessened without Rose they are still one of the most complete teams in the NBA. They have more than enough talent and depth to win in the playoffs. They have been a grind it out team since Thibodeau arrived in Chicago; they'll need to be in order to advance.

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By John Carroll

The Memphis Grizzlies are a tough, hungry team that wants to double last year's postseason efforts and make a deep run in 2012. Lionel Hollins has done a terrific job molding this team into an excellent defensive team that pounds the ball inside on offense. The Grizzlies have one of the deepest frontcourts in the NBA with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights. Randolph may be the best low-post player in the NBA and he can get 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Grizzlies at any time in the postseason. They have a wing player in Rudy Gay who is an effortless, natural scorer. At the defensive end of the floor the Grizzlies have the height, length and toughness to combat the explosive play of Blake Griffin and negate his effectiveness.

The Grizzlies ended the season playing good basketball, going 13-3 in the month of April. They have the necessary tools to win in the postseason.

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By John Carroll

The Boston Celtics have had two completely different seasons: The one prior to the All-Star break, in which they went 15-17, and the one after the All-Star break, in which they went 24-10 and won the Atlantic Division. As a result, they received the No. 4 seed but not home-court advantage. That belongs to the Atlanta Hawks, who, despite being seeded one spot lower, finished with a better record overall.

The Celtics may or may not have what it takes to go the distance this year -- that it is yet to be seen -- but it is a fact that no one in the East wants to play them. As these playoffs begin, they are playing their best basketball of the season. If they can continue to get the terrific contributions from Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and if Avery Bradley can handle the pressure of the playoffs, the C’s could easily dispatch of the Hawks.

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By John Carroll

The playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets could be the most intriguing of the first round because of the contrast in styles between the two teams. The Lakers are about size and strength and the Nuggets are all about speed. The Lakers' interior offense of Andrew Bynums and Pau Gasol give them a distinct advantage over any other team in the NBA; no one can match the size and strength of the two Lakers big men.

Then after the Lakers pound you inside they have the option of going to the No. 1 closer in the NBA in Kobe Bryant. The Lakers are undefeated this season when Bryant and either Bynum or Gasol combine for over 20 points.

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By John Carroll

The San Antonio Spurs have just finished another fantastic season, in which they finished with the best record in the Western Conference. They are headed to their 15th consecutive postseason, the league’s longest active playoff streak.And this time the Spurs have done it with not only skilled veteran players, but young talent as well. Gregg Popovich has reorganized this franchise into one of the premier offensive teams in the NBA and one that has all the tools necessary to win a fifth championship.

If the Utah Jazz don't stand in their way.

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By John Carroll

The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the elite teams in the NBA and will have home court advantage at least through the first two rounds of the playoffs if they advance. They are a terrific offensive team that is led by the scoring of their two All Stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City is an unstoppable team in the open court where Westbrook pushes the ball and Durant and James Harden fill the wings. In addition the Thunder gets to the foul line and make opponents pay. They lead the league in free throw shooting, and in close playoff games the Thunder will have a major advantage in that very important phase of the game. Harden is the Thunder’s sixth starter. He is a prolific scorer who takes a lot of pressure off Durant and Westbrook. He can create his own shot against the premier defenders in the league. There is no other team in the NBA that can put three scorers on the court at the same time and can create a shot at any time by themselves. This is why the Thunder are such an explosive offensive team that could advance to the NBA Finals if everyone stays healthy.

If the Thunder are to advance throughout the playoffs they must be able exploit their strengths and hide their weaknesses. They have no low-post scoring to speak of. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison do not provide a low-post threat offensively and they cannot get easy baskets or get to the foul line. They score only off offensive rebounds, interior passes on drives and an occasional pick and pop. Secondly, the Thunder must stop turning the ball over in the playoffs. They are dead last in the NBA in most turnovers per game. Against the strong defensive teams they will face, their poor decision making could cost them. Thirdly, their bench must provide a much stronger effort on the defensive end of the floor. The Thunder starters are a solid defensive unit with excellent shot blocking and rebounding but there is a drop off defensively when they go to their bench and this must be corrected if they want to advance throughout the playoffs.

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By John Carroll

When the season began four months ago, everyone expected the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls to be the top two teams in the NBA. No one knew how the rest of the field would fare, but the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks were expected to slide into the third position. And although everyone acknowledged that the Indiana Pacers were a young, talented team, no one expected them to improve as quickly as they did this season. They finished the season with 42-24 record and have their highest seed since the 2003-04 season, when they were the top seed. This has been a great step forward for the organization, but after pushing the Bulls in the first round last year, right now they are looking to win their first-round series with the Magic.

The Orlando Magic franchise is a mess. The Magic have had so much turmoil this season with the Dwight Howard soap opera that their season cannot end fast enough. With Howard out of the lineup, it is hard to imagine this team winning a first-round series against any opponent. The Magic have struggled to defend and score since the departure of Howard, and these problems will be compounded in the playoffs. For everyone’s sake, the Magic should hope for a quick and painless exit in the first round. The Magic are expected to get Hedo Turkoglu back for the playoffs. He will play with a mask to protect his fractured cheekbone. Turkoglu has been a nonfactor this season for the Magic, so his return does not improve their chances to defeat the Pacers. The Magic defeated the Pacers three out of four times this season, and beat them twice in Indiana, so this looked like a good matchup several weeks ago. But without Howard in the lineup, coach Stan Van Gundy will have to go to the drawing board and add some new wrinkles and twists to his game plan to compete with the Pacers.

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By John Carroll

The Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals last season. This weekend, they will begin their quest to win an NBA championship by defeating the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

The Heat have all the ingredients needed to win a championship. They have two of the top-five players in the NBA in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. James fills a stat sheet every night for the Heat with points, rebounds and assists. He has developed a post game which, with his ability to get to the free throw line, should help him in end-game situations. Wade is an explosive scorer and has the confidence to close out games for the Heat. Chris Bosh is the best third option of any team in the NBA and has shown that he is not afraid to take and make a big shot. The Heat have improved their bench this season with the addition of Shane Battier and Norris Cole and the return of Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller after battling injuries last season.

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Tom Thibodeau won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award a year ago and deserves tremendous consideration again this year for having the Chicago Bulls back atop of the Eastern Conference. Even with last year’s MVP Derrick Rose out for 26 games this season, the team has locked down the No. 1 seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bulls are one of the top defensive and rebounding teams in the NBA. These two components have helped them return to the playoffs without Rose. But for this team to win multiple playoff series and return to the Eastern Conference finals, they need a healthy Rose. His ability to get into the teeth of the defense and create baskets for himself and others is what makes this team special offensively. Without Rose at close to 100 percent, the Bulls are relegated to way too many jump shots and cannot get past the elite teams in the East playing that way.

The Philadelphia 76ers had been melting down over the latter stages of the regular season and barely slipped into the eighth playoff position. They started the season with a stable roster from last season and raced out to a 20-9 record, doing it with defense, effort and a favorable schedule. But since that point, they have gone 15-22; this has caused them to drop from a favorable matchup with the Atlanta Hawks to playing the No 1 seed in the East, the Chicago Bulls.

As teams have rounded into shape and improved, the Sixers’ woeful offense has been thoroughly exposed. The Sixers team defense has remained stellar until recently but their offense has struggled mightily and their youth has come back to haunt them. The Sixers’ young players, who started out playing team basketball early in the season, have recently begun to complain, make excuses and worry only about themselves. This behavior does not bode well for them in the playoffs, where a team’s problems are all exposed.

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