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The players, stats and storylines that will shape the playoffs

The players, stats and storylines that will shape the playoffs
From ESPN - April 12, 2018

After six months of streaks, showdowns and social-media mayhem, it's time for even more drama. With intriguing storylines from top to bottom, the 2018 playoffs are shaping up to be must-see TV.

Here's why each of the postseason's 16 teams will leave you on the edge of your seat during one of the most binge-worthy NBA playoffs ever.

1. Houston Rockets

2017-18 record: 65-17
BPI odds vs. MIN: 88 percent

Remember all the doubts about whether James Harden and Chris Paul could work together? Those questions seem hilarious now. The Rockets rewrote the franchise record books en route to the best record in the league as Harden staked claim to what should be his first MVP award.

Who has the most to prove?
Harden and Paul. There is not a duo in the NBA that has more to prove in the playoffs. That's why they joined forces last summer. A failure to advance past the second round is the one blemish on Paul's surefire Hall of Fame rsum, never mind that his playoff numbers (21.4 points, 9.4 assists, 48.4 percent shooting) compare favorably with his career stats. For Harden, his most recent postseason memory is a horrible no-show (10 points, 2-of-11 shooting, 6 turnovers) last year in Game 6 of the West semis against the Kawhi-less Spurs that ended the Rockets' season.

Season in a single game: Dec. 9
Harden's historic 60-point triple-double aside, the story of these Rockets has been the collaborative brilliance of their co-superstars. That was epitomized in their Dec. 9 win in Portland, the first time the pair played together in a clutch situation, which did not happen for a while due to Paul's knee injury and the Rockets' dominance upon his return. Harden and Paul took turns carving up the Blazers' defense, accounting for all but one bucket as the Rockets scored 21 points in the final five minutes.

Second Spectrum says:
James Harden broke Wesley Johnson's ankles with a stepback 3-pointer earlier this season, and there's always a chance we will see more defenders go do. Harden has made more than three times as many 3-pointers on stepback shots as any other player this season.

Season is a success if ...
Let's put this in Texan terms: It ai not a success without a championship parade. The Rockets never got too high during any of their three double-digit win streaks -- or after breaking the franchise record for wins in a season -- because they have had a championship-or-bust mentality from the moment Paul arrived in Houston. The Rockets confirmed their belief that general manager Daryl Morey had put together a team great enough to challenge the mighty Warriors by cruising through the regular season. They are 16 wins away from satisfaction.

-- Tim MacMahon

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2. Golden State Warriors

2017-18 record: 58-24
BPI odds vs. SA: 76 percent

The defending champs have petered into the playoffs, having lost 10 of their past 17 games. The team has struggled without its leader, Stephen Curry, who will be sidelined for the opening round with an MCL injury. Can the team play at a high level without Steph? Can the Warriors turn it on during the playoffs? Is Steve Kerr's voice still effective? Those are some of the questions facing the Warriors as they enter the postseason looking vulnerable.

Who has the most to prove?
Kevin Durant. Golden State was 40-10 with Curry in the lineup and an underwhelming 17-14 when he was in street clothes. Durant, along with the rest of the team, has not been able to adjust to Curry's departure in part because the Warriors are mostly running the same system in which the two-time MVP flourished. Will Kerr alter the offense and cater it toward Durant?

Season in a single game: April 10
Utah's pounding Golden State by 40 was an extreme display of how this squad has been going through the motions and living off supreme talent. The Warriors could simply flip the switch in Game 1 of the playoffs, but they are not going in with the best of habits.

Second Spectrum says:
The best play in the NBA this season has been the Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll. With Curry as the ball handler and Durant as the screener, the Warriors have averaged 1.29 points per direct play. No other play type -- pick-and-roll or otherwise -- has averaged more points per direct play.

Season is a success if ...
It's title-or-bust for the defending champs. Golden State used to have a small-ball advantage, but now the majority of NBA teams are made up of small, shooting lineups. Injuries and the emergence of the Rockets could derail the Warriors' quest. They might be favorites, but this wo not be a cake walk.

-- Chris Haynes

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3. Portland Trail Blazers

2017-18 record: 49-33
BPI odds vs. NO: 63 percent

On track for another season in the vicinity of .500 through mid-February, Portland caught fire during a 13-game win streak that propelled the Blazers into the top half of the Western Conference standings. Terry Stotts' defensive scheme, built around preventing high-value shots and forcing 2-pointers outside the paint, has turned Portland's liability into a top-10 unit.

The playoffs will be the Blazers' opportunity to prove that the combination of improved defense and scoring provided by the guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum makes them a threat to the West's elite.

Who has the most to prove?
Jusuf Nurkic. The addition of Nurkic midseason was a key factor in last year's (now trademark) Portland second-half run, but the Bosnian Beast was limited to 17 total minutes in the Blazers' first-round sweep at the hands of the Warriors. Although Nurkic's offense has not carried over on a consistent basis this season, his ability to protect the rim has anchored Portland's defense. With restricted free agency looming, Nurkic can solidify his value by avoiding foul trouble and making good decisions with the ball on offense.

Season in a single game: Feb. 14
Coming off a home loss to the Jazz that dropped them within a game of falling out of the playoffs, the Blazers started their 13-game win streak in style. They blitzed the Warriors from the start, running up 40 points in the first quarter and withstanding a 50-point effort from Kevin Durant to win 123-117. The game showcased Portland's winning formula offensively: a huge game from Lillard (44 points, eight assists) with plenty of scoring from McCollum (29 points) and a strong effort by Nurkic (17 points, 13 rebounds).

Second Spectrum says:
McCollum ran 2.70 miles per game this season, the most by any player in the NBA, while Lillard ranks tied for eighth on that list at 2.54. Portland is the only team in the NBA that has two players in the top 10. That's even more notable considering the Blazers rank 19th in the NBA in pace (possessions per 48 minutes).

Season is a success if ...
The Blazers are competitive in the second round of the playoffs. Winning a series would not be new for the Blazers in the Lillard-McCollum era, though they benefited from injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul during their first-round win over the Clippers two years ago. To justify the luxury-tax bill that re-signing Nurkic and backup center Ed Davis would likely require, Portland could use a couple wins in a matchup with one of the West's powers.

-- Kevin Pelton

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4. Oklahoma City Thunder

2017-18 record: 48-34
BPI odds vs. UTAH: 53 percent

The Thunder spent the season confusing the league and themselves. The glimpses of potential in emphatic wins mixed with head-scratching losses kept them at risk of not making the playoffs until the final week of the season. But with top-tier talent, they could have the Western Conference on notice. The thinking all season was the Thunder were built for the postseason.

Russell Westbrook strikes fear in opponents on his own, but with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony alongside him, the Thunder have upside that creates the feeling that a light bulb could go on at any moment.

Who has the most to prove?
Westbrook. As with everything Thunder-related, this postseason will be yet another evaluation and pending referendum on last year's MVP. All eyes will be on how he manages crucial possessions with George and Anthony, if he can stay balanced and if the Thunder can execute in big moments. Westbrook is the Thunder's leader and has established that, like last season, the team still goes as he does.

Season in a single game: April 7
Beating the Rockets on the road with three games to go in a near must-win scenario summed up the Thunder's roller-coaster season. They spent the season leaning on their ability to raise their level of play against the league's best (7-4 against the Rockets, Warriors, Raptors and Cavaliers) but played down to teams around or below .500. But when their backs were against the wall and things were on the verge of unraveling, even against the elite teams, the Thunder found a way to stay above water. Winning in Houston was not pretty -- the Thunder's three stars struggled -- but some timely playmaking and good enough defense got it done.

Second Spectrum says:
One reason OKC is so tough? They out-hustle opponents. The Thunder rank first in the NBA in both deflections and loose balls recovered. Leading the way are their two best players: George's 3.9 deflections per game lead the NBA, as do Westbrook's 2.2 loose balls recovered per game.

Season is a success if ...
The Thunder were billed before the season as contenders. But with the way it has played out, winning their opening-round series and playing a competitive second round against the Rockets would be a reasonably successful outcome. The fit with Westbrook, George and Anthony took more time than expected, and the bumps along the way left the Thunder in a precarious position. If OKC can do enough to convince George to return and this becomes year one of a four- or five-year window, playing into the second round would be viewed as a job pretty well done.

-- Royce Young

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5. Utah Jazz

2017-18 record: 48-34
BPI odds vs. OKC: 47 percent

With Rudy Gobert protecting the rim, the Jazz are the NBA's best defensive team, which makes them dangerous. Rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell has the ability to score in bunches, making the Jazz entertaining and easing the blow of losing All-Star Gordon Hayward in free agency.

The Jazz roll into the playoffs with momentum, playing at an elite level over a span of nearly three months since Gobert got healthy. Only the Rockets had more wins since Jan. 24 than the Jazz, who climbed from nine games under .500 to the No. 4 seed with a 25-5 run in which Utah had the NBA's best point differential (plus-10.7 per game).

Who has the most to prove?
Ricky Rubio, who will finally taste the NBA playoffs. He has played in high-stakes games internationally for Spain, so Rubio should not wilt under the pressure. But is he a long-term fit with Utah's core or simply a placeholder at point guard next to Mitchell? With a year remaining on his contract, Rubio has played a significant role in the Jazz's run by making foes pay for giving him good looks. Rubio's 3-point stroke has been a glaring weakness throughout his career, but he has shot 43.6 percent from long range since Jan. 24.

Season in a single game: Dec. 1
It was apparent that the Jazz got great value by trading up to draft Mitchell with the 13th overall pick before he poured in a franchise-rookie-record 41 points in a comeback win over the Pelicans on Dec. 1. That performance validated hope that Mitchell could be the bonafide go-to guy the Jazz so desperately need in the wake of Hayward's departure. Mitchell, the first rookie since Carmelo Anthony to lead a playoff team in scoring, scored 12 points in the final five minutes that night. That was a healthy helping of the kind of killer instinct Mitchell has shown consistently, even though it is rare in a young player.

Second Spectrum says:
Think Utah is lost on offense without the departed Hayward? Think again. The Jazz find ways to get good looks. They created 19.8 uncontested shots per game this season, best in the NBA.

Season is a success if ...
This season is already a success, not that they'd be satisfied with a first-round exit. Few expected the Jazz to return to the postseason right after Hayward's exit, which could have been crippling for a small-market team that relies heavily on developing homegrown talent. Even fewer anticipated that the Jazz could overcome Gobert's missing 26 games due to injury. Quin Snyder, who has quietly established himself among the league's best coaches, deserves a lot of credit. With Gobert and Mitchell as foundation pieces, the forecast for Utah is bright.

-- Tim MacMahon

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6. New Orleans Pelicans

2017-18 record: 48-34
BPI odds vs. POR: 37 percent

Anthony Davis is worth watching every game just to see what spectacular line he will put up next. New Orleans has surprised many with an inspiring playoff run after losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury. After Cousins went down with an Achilles injury on Jan. 26, the Pelicans lost five of six games but recovered from that Boogie hangover by going 20-8 since Feb. 10, riding Davis' MVP-caliber play.

Who has the most to prove?
Playoff Brow. The NBA world will be watching to see what he will do in his second trip to the postseason. Davis hopes to make this one last a little bit longer than his first playoff experience, in which he averaged 31.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 1.3 steals but was swept by Golden State. Can Davis overcome a defense that will spend an entire series geared toward containing him?

Season in a single game: Feb. 26
Davis did more than just carry the Pelicans after the Cousins injury. He went on a historic tear, leading the Pelicans on a crucial 10-game win streak. His defining moment in that stretch came against Phoenix, when he detonated for 53 points, 18 rebounds and 5 blocks, joining Bob McAdoo as the only NBA players with 50 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks in a game since blocks were first tracked in 1973-74, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Second Spectrum says:
If you are into helter skelter, the Pelicans are the team for you. More than simply Davis' dominance since Cousins went down, New Orleans has ramped up the speed at which it plays, ranking first in pace and averaging more miles per hour on offense than any other playoff team.

Season is a success if ...
The Pelicans advance out of the first round. Cousins' injury figured to rip New Orleans' playoff chances to shreds, but Alvin Gentry's team persevered. Even when the team hit a four-game slide in late March that threatened its playoff chances, the Pelicans bounced back by winning the next four games. Every team in the West not playing Houston or Golden State in the first round will feel like it can advance after basically playing do-or-die games down the stretch to get in. New Orleans has a chance to advance with Davis on its side.

-- Ohm Youngmisuk

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7. San Antonio Spurs

2017-18 record: 47-35
BPI odds vs. GS: 24 percent

Despite missing its best player in star forward Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games, San Antonio found lineups and rotations that consistently competed with the best teams in the West. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge became the player the Spurs expected in the summer of 2015 when they signed him as that year's most significant free-agent acquisition. He has been deserving of being included in the MVP conversation this season.

Who has the most to prove?
Aldridge. The absence of Leonard coupled with a putrid performance in the postseason last year makes him a marked man. In Game 1 of the 2017 conference semifinals, Aldridge scored a career-low four points and finished with a plus-minus of minus-36, which registered as the worst by a Spur in the postseason under Gregg Popovich. In the 43 minutes after Leonard limped off the floor last year with an ankle injury in the conference finals against Golden State, Aldridge posted more turnovers (eight) than made baskets (seven). Second-year point guard Dejounte Murray falls into this category, too, after wrestling the starting job away from future Hall of Famer Tony Parker.

Season in a single game: March 8
Leading Golden State by eight points with 4:44 left to play, the Spurs watched Kevin Durant go off for 15 of his game-high 37 points in the fourth quarter as the Warriors rallied to a 110-107 victory. The fact that Stephen Curry left the game in the first half with an ankle injury only amplified frustrations for San Antonio, which has become accustomed to blowing prime opportunities this season due to shoddy clutch-time performances. The Spurs have missed Leonard's ability to close games.

Second Spectrum says:
The Spurs still have a superstar stopper, and it is not Kawhi Leonard. Among 212 players to face at least 30 drives against 2018 All-Stars, Kyle Anderson allows the third fewest points per chance on drives, at 0.72.

Season is a success if ...
Given all the drama stirred up from the bizarre Kawhi saga and all the tinkering with rotations to get San Antonio into the postseason for the 21st consecutive year, this season is already a success, with Popovich deserving of Coach of the Year consideration. But the real indicator of whether this season has been a success is when, if at all, Leonard returns to the lineup. The Spurs want Leonard back on the floor, but it's not about what he can do to help them win, according to a league source. It's about showing the rest of the team he is committed to San Antonio for the long haul. The team needs to see Leonard in the locker room, in film sessions, on the team plane and at team dinners. Leonard is up for a supermax extension this summer, and a return in the playoffs could go a long way toward alleviating doubts about his long-term prospects in San Antonio.

-- Michael C. Wright

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8. Minnesota Timberwolves

2017-18 record: 47-35
BPI odds vs. HOU: 12 percent

The suspense held until the regular season's finale, but the Timberwolves are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Jimmy Butler loves the stage the playoffs provide and desperately wants to show that he can lead his team into the second round and beyond, but his health will be worth monitoring after he missed more than a month because of a meniscus injury in his knee.

Who has the most to prove?
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who are supposed to be the future of the Timberwolves organization. But neither young player has developed the way Tom Thibodeau would have liked. Towns has superior offensive talent and shown flashes of putting it all together, but there are far too many times when he does not have a solid presence defensively. As for Wiggins, he has not shown consistency on either end.

Season in a single game: April 11
The drought is over! Game No. 82 sent Minnesota to the postseason for the first time in 14 years in a de facto playoff game of its own, as Butler poured in 31 points and Towns added 26 in an overtime thriller against the Nuggets.

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1. Toronto Raptors

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3. Philadelphia 76ers

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5. Indiana Pacers

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7. Milwaukee Bucks

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