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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 10:19 AM

Okay, so you've circled your calendar page that reads Thursday, April 26th 'cause that's the last night of this lockout-marred 2011-12 NBA regular season and who could blame any of us hard-core hoop fans for really/truly looking forward to this year's NBA Playoffs?

Heck, this is a whole lot more than just the Miami Heat's here-and-now quest to win it all after getting spanked by the Dallas Mavericks (remember them?) in last year's NBA Finals.

The truth of the matter is there are merely a gazillion storylines out there in NBA-land and we hope to answer some of 'em right here in the space below as we examine playoff-bound teams that are "Hot-To-Trot" or else they might fall into our "Steer Clear Away" category as teams that likely will have a short shelf life in this year's NBA post-season and we've even included a "Tread Lightly" category for a couple of teams that probably cannot be trusted to go all that far.

Plus, there are other questions out there such as ...

Is the Oklahoma City Thunder ready to take that proverbial next step and win it all this year?

Can the Chicago Bulls keep mega-star point guard Derrick Rose in one piece for the whole post-season?

And is there a surprise team out there that will come from the fourth, fifth or even the eighth seed in either the Eastern or Western Conference that can climb their way to the NBA Finals? You might recall that in the NBA's other shortened season (see 1999) the then eighth-seeded New York Knicks made it all the way to the NBA Finals before getting bounced by the San Antonio Spurs in five games.

Speaking of the Spurs could they delay "Father Time" and win a fifth crown in 14 years?

Ahhh, we told you this is gonna be fun!
Now, here's a batch of NBA playoff-bound teams that deserve our attention as we get set to wrap up regular-season play:


In the NBA's Eastern Conference, it's ...

BOSTON - Sorry to be the "master of the obvious" but here come the Celtics rollin' strong in April and apparently healthier than they have been for quite some time. As long as All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo keeps posting double-digit assists totals every night, this veteran club is in very good hands and no matter where they finish anywhere between the #3 seed and the #6 seed the C's will be a major handful for any/all comers. Want to know what we really like about the Celtics as they head into this year's post-season? The silly on-court friction among some of the players has disappeared and there is a great sense that sharing the basketball will lead to lots of "W's" and do keep in mind the Celtics were playing .675 ball inside the Eastern Conference at last glance.

In the NBA's Western Conference, it's ...

HOUSTON - No doubt the Rockets have flown under the proverbial radar for much of this current campaign but that recent four-game road winning streak that included triumphs in Chicago and at the LA Lakers really got everyone's attention. Hats off to first-year head coach Kevin McHale who has this team knowing its individual roles and don't sleep on lefty PG Goran Dragic who is shooting it at better than 50 percent from the floor this year and he always knows where to find in-the-paint muscle man Luis Scola. Meanwhile, the Rockets' bench also has kicked it into overdrive lately as backup PG Kyle Lowry and three-point shooter Chase Budinger both are capable of lighting an offensive fire with this club - do not at all be surprised if/when Houston wins a couple of rounds in this post-season and cashes a slew of wagers along the way.

MEMPHIS - At last check, the Grizzlies were pushing hard to get home-court advantage in the first round of thee Western Conference Playoffs and suddenly this club is resembling the one that last year made some much playoff noise. Throw into the here-and-now mix the fact that Memphis knows it has a true go-to guy in Rudy Gay (he needs to attempt a minimum of 20 FGs per game this post-season) and the bench has been developed in recent weeks and should be a major strength. Gut feel is these Grizzlies will cover the majority of their playoff games this year and could be a real bookie-buster whenever taking points ... you heard it here first!

In the East, it's ...
ORLANDO - No question that Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy and disgruntled star player Dwight Howard have engaged in their own little mini-drama for the better part of the past two months and who needs to count on this group now come playoff time? Consider that Howard has missed a handful of games with back spasms and scoring star Hedo Turkoglu is hurting after facial surgery and the fact remains Orlando cannot be trusted in crunch-time games after playing such erratic ball this year. It could well be one-and-done time for Orlando come these NBA Playoffs.

PHILADELPHIA - Sure seemed the 76ers were "running on empty" late in this 2011-12 season and maybe that's because hard-driving head coach Doug Collins simply asked for too many minutes from the likes of Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday and veteran Andre Iguodala. Philly brings its lunch pail to every game but here's a notion that the Sixers don't offer any real betting value in this post-season and could get squashed fast by one of the East's elite teams.

In the West, it's ...
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS - We know, we know. This is a whole new era in Clippers basketball with jumping-jack Blake Griffin and PG Chris Paul the newest Batman & Robin duo in the NBA but there are more than a few things that should bother you about Vinny Del Negro's team come playoff team: Right on top of the list is the fact the Clips are not great in the half-court style of play that is pre-dominant in the league come playoff time plus Griffin - in case you had not noticed - really has a tough time shooting over bigger/longer defenders and so this Staples Center tenant often has to rely on the likes of Nick Young and Caron Butler to score in the half-court. Not good!


The Eastern Conference includes ...
CHICAGO - The fact that the aforementioned Rose has missed so must game time this year with assorted injuries has him ultra-rusty (see recent OT win against Miami when he scored just 2 points on 1-of-13 FG shooting in 25 minutes of action) and so don't automatically assume his club will waltz its way through the post-season. The Bulls could be in a meat-grinder series or two this spring and the team's offensive shortcomings if/when Rose is either out or not playing well could come back to haunt 'em.

The Western Conference teams include ...
LOS ANGELES LAKERS - Even if you forget the recent shin injury to Kobe Bryant and all those on-court temper tantrums by C Kevin Bynum, the case could be made that this is the weakest Lakers team to enter the post-season since the pre-Shaquille O'Neal days. The Lakers don't always know what new point guard Ramon Sessions is going to give them and now he's hurting too. You might wish to forget the notion of wagering on Mike Brown's club on the road too.
SAN ANTONIO - Count us among the folks who have loved/admired these Spurs over the years but don't get carried away with the fact San Antonio was playing .700-plus ball at last check. Head coach Gregg Popovich was - rather famously -- resting veteran stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker every chance he got but can he really afford to take that tact come the post-season?
Let's round out our NBA Playoff look with some words on the aforementioned Heat and Thunder:

Everyone's expecting these clubs to collide in this year's NBA Finals but keep in mind it's a major grind to just get to the final round and Miami still has problems closing out folks (especially on the road) while Okie City players sometimes stand around and wait for scoring leader Kevin Durant to save them. If truth be told, neither the Heat nor the Thunder figure to be major money-earners for bettors this post-season as high price tags at home more-than-likely will wreck their respective pointspread records.

At this time of the year, it's neat to latch onto a team that's "finding itself" (see Houston or Memphis) or simply knows what they have (see Boston).

Last year's champions - those Mavs - might be feeling a tad disrespected these days and so Dirk Nowitzki and mates could be a handful for somebody out there but odds are a fresh face will win it all in late June ...

But just whose face will it be?

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