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Czar’s Playoff Preview: Clippers vs. Spurs Game 1

The Los Angeles Clippers come to the Alamo City tonight to take on the #1-seeded Spurs. The Spurs finished the lockout-shortened season at 50-16, tied with the Bulls for best record in the NBA. 2012 Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich’s squad is on a 14-game winning streak, and they’ve had plenty of time to rest up since sweeping the Utah Jazz in the first round on May 7th.

On the other bench, the Clippers are tired and dinged-up thanks to a knock-em-down, seven-game first round series with the physical, bruising Grizzlies. The West’s 5th seed won on Sunday 82-72 in Memphis and advanced to the second round for only the third time in franchise history.

2nd-year All-Star Blake Griffin played only two minutes in the 4th quarter in the Game 7 victory, partly because he’s been hobbled with a sprained left knee. If tonight’s 48 were a regular season game Griffin would definitely be sitting out, but it’s the do-or-die postseason and LA will need his 20.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg and athletic energy to compete against the disciplined depth of the Spurs.

5X All-Star PG Chris Paul, who finished third in the MVP balloting this year, is also less than 100% as he’s nursing a strained right hip flexor. 1st-year Clip Paul went for 19 and 9 on Sunday and was the key to the success of the Clips this season. He can dominate both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor and has the best handle in the league. The Wake Forest product has led the league in steals four times including this season. Paul’s matchup with 4X All-Star PG Tony Parker (who finished 5th in MVP voting this year) and his ability to slow down the zooming Frenchman will be critical for LA to have a chance in this series.

LA’s Vinny Del Negro had his best W-L % this year as a head coach, .606, and is in the second round for the first time. Del Negro endured loads of criticism, second-guessing and negative rumors during the year, but toughed it out and has ClipperLand giddy with their first round success. Interestingly, the pride of Springfield, MA once suited up as a Spur for Gregg Popovich in Pop’s first two years in San Antonio.

These two sides played three times this regular season, twice in Texas and once at Staples. The Spurs came out on top on December 28th at home 115-90 and on February 18th in SoCal 103-100 in OT. Their final meeting was on March 9th in San Antonio, and the Clippers prevailed 120-108. Paul had 36 points, 11 dimes and 4 steals in that win, although his lead-guard rival Parker was out with a sore thigh. Regardless, that victory should give the long-suffering Clipper fan base some hope when the Game 1 tips off.

Tune in tonight at 9:30 PM ET to watch the 4-banner Spurs take on the upstart Clippers on TNT.

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Czar’s Playoff Preview: Sixers vs. Celtics Game 1

The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics have a rivalry that dates back to the 1960’s. These two storied franchises have met 11 times in the postseason since 1964. They last competed in the playoffs 10 long years ago in the 2002 Eastern Conference first round.

Tonight’s Game 1 of this Eastern Conference semifinal features just one player who participated in that series in 2002 – C’s captain Paul Pierce. Though the historic rivalry between these two sides isn’t all that fresh, I expect a bruising, competitive series.

Both the Celtics and 76ers finished off their first-round opponents on Thursday in front of their home fans to win their respective series 4-2 as underdogs. The Green beat back the relentless Atlanta Hawks 83-80 thanks in large part to 17th-year Kevin Garnett, who delivered in the clutch and had his best game of this season going for 28 points, 14 boards, 5 blocks and 3 steals.

KG knew going into this game that he would have to produce because the other two veteran members of the C’s Big 3 were banged up. Paul Pierce has a sprained MCL in his left knee and Ray Allen has been in and out of Doc Rivers’ rotation with stubborn bone spurs in his right ankle.

The risk GM Danny Ainge took when he decided to keep his aged core intact for another run at the ring was the possibility of injury slowing them down. The other side of that coin is that these playoff-tested veterans have the experience, wisdom and leadership to impart to the team as a whole and to utilize against their opponents.

When the 8th-seed Philadelphia Sixers upset the 1st-seed Chicago Bulls, Coach Doug Collins’ guys became just the fifth number 8-seed to knock off a number 1-seed in NBA history. Philly had not won a playoff series since 2003, but with Chicago missing 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose and starting center Joakim Noah, the 76ers closed it out 79-78 with the oft-maligned Andre Iguodala leading the way. The longest tenured 76er had 20 points, 7 dimes and hit the series-winning free throws with 2.2 seconds left.

The depth and balance of this Philly team has been on display all year and was a key in their first round upset. They have five guys who averaged double digit scoring and eight players who averaged at least 8.4 ppg. This makes them a formidable matchup because it’s hard for their opponent to game plan and zero in on containing any one particular player. On a given night someone different might step up on offense.

Boston and Philly played three times this shortened regular season. The 76ers beat the C’s twice in the City of Brotherly Love, 103-71 and 99-86. The blowout on March 7th was Boston’s worst defeat this season. On April 8th in Beantown, the Celts paid Philly back with a hometown beat-down of their own, winning 103-79. Tune in to TNT at 8PM ET to see if the 76ers’ athleticism and balance can overcome the Celtics’ veteran poise.

Czar Star: Rajon Rondo

The Boston Celtics’ mercurial 6th-year PG Rajon Rondo has been the object of much debate and discussion throughout the 2011-2012 season. The former Kentucky Wildcat was the subject of multiple trade rumors (Chris Paul swap?) prior to the regular season and then again at the trade deadline in March.

Rondo played it cool as the talk and speculation swirled in sports-obsessed Boston. He can be aloof, and in this instance it served him well. GM Danny Ainge kept the veteran-laden Celtics team intact, and now they will attempt to make a third trip to the NBA Finals with Rondo at the 1.

The 3X All-Star has appeared in 78 postseason games in his brief career. Rondo excels in the playoffs both offensively and on the defensive end. In Boston’s first-round series victory over Atlanta, Rondo bettered his production in every significant stat when compared to the regular season. Rondo’s scoring output is up significantly from 11.9 ppg to 16.8 ppg, and his averages in FG%, 3pt FG% and rebounding all improved during the 16-squad test of toughness, endurance, nerves and will.

For all playoff teams, the core guys and stars spend more time on the court now that every minute of the 48 is critical. Rondo’s minutes are up 14%, but his turnovers and personal fouls are down. Rondo leads the NBA this postseason in dimes and swipes with 11.8 and 3.4 respectively. In the first round he had game highs of 20 points (twice), 16 dimes and 5 steals.

Rondo does sometimes make bad decisions in the heat of the moment. He was suspended for Game 2 for intentionally bumping a referee in Game 1 of the Hawks series. But when he came back for the third game, Rondo posted 17 points, 12 assists, 14 rebounds and 4 steals in the C’s win, bringing his career total of playoff triple-doubles to seven.

The Celtics have three future HOF’ers on their roster, but Rondo is the engine for their success and the catalyst in former PG Doc Rivers’ game plan. His penetration, distribution and clamp-down D give Boston a dynamic weapon against opponents of various styles and strengths. Look for him to elevate his already explosive game in the next round against historical foe Philly.