Survival Guides for Every 2013 NBA Playoff Team

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2013

Survival Guides for Every 2013 NBA Playoff Team

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    The NBA playoffs are finally here, and 16 teams will compete for the honor of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June. 

    Eastern Conference competitors will be scanning for ways to make a dent in the Miami Heat's seemingly indestructible armor, while the Western Conference is loaded with elite teams threatening to knock the Oklahoma City Thunder off their throne.

    Each team's keys to success differ, which is why we're here to break down how various stars and X-factors will contribute to quests for playoff immortality.

    For some franchises, surviving the first round would be a major coup. For others, anything less than a title will be considered a big-time disappointment.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Key Players: Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings

    X-Factor: Larry Sanders

    All things considered, the Milwaukee Bucks will need the help of divine intervention in order to knock off the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Bucks are the only team to qualify for the playoffs that posted a losing record during the 2012-13 regular season.

    Of primary importance for the Bucks in their first-round series will be the production of their ridiculously gifted yet infuriatingly inconsistent backcourt.

    Ellis and Jennings were the Bucks' one-two scoring punch throughout the regular season, combining to average a shade under 37 points per game. That figure accounted for roughly 37 percent of the team's output each night. 

    For the Bucks to swipe even one game, it won't be the volume at which Ellis and Jennings score that will be important. In the end, it comes down to efficiency.

    Neither Ellis nor Jennings are gun-shy, as evidenced by their near-2,700 combined field-goal attempts and 41.6 and 39.9 percent shooting, respectively. Marks closer to 50 percent will need to be the norm for Milwaukee to have any sort of realistic expectation of winning.

    Aside from the enigmas that are Ellis and Jennings, the Bucks will need massive production from Larry Sanders, the 24-year-old center who averaged an impressive 2.8 blocks per game this season.

    Matching up against a Heat team that's not at a significant advantage in the size department, Sanders could wind up being a major factor in the series.

    If Sanders can find ways to use his elite length and shot-blocking ability to disrupt the Heat's path to the basket, perhaps the Bucks will be able to avoid being swept.

    In the end, it's all going to come down to defense. The Bucks may be able to keep pace with the Heat in a shootout, but they allowed 100.4 points per game during the regular season, a mark that ranked 20th in the NBA.

    That number would need to resemble a top-five mark in order for the Bucks to stun the basketball world.

Boston Celtics

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    Key Players: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley

    X-Factor: Jason Terry

    Seeding would make you believe differently, but the Boston Celtics have a real chance to pull off a first-round upset against the New York Knicks.

    In order to do so, the Celtics will need to put together a spectacular run of offensive performances.

    Boston's defense finished the season ranked 12th in opponents' points per game and seventh in defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference, but the story for Doc Rivers' squad on the offensive end wasn't nearly as pretty.

    The Celtics failed to average 100 points per game and mustered a weak average of 103.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranked 24th in the NBA.

    The defense will always be a constant for teams coached by Rivers, but the offense will need to come around in a big way in order for the Celtics to knock off their Atlantic Division rivals.

    Specifically, the onus will be on Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jeff Green to lead the way. On the season, Green only averaged a shade under 13 points per game, but with a boost in minutes, that average could creep close to the 15-16 point-per-game range.

    If Pierce and Garnett can combine to average somewhere in the neighborhood of 38 points per game for the playoffs (they averaged 33.4 in the regular season), the Knicks will be in real trouble.

    The biggest X-factor for the Celtics will be Jason Terry, who's no stranger to stepping up on a grand postseason stage.

    Terry finished the season as the Celtics' fifth-leading scorer, scoring 10.1 points in 26.9 minutes per game.

    If Terry can regain the form he flashed with the Dallas Mavericks throughout their 2011 title run (when he shot 47.8 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three), the Celtics will be in fantastic shape to make another deep playoff run.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Key Players: Jeff Teague, Josh Smith, Al Horford

    X-Factor: Devin Harris

    The Atlanta Hawks were your run-of-the-mill Eastern Conference contender throughout the 2012-13 regular season.

    As a team, the Hawks ranked 18th in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating. In order to win even one series come playoff time, the Hawks will need to find their stroke from beyond the arc while prohibiting opponents from shredding them from deep.

    The Hawks ranked seventh in the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage, according to Basketball-Reference, as they converted on 37.1 percent of their looks from beyond. However, they allowed opponents to shoot 37.9 percent from deep, a mark which ranked third worst overall.

    One other point of offensive emphasis for Atlanta will be getting to the free-throw line more. The Hawks ranked 27th in free throws attempted and 28th in free throws made.

    The driving forces behind the Hawks offense will be the diverse trio of Jeff Teague, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Teague provides the outside shooting necessary to stabilize the Atlanta offense, as evidenced by his 41.2 percent three-point shooting in last year's postseason.

    With Horford good for a double-double each game (he averaged 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game this season), the onus will be on Smith to make his game more efficient.

    All too often, Smith finds himself smitten with the mid-range jumper, and that was a big factor in his 46.5 percent shooting from the field this season. If Smith can become more selective and work that number up toward 50 percent in the playoffs, the Hawks increase their chances of winning their first-round series.

    Devin Harris, meanwhile, brings playoff experience and leadership off the bench. What's more, he's their only true floor general behind Teague, so if the youngster gets in foul trouble or has a bad night, Atlanta may look to Harris to pick up the pieces.

Chicago Bulls

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    Key Players: Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler

    X-Factor: Nate Robinson 

    The key to postseason longevity for the Chicago Bulls lies in consistent offensive outings. With Derrick Rose absent for the entirety of the regular season, the Bulls resorted to unconventional means in order to find even somewhat steady production from the point guard position.

    Little Nate Robinson burst onto the scene in his first season with Chicago, averaging 13.1 points on a rather inefficient 43.3 percent shooting.

    In order for the Bulls to have success, Robinson will need to play more under control than he has in recent weeks. All it takes for Robinson to get the irrational confidence he's famous for is to see one shot fall, but that's the risk you take when doling out minutes to an enigmatic character like Nate.

    Although the Bulls possess four players who finished the season averaging double figures in the scoring column (and two others at 9.8 and 9.6 per game), none of them would be classified as prolific scorers.

    With that being said, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer will all need to ramp up their offensive efforts.

    In the end, that increased production would look something like this: Deng averaging 19-20 points per game and Boozer netting between 16 and 18 a game while Noah posts a minimum of 15.

    The NBA's third-best team in terms of opponents' points allowed, the Bulls should have no problem turning playoff games into heavyweight bouts.

    One of the key factors will be the energy of Jimmy Butler, who has evolved into one of the league's best young perimeter defenders in his second professional season.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Key Players: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez

    X-Factor: Gerald Wallace

    So the Brooklyn Nets aren't exactly the most thrilling team to watch, but their deliberate and determined style of play has them ready to reap the benefits of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Nets rank 28th in the NBA in pace, with 88.8 possessions per 48 minutes. However, what the Nets lack in uptempo style, they make up for in gritty performances on the glass.

    The Nets rank third in offensive rebounding percentage and 12th in defensive rebounding percentage, and they held opponents to the seventh-fewest offensive rebounds and second-fewest defensive rebounds.

    With Reggie Evans, Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche doing the dirty work on the boards, it will be up to Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to shoulder the offensive burden in the postseason.

    After starting the regular season rather poorly (41.3 percent shooting prior to the All-Star break), Williams picked it up after the All-Star break and has averaged 22.9 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting since then. If he can sustain that post-break production, the Nets will remain competitive throughout the playoffs.

    As for Johnson, his numbers will need to spike in a big way come playoff time if the Nets are to advance past the first round. Shooting 42.4 percent before the break and 42.1 percent after, Johnson's first season in Brooklyn hasn't exactly gone as planned.

    Although he averaged a solid 16.3 points per game this season, the fact that it required 14.6 shots to do so should not sit well with the Nets guard.

    One last player is Gerald Wallace. The 30-year-old forward averaged the fewest points of his career since 2003-04 and shot a disastrous 39.7 percent from the field in the process.

    Despite being an indispensable piece of the Nets defense, Wallace will need to pick up his offensive efficiency in a big way if the Nets want to have any hope of advancing past the second round.

Indiana Pacers

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    Key Players: David West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert

    X-Factor: Lance Stephenson

    The Indiana Pacers will be a fascinating team to watch come playoff time. With a gritty defense, the Pacers are built to thrive in the postseason. Unfortunately, they also possess a subpar offense, one that ranked 23rd in points per game.

    The good news for Indiana is that it posted a positive point differential, according to Basketball-Reference, meaning its stellar defense has been able to mask the team's offensive inconsistencies.

    However, if the Pacers slip up even a bit on the defensive end, they could find themselves bounced from the playoffs in a first-round upset.

    With little room for error, the pressure will be on Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert to deliver in big moments.

    What's troubling for Indiana is that it ranks 26th in team field-goal percentage, according to TeamRankings, with no player shooting above 50 percent.

    West was the closest thing the Pacers had at 49.8 percent, but volume scorers like Paul George and George Hill struggled, shooting 41.9 and 44.3 percent, respectively.

    While it may sound crazy, the key to the Pacers' postseason success may be third-year guard Lance Stephenson. He averages 10.9 points per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference, and if he can maintain that sort of production in the postseason, the Pacers will not find themselves hurt as much by Danny Granger's absence.

New York Knicks

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    Key Players: Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert

    X-Factor: Amar'e Stoudemire

    When it comes to the New York Knicks as a team, there's one statistic that stands above all others.

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Knicks rank first in the NBA with a turnover percentage of just 11.7. In addition, Mike Woodson's squad forced opponents into a turnover percentage of 14.8, a mark that is good for fourth overall.

    According to TeamRankings, the Knicks lead the league in fewest turnovers per game, averaging just 12.

    With the Knicks set to face the Boston Celtics in Round 1, taking care of the ball will be of paramount concern. Should they advance to the Eastern Conference finals, the Knicks will likely be matched up with the Miami Heat, who are no slouches at turning defense into offense themselves.

    Offensively, the Knicks have constants in Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, each of whom is primed to make this their breakout postseason. While Anthony will almost certainly average greater than 25 points per game for the playoffs, Smith's average could range anywhere from his season average of 18.1 to as high as 21 or 22 points a night.

    While it's unlikely he'll return (via Frank Isola on Twitter) for the first round, if the Knicks can get past the Celtics, Amar'e Stoudemire will likely return in some capacity.

    Stoudemire would give the Knicks' second unit a significant boost, just as he did in his 29 games this season. Shooting a ridiculously efficient 57.7 percent, Stoudemire could be the piece that has the Knicks in contention for an Eastern Conference title come May.

Miami Heat

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    Key Players: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen

    X-Factor: Shane Battier

    For the Miami Heat to survive the postseason, they just have to be themselves.

    When focused, there's no better team in the NBA. The Heat are feared, not just because they possess loads of firepower on the offensive end, but because their athleticism makes them downright scary on defense.

    With seamless defensive rotations to complement their precise, intelligent passing, the Heat just need to play the way they did throughout the regular season in order to be crowned NBA champions again.

    Don't be surprised if you see LeBron James average a near-triple-double throughout the postseason. He nearly did so in the regular season, posting 26.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.3 assists per game.

    Dwyane Wade, who's largely flown under the radar, enters the playoffs having the most efficient shooting season of his career, with marks of 51.9 percent from the field and 21.2 points per game.

    For the record, the Heat are one of only two teams (Oklahoma City being the other) to have two players average more than 20 points per game this season.

    Rounding out the Big Three, Chris Bosh's 53.5 percent shooting figures to remain a constant for the Heat, just as it was throughout the 2012 postseason (49.3 percent shooting).

    Beyond those guys, expect to see the Ray Allen and Shane Battier featured heavily in the playoffs. The Heat will need efficient three-point shooting from each of them, while Battier will also be a key ingredient on the defensive end.

Houston Rockets

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    Key Players: James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik

    X-Factor: Chandler Parsons

    For the Houston Rockets, it all comes down to defense.

    The offense has been a constant all season long, leading the NBA in points per game and pace while posting 109.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.

    Contrastingly, the Rockets found themselves unable to defend, as they allowed opponents to score 102.5 points per game.

    The way to win in the playoffs is not by outgunning opponents. They say defense wins championships, and that's as true in football as it is in basketball.

    Playoff basketball comes down to executing flawlessly on both ends of the floor, maximizing each and every possession. You can't count on easy transition buckets the same way you would in the regular season.

    Having said that, the spotlight will be firmly on the backcourt of James Harden and Jeremy Lin, as they'll be held responsible for playing quality defense to complement their usually solid offensive output.

    Considering Harden and Lin posted defensive ratings of 106 and 107, according to Basketball-Reference, postseason glory may not be in the Rockets' immediate future.

    One other cause for concern for the Rockets lies in the defense of Chandler Parsons, who put together a wildly impressive 2012-13 campaign on the offensive end.

    Despite posting 15.5 points per game and a true shooting percentage of 58.4 (per Basketball-Reference), Parsons allowed 108 points per 100 possessions. Simply put, he's a defensive liability smack dab in the middle of Kevin McHale's lineup.

    With Omer Asik as the only reliable Houston defender in the starting five, postseason success appears to be a year or two away for the Rockets.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Key Players: Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace

    X-Factor: Steve Blake

    Despite sneaking into the postseason thanks to a putrid performance from the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, we shouldn't fool ourselves—this Los Angeles Lakers team is going nowhere.

    Sans Kobe Bryant, the Lakers will need to lean on a platoon consisting of Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace and Earl Clark to replace the Mamba's production.

    The Lakers won't miss Bryant much on the defensive end, but he wasn't the team's only problem in that department. As a unit, they ranked 20th in defensive rating and 22nd in opponents' points per game.

    In addition, the Lakers allowed 15.9 fast-break points per game, according to TeamRankings, the second-worst mark in the NBA.

    No matter how effective Dwight Howard is as the team's offensive centerpiece, there's no getting past the team's inability to defend in transition.

    Combine those defensive deficiencies with Bryant's absence, and the Lakers' chances of survival in the postseason appear quite slim.

Golden State Warriors

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    Key Players: Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson

    X-Factor: Andrew Bogut

    A year after finishing 20 games below .500, the Golden State Warriors are searching to become postseason darlings in Western Conference.

    There's a lot to like about what the Warriors accomplished this season, as they led the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage and defensive rebounding percentage, according to Basketball-Reference.

    On any given night, the Warriors threaten to break out and score anywhere from 105 to 115 points, which is what ultimately makes them such a tough postseason matchup.

    Led by the inside-outside combination of David Lee and Stephen Curry, the Warriors are capable of filling it up in an instant from any spot on the floor.

    With Curry, Klay Thompson and sixth man Jarrett Jack both shooting above 40 percent from beyond, offense doesn't figure to be the Warriors' key to survival during the 2013 postseason.

    Instead, it will be up to Curry and Lee to take the reins on defense, where they've previously shown an inability to do so.

    Down in the post, Lee has allowed 104 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference, while Curry, Thompson and Jack have all allowed 107 points or more per 100 possessions.

    The one man who may be able to salvage the Warriors' inconsistent defense is center Andrew Bogut, who's played in fewer than 40 percent of the team's games thanks to several injuries.

    When healthy, Bogut has been a difference-maker for the Warriors on the defensive end. According to 82games, the five-man unit consisting of Curry, Jack, Thompson, Lee and Bogut has been sensational, averaging 1.19 points per possession while allowing just 1.04. In addition, that lineup was a plus-46 in 144.2 minutes played.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Key Players: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph

    X-Factor: Tony Allen

    Don't read too much into the Memphis Grizzlies' playoff seed, as it's not a true reflection of their overall body of work.

    Although they don't receive national attention or acclaim as a sexy title contender, the Grizzlies are one of the few teams who can stake their claim as a legitimate threat to the Oklahoma City Thunder's conference title defense.

    The Grizzlies are among the most well-rounded teams in the NBA, boasting a relentless defense that held opponents to a league-best 89.3 points per game.

    In addition, the Grizzlies posted the league's sixth-best margin of victory, according to Basketball-Reference.

    The most pressing problem facing the Grizzlies is their inability to manufacture points in a hurry, as they ranked dead last in three-pointers made and attempted.

    If they hope to get past a prolific offensive juggernaut such as the Thunder, the Grizzlies will need to lean on Tayshaun Prince, Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless and even Quincy Pondexter to produce from beyond the arc. And to counter that, Tony Allen will need to shut down opposing wings from deep.

    With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol anchoring the interior, the Grizzlies will be able to count on nearly 40 points per game from their bigs, so it will be up to the team's complementary wings to step their game up.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Key Players: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan

    X-Factor: Jamal Crawford

    The Pacific Division champions enter the postseason with great expectations and some valuable experience.

    A year after being swept in the Western Conference semifinals by the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers know what type of effort it's going to take to advance a round or two farther this year.

    The Clippers are regarded as a human-highlight factory, but the fact remains that they're far more complex than that simplistic label suggests.

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers have earned that label because they're the league's best team at forcing turnovers, posting a defensive turnover percentage of 15.4.

    If the Clippers can sustain that sort of defensive aggression throughout the postseason, there could be no stopping them. Giving Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford extra opportunities to create offense will ultimately spell doom for opponents prone to turning the ball over.

    Paul, Griffin and Crawford lead the Clippers' lethal offensive attack. The three combined to average more than 50 points per game this season.

    The consistency of Paul and Griffin's play on the offensive end (combined to average 51 percent shooting) can either be aided or destroyed by Crawford's volume-scoring ways, as he shot worse than 44 percent from the field on the season.

    Crawford also leads the league's strongest bench group, one that boasts Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups and Ryan Hollins.

    According to HoopsStats, the Clippers bench averaged more than 40 points per game this season. If that production can just remain steady, there's a very strong chance we could see the Clippers making a run at a Western Conference title.

    A player to watch will be DeAndre Jordan, who will need to step up on defense and neutralize opposing bigs for the Clips to succeed against bigger teams like the Grizzlies and Spurs.

Denver Nuggets

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    Key Players: Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson

    X-Factor: Wilson Chandler

    If you simply looked at the Denver Nuggets' points allowed per game, you wouldn't be presented with a complete picture of the team's defense.

    Although they allow a shade over 101 points per game, according to Basketball-Reference, the Nuggets rank 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions.

    Despite not possessing a prototypical top-flight defense, the Nuggets were able to get by thanks to their remarkable offensive execution.

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Nuggets rank in the top 10 in effective field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free-throw rate.

    Without a classic "superstar" to guide the way, the Nuggets have relied on a team approach to get the job done, and the results have been pretty. Overall, the Nuggets have six players scoring in double figures (although Danilo Gallinari will miss the postseason with a torn ACL), with Andre Miller and JaVale McGee just missing the cut.

    Speaking of Gallinari, the Nuggets will need to find ways to make up for his reliable 16.2 points per game (37.3 percent shooting from three). That will likely fall to Wilson Chandler, whose numbers have spiked considerably since the All-Star break.

    According to Basketball-Reference, Chandler has averaged 15.3 points on 50 percent shooting since the break, marks far superior to the 9.5 points and 38.4 percent shooting he averaged prior to the break.

    Should Chandler can continue to post scoring numbers reminiscent of Gallinari's while sustaining a higher efficiency, the Nuggets offense won't skip a beat in their quest for an NBA title.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Key Players: Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker

    X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard

    The San Antonio Spurs are the model of consistency. 2012-13 marks the 16th straight season in which the Spurs have qualified for the playoffs. Not coincidentally, 16 years is exactly how long Tim Duncan has been with the Spurs. 

    In order to get back to the NBA Finals (where they haven't been since 2006-07), the Spurs will need the very best out of their big three, comprised of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

    The trio combined to score a shade under 50 points per game, but it's likely to be the Spurs' complementary players who will wind up being critical to turning the team's championship aspirations into a reality. 

    Of primary concern here are wings Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, both of whom could wind up having a profound impact on the length of the Spurs' postseason stay.

    Leonard, the team's best on-ball defender, will be key not just for locking up opposing swingmen, but for converting on open treys when he gets them. On the season, Leonard shot an above-average 37.4 percent from deep, and there's no reason he shouldn't be able to knock down shots at that clip come late April and May.

    Green will be called upon to knock down threes in abundance, just as he did during the regular season. Green converted on 43 percent of his three-point attempts and posted a true shooting percentage of 60, according to Basketball-Reference.

    If Green and Leonard click in tandem with the team's trio of stars, expect the Spurs to be in the thick of the title conversation come late May.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Key Players: Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka

    X-Factor: Nick Collison

    The defending Western Conference champions enter the 2013 postseason in a familiar position.

    After finishing fourth in the West in 2010-11 and second in 2011-12, the Thunder have captured the No. 1 seed and find themselves in optimal position to repeat as conference champs.

    Led by the 50-40-90 stylings of Kevin Durant and the improved playmaking of Russell Westbrook (who set a new career-high with 7.4 assists per game and a 23.9 PER), the Thunder are a near-unstoppable force on offense, as they lead the NBA in points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.

    While those impressive numbers would appear to be difficult to replicate in the postseason, it's important to remember Durant averaged 28.5 points per game on 51.7 percent shooting throughout the 2012 playoffs, while Westbrook scored 23.1 points per game while limiting himself to just 2.3 turnovers per game.

    Surviving the first two rounds of the postseason doesn't figure to be a particularly burdensome accomplishment, but if the Thunder are to advance to their second consecutive NBA Finals, they'll need their frontcourt to step up.

    Serge Ibaka's emergence throughout the 2012 postseason was well documented, as he posted 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes in 20 playoff games a year ago.

    With another year of experience under his belt, the Thunder will turn to Ibaka as a tertiary scoring option, as his proficiency shooting the mid-range jumper and short-corner three have improved.

    Another key yet often-overlooked player will be Thunder forward Nick Collison. Not known as an imposing offensive force, Collison will be relied upon for his gritty work on the glass and his defensive abilities matching up against studs like Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol.