With the playoffs rapidly approaching, here is a team-by-team breakdown of which players may play surprisingly important roles in their team’s post-season fortunes.
1. Miami Heat
Mario Chalmers and Chris Anderson. Despite the fact that they have the greatest player in the universe, the stifling defense and the open three-pointers will be the key to Miami’s playoff run. Ray Allen and Shane Battier will get their corner 3′s, but Mario Chalmers will be needed to continue his hot shooting ways when push-comes-to-proverbial-shove, starting in the second round with Chicago, the team that ended Miami’s historic streak. Chris Anderson’s defense and toughness will be much needed to solidify the bench during those vulnerable minutes when LeBron is resting. Starting in Round 2, the Heat will need to show they have the depth to survive those few minutes without Mr. Everything anchoring both the offense and the defense. Anderson is capable of blocking five shots per game, and equally capable of fouling out in five minutes, which is why he was available for Miami to begin with.
2. New York Knicks
J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. While Carmelo’s scoring streak has been impressive, he’ll need help in April. The answer is J.R. Smith, J.R. Smith, J.R. Smith. The mercurial, enigmatic, roller-coaster that he is, J.R. Smith is option #2 and Felton/Novak/Amare are way behind Smith in being reliable 3rd scoring options. Smith’s long-range shooting will be critical when ‘Melo is double-teamed or minimized. Smith, arguably the streakiest shooter in the NBA, is finding his groove while Amare sits on the sidelines. Since the All-Star break, Smith is averaging 20.7 ppg in 33 minutes, including 38% from distance and most importantly, getting to the line routinely (5.3 attempts/game compared to 3.1 pre-break). In a recent four-game stretch against weak competition, Smith put up 25, 32, 35, 37. If the warm-version of Smith continues into the playoffs, and Felton is able to create off of the dribble, the Knicks have enough to make a legitimate run, but none of it matters unless we can assume Chandler is healthy. While Carmelo deals with Paul Pierce and Jeff Green, Smith will have to overcome the suffocating defense of the One-Man Press, Avery Bradley, in Round One against Boston.
3. Indiana Pacers
Roy Hibbert and George Hill. All year, my love for Paul George has continued to grow. Since that o-for-everything game in Golden State on December 1st, George and the Pacers have taken flight and their confidence can’t get much higher. As much as I’d like to say it’s all about Paul George and his electric all-around game (averaging 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks in addition to 18 ppg, 7.7 rpg, and 4.1 apg, while shooting 37% from distance), the story for Indiana will be everyone but Paul George and David West on offense. Indiana is a dominant defensive team that will need Roy Hibbert’s post game (16.5 ppg in March after a very mediocre first four months), and the timely shooting of George Hill and Lance Stephenson to get to the conference finals. But first Paul George will get a chance to showcase his defensive skills by shutting down Josh Smith and the Hawks in Round One.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans. Though Brooklyn looks likely to secure home-court advantage in Round One, a potential playoff preview with Chicago on April 4th at the Barclays Center showed why it’s never safe to bet against the Bulls, and why Brooklyn, for all their first-year success, is not ready to establish themselves as genuine contenders. The Nets record against the top-half of the NBA is a brutal 12-26, the worst mark among the 16 likely playoff entrants. What is the main cause of that lackluster tally? Defense. The core of this Nets team is offensively-talented, yet mentally questionable. The two most defensive-minded regulars for Brooklyn are Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans. Both are prototypical role players. The catch? Their offensive struggles have been due in part to the way the offense has been run: Deron Williams dribbling or Brook Lopez posting up. And for the first 45 games of the season, Williams was playing with bad ankles. Since his cortisone injections and platelet-rich plasma treatment, Williams has been dominant. However, in that loss to the Bulls, Williams got next to no help from the bench, and the Nets wilted at home in the final minutes against an injury-ravaged Bulls team. Call it heart. Call it coaching. Call it the tenacity of Jimmy Butler. Whatever you call it, don’t call it the Nets, because they don’t have it.
5. Chicago Bulls
Jimmy Butler’s everything and Nate Robinson’s shooting. Take away one of the five-most dynamic playmakers in the game in Derrick Rose. Take away two core bench contributors in Omer Asik and Kyle Korver (both excelling in their new roles). Take away their fearless leader, Joakim Noah (plantar fascitis), Tom Thibodeau doesn’t miss a beat. He is the drum machine of the NBA. Silent. Stoic. And incapable of sending out an unmotivated group of five onto the hardwood. In Noah’s absence, Nazr Mohammed has had a reawakening, dusting off his 35 year-old bones off and showing the rebounding skills he has always possessed. But that rebounding isn’t helpful if the first 20 seconds of the shot clock are not played with grit and defiance. And that is what Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, and Kirk Hinrich do. Which is why the Bulls beat the Heat recently, and why they stole that game in Brooklyn on Thursday. It helps when little Nate Robinson continues to elude his defender and make the right choices off the dribble and occasionally shoot the lights out (7 of 7 from range against Dallas). If Brooklyn had Jimmy Butler, they’d be ready to contend. But they don’t. Thibodeau and Butler are a match made in…Chicago.
6. Atlanta Hawks
I feel bad for Al Horford and Kyle Korver. They can’t get over the hump. Surrounded by the talented, yet-flawed Josh Smith, Horford is the quiet anchor of the defense, who does the unpleasant work in a dignified Robert Parish-like manner. And the Hawks will lose another first-round playoff series, this time to Indiana instead of Boston. The Hawks brought in two talented scorers in Lou Williams (out for season with a knee injury) and long-range artist Kyle Korver (shooting 48% from the arc in Atlanta wins this season, and 45.5% from distance overall). Josh Smith said he wasn’t going to shoot so many threes this year. They would be a balanced scoring unit, with Jeff Teague stepping into a bigger role. Smith’s penchant for triples mirrors old friend Antoine Walker. He started the season with the right mentality (1.1 3PT attempts per game in November), but the old ways have returned, as the attempts have leaped back over 3 per game in the last 3 months. For his career, Smith has shot 28% from distance. For the season, he is at 30.4%. One could argue he makes the right decision 69.6% of the time. The Hawks chances of beating Indiana: less than 30.4%. Al Horford is only one man. Kyle Korver is only one man. Josh Smith, while incredibly fun to watch, is not going to help win those tight 4th quarter playoff games.
7. Boston Celtics
We arrive at the home-town team, and here is my best attempt at being objective: the Celtics match-up as well with the Knicks as any team not named Miami in the Eastern Conference. Boston’s lack of rebounding hurts them less against New York. Boston’s lack of play-making ability is less of a weakness against the team-defense minded Knicks, than the more athletic Pacers or Heat. Paul Pierce likes playing Carmelo Anthony and enjoys winning in Madison Square Garden. Boston’s ability to blanket J.R. Smith with Avery Bradley is a huge plus. However, it will take more than Bradley minimizing Smith for the Celtics to beat the Knicks four out of seven times.
Avery Bradley’s jumper and Jeff Green’s combination of corner 3 and slashing ability will be key in providing enough scoring to keep New York’s defense honest if Boston is going to upset New York in Round One. Green’s rising confidence and greater role during KG’s absence have been positive indicators for Boston’s future, but Bradley’s shooting has been a bigger problem since March 1. In 16 March games, Bradley connected on only 36.4% of his shots. During a five-game losing streak to some of the better defensive teams in the league, Bradley seemed to lose all confidence. Rivers alluded to that confidence recently, hoping it would return after an 8 of 14 night in Minnesota. Unfortunately, Bradley went 3 of 12 in the Celtics’ loss to Cleveland on April 3, the caveat being that Bradley put up those shots without Pierce or Garnett’s passing ability to set him up.
Speaking of Pierce, while Paul’s assist rate has skyrocketed in Rondo’s absence, his turnover rate has gone with it. If the Celtics advance, it will be in part because of Pierce’s ability to run the offense efficiently, which goes hand-in-hand with offensive balance that Green, Bradley and Jason Terry must provide. By the way, Jeff Green’s defense is occasionally awesome. I think it goes without saying that Kevin Garnett has to dominate defensively with a healthy foot, ankle, knee, thigh, hip, and whatever other ailments he has been dealing with, in order for any of the above to make a difference. But I said it anyway, to put some healing thoughts out there.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
I can’t resist a chance to mention Larry Sanders and also, Larry Sanders! (apologies to Zach Lowe). Sanders! makes the Miami-Milwaukee series worth watching. Monta and Jennings will be swallowed up by the Heat defense, while Chalmers, Battier and Allen play big minutes in a few blow-outs, but Larry Sanders will enjoy protecting the rim against the fierce penetration of LeBron and Wade. I’m just hoping Milwaukee wins one game at home, for the sake of those beleaguered Bucks fans.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin. Among big men who average at least 30 minutes per game, Serge Ibaka is leading in true shooting percentage at 60.9%. Tyson Chandler (67%) is disqualified because his shots are about 90% alley-oops and put-back dunks. Ibaka’s shooting groove, when combined with his already-stellar defensive play, make him critically important. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are able to get their own shots off in jaw-dropping style, with Westbrook’s acrobatic, mid-air adjustments, and Durant’s long-arms and shooting angles, and impossible determination in getting to the rim. However, Ibaka’s ability to knock down the 18-20 footer (he’s even hitting the occasional corner-3 this year) has created more space for those driving lanes. Kevin Martin holds the bench together with his instant offense. After they dispatch the Lakers in 4 or 5, OKC will need balanced scoring options to hold off either Memphis or the Clippers in Round Two.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter (okay, that’s three to make up for the single Milwaukee Buck). Gregg Popovich has only won four NBA titles with Tim Duncan. Only four. This could have been the fifth, like last year could have been the fifth, like 2008 could have been the fifth. Though they are three wins away from becoming the least-talked-about-60-win-team-in-NBA-history, San Antonio is mentioned after the Thunder, the blistering-hot (pre-injury) Nuggets and the five-seed Clippers. Before Manu’s strained hamstring, before Tony’s recovering ankle and sprained neck. The Spurs, currently tied with OKC in the loss column at 20, have a tougher final few games, and more of a need to rest their aging trio, meaning they are more likely to finish with the 7th seed and a match-up with Houston, rather than the 8th-seeded Lakers. Though few teams are anxious to face the Lakers, Houston’s frenzied pace may pose problems for the Spurs. In the regular season, the teams have played three very tight games out of the four meetings.
Kawhi Leonard has developed his jumper to the point that his true shooting percentage (60.2%), is 4th among small forwards playing 30 min/game, behind only LeBron, Durant and Korver. Leonard’s versatility enables him to guard every position except for centers, and leads to match-up problems for opponents. He’s athletic enough to run, and understands his role in San Antonio’s system. If Ginobili’s hamstring keeps him off the court, the Spurs can survive because of Leonard. If Parker’s ankle injury lingers, the Clippers, Nuggets or Grizzlies will not hesitate to hound whomever San Antonio gives ball-handling duties over to. Danny Green’s sweet shooting is only as useful as Parker’s health allows.
3. Denver Nuggets
Andre Miller and Wilson Chandler. Capable of changing the tone of the game, and propelling the crowd to its feet with one swooping put-back dunk, Chandler is an important wild-card in the absence of Gallinari (ACL injury). Chandler thrives in the up-tempo game, which 6th seeded Golden State also thrives on. Kenneth Faried’s intensity and incredible desire on the offensive glass will swing at least one of the games in this first-round clash.
Ty Lawson (plantar fascitis) is the Ferrari engine that drives Denver’s frantic attack, and that engine is currently being handled with care. The odds are that Andre Miller’s much safer and slower Volvo will be leading the way for Denver, which means that Denver’s ability to defend and hit their open looks in the half-court may determine their playoff fate. Without the clutch shooting of Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala become crucial cogs in Denver’s offense. Like Igoudala, Chandler should not be a team’s 4th quarter scorer. What might have been a special year in Denver, is now a potential first-round playoff exit to a rejuvenated Warriors franchise.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford. Earlier in the season, the Clippers tore off 17-straight wins in large part to their dominating bench play. Defensively, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes harass opponents as well as anyone. On the glass, Odom’s length cleans up the misses. In the open court, they all flourish. Jamal Crawford’s range and propensity for hot streaks keep the opponents’ reserves in terror. If Chris Paul’s knee holds up, and Blake Griffin’s post-game and elbow jumper stay relatively consistent, the Clippers should survive on the strength of Odom and Crawford. As a Celtics fan, when you watch Odom at his best, you remember how good he has been as a Laker in previous playoff runs, and you exhale that he is no longer donning the purple and gold. How sweet for him if he can help lead his Clippers out of the Wicked West.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Tony Allen and Jerryd Bayless. I like Memphis. Tony Allen is a menace in the playoffs, messing with Kobe’s head, messing with Chris Paul’s head, being a general nuisance, never intimidated. I like Marc Gasol’s defensive prowess. Without highlight-film blocks, he is always in the right place, protecting the rim, knowing where the open cutters are headed. I like Zach Randolph’s lunch-bucket determination in the post. Thrusting himself, spinning wildly, angling the ball around the out-stretched fingers of unassuming power forwards. I like Mike Conley’s quickness. His predilection for the open court steal, the gamble that coaches hate, until it results in a fast-break lay-up. I like Memphis. I just don’t think they can beat the Clippers four out of seven. Not without Rudy Gay’s offense. Jerryd Bayless will be forced to do too much, and that won’t work against Eric Bledsoe.
6. Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut. When Klay Thompson shoots well, the Golden State Warriors win. It’s almost that simple. Curry and Lee are about as consistent on the offensive end as any high-scoring duo in the NBA, but Klay Thompson is a shooter, and a young shooter at that. At age 23, and in his second NBA season, Thompson’s long-range shooting has determined the fate of many Golden State games this year. In wins, Thompson shoots 44% from distance, dropping in 17.9 points per game, compared with 33% in losses, accounting for a scoring average of 13.9. Thompson’s season, like the Warriors, has had its mountainous peaks and its desolate valleys. The valleys came in November and again in February (29% and 32% from the arc) while the peaks were sustained through the deep winter months, putting up a mark of 45% in December, 40% in January, and back up to 44% in March.
With the exception of Jarrett Jack, the Warriors are not a drive-and-kick team, and rarely draw double teams, which puts pressure on Curry and Thompson to take threes whenever they have open space. While this works for Steph because he is arguably the best pure shooter in the NBA (hop here for SI‘s Chris Ballard’s excellent Steph Curry profile, and the importance of Jarrett Jack’s play-making as a complement to Curry’s game.), Thompson could benefit from a wing player with penetrating ability. Despite his occasional flashes, Harrison Barnes is nowhere near ready to play the minutes he’s been forced into because of Brandon Rush’s absence. Mark Jackson has to find a way to run Thompson off of Bogut picks and get him space in the half-court, similarly to how Garnett was consistently able to open up shooting space for Ray Allen during Boston’s playoff runs. Thompson doesn’t have Allen’s innate maneuverability, but has the size to ward off smaller two-guards.
On the other side of the ball, Andrew Bogut is a force under the basket, and his presence will be especially critical against Denver’s penetrating ability. Bogut’s length and his Gasol-like ability to stretch out and avoid jumping for up-fakes drives would-be lane-slashers crazy. If Bogut can keep his stamina, and avoid foul-trouble, the Warriors will have a legitimate chance of upsetting the Lawson-impaired Nuggets. Keeping Denver’s Faried off of the glass is next to impossible, but Bogut, Lee, and pretty much every Warrior on the court, must make it a priority.
7. Houston Rockets
Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. Okay, Parsons and Lin are not exactly role players, but when you consider James Harden has the ball in his hands about 88% of the time the Rockets have the ball, they essentially are the 3rd and 4th options on a team that depends on Harden as options 1 and 2. The Rockets are playing a unique brand of hoops and it’s been working better than expected for the youngest team (opening night roster average age: 23.9 years) in the NBA. Parsons is seriously undervalued, and fits perfectly with this system. In the 19 games since the All-Star break, Parsons is scoring efficiently and often (17.6 ppg on 13.5 shots), while knocking in 44% of this threes.
Lin, like Klay Thompson is probably the best barometer of Rockets success. In victories, Lin shoots 47.5%, scoring 14.1 points and dishing 6.7 assists. In defeats, Lin’s parallel numbers are 40.8%, 12.1 points, and 5.3 assists. Lin’s game relies on his uniquely explosive first step to create penetration. Not surprisingly, in back-t0-back games, Lin’s numbers are dramatically worse (38% from the field, 28% from distance, and an ugly 5.4 to 3.4 assist to turnover ratio). Against both San Antonio and Oklahoma City, Lin’s numbers have been solid. And in the playoffs, there are no back-to-backs. However, Lin playing well will not keep Houston from being eliminated by the much more dominant (and experienced) Spurs.
Lin’s 60 Minutes interview, in which he recently explained that he wasn’t given any Division One scholarship offers in part because his race was a barrier, was pretty disappointing in general. The buzz around the interview centers on the fact that he used the word “race” at all. He was taunted for being an Asian basketball star in high school, and he was taunted in the Ivy League when he played at Harvard. He was always one of the few Asians on the court and his stratospheric level of celebrity has only recently retreated back to Earth’s atmosphere. While I can appreciate Lin’s honesty about the discomfort he felt, and I agree that his high school success probably should have led to at least a few big scholarship offers, possibly at a nearby Pac-10 school like Stanford, UCLA, or Cal, the interview spends as much time with David Stern’s vision of Chinese basketball as it does with Lin himself. We do find out, if we were unaware, that Lin believes the Lord in using him as an instrument to spread the gospel of Jesus, as he tells an enormous audience in a Taiwanese church.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom. Yes, these are the two crucial missing pieces on the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, and they won’t be on that bench in late April. Yes, I’m giving the Lakers the 8th spot in the West, because if the Jazz beat them out despite a tougher schedule over the final 8 games, I will be found dumb, as in dumb-founded. Since acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the off-season, the Lakers were being discussed by just about every media outlet that counts it’s pageviews. Since the Mike Brown/Phil Jackson/Mike D’Antoni debacle, they have been the subject of pretty much every edition of NBA Countdown (which I stopped watching at some point in January), and far too many Kobe and Dwight Howard quotes have made their way onto ESPN’s radar. The 2012-13 Lakers and the soap-opera dynamic that the twitter-dominated ESPN-universe have created are a prime example of our wrecked media and the moronic, mouth-drooling segment of sports fans who can’t wait to discuss who Kobe dissed and how D’Antoni mishandled another situation. The fact that they are still going to make the playoffs is a testament to both Kobe’s will, Howard’s returning health, and a diabolical NBA deity that supports David Stern’s need for ratings. It would be nice to see the Lakers swept out of Round One, though it might be even sweeter to see Utah edge them out in game #82.
8. Utah Jazz
Mo Williams and Derrick Favors. It seemed like the Jazz were sleepwalking themselves out of the playoffs with a 2-9 stretch of abysmal play in mid-March, but they’ve righted the salty ship by winning 7 of their last 8 games, rejuvenated by the return of point guard Mo Williams. The Jazz have positioned themselves to play four very meaningful games to finish out the season. Both Utah and the Lakers have 37 losses, and Utah owns the better head-to-head record, which means the Lakers will have to finish with a better record to make the playoffs. Old Celtic Al Jefferson continues to play efficiently in the post, but struggles to defend. The 3rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, big man Derrick Favors is taking advantage of increased minutes with Enes Kanter out, and the Jazz are determined to rain all over Hollywood before getting trounced by OKC or San Antonio.
Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index because he can’t stop thinking about his Boston Celtics, has a fondness for Stephen Curry and the Warriors, loves hoops in general, and thought he should finally create something out of his NBA obsession.
Contact Jonah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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