Six guys to watch.
by Colin Powers
Three days from now, the long, arduous war of attrition that is the NBA Playoffs will launch. In this, only consistence, composure and excellence will pave the way to the Larry O’Brien. Of course, all the stars will have to be superlative to give their respective teams a shot at advancing. But it will also be the performance of some slightly more peripheral individuals who will help determine who moves on and who goes fishin’. Those secondary players who step up when it matters will sway many-a-series in the upcoming months. If they deliver, like say a Rafer Alston or a Rashard Lewis last year (pre-Finals), their squad will be in position to make a run. If they don’t, like the Mo Williams of 2009, it may just be the end of the road.
Amongst the Playoff participants, there are a number of individuals who will have the opportunity to make a major impact, whether by being afforded particularly advantageous match-ups or simply through the game-changing nature of their play. The type of player I’ve focused on isn’t monolithic. Some have been essential contributors all season who, because of their opponents, now have the opportunity to transcend their previous role and take their team forward. Some are more resembling bit players who nevertheless have been afforded this moment to punch over their weight. For all their differences, they are all individuals who have a chance to influence these Playoffs in a disproportionally larger way than their past records would predict. Also, I’ve only dealt with the Western Conference.
Rodrique Beaubois: Alas, after last night’s politicking, Dallas draws long-time nemesis San Antonio in a fascinating series steeped in history. With George Hill and Tony Parker both back up and running for the Spurs, a deciding factor will be the Mavericks’ ability to contain the penetration of the aforementioned SA guards (along of course with Manu). It remains to be seen whether TP is completely recovered and back to his dynamo ways or still restrained by lingering foot problems, but either way, between him and the legend of IUPUI, Dallas will have their hands full. Jason Kidd has redefined himself defensively as a pest for bigger guards against whom he can assert his quickness advantage, but at this stage, he does not have the foot speed to stay in front of speedier small guards (i.e. Parker and Hill). Jet can check one of them…then Coach Carlisle will have some decisions to make depending on the lineups Coach Popovich goes with. If Parker, Hill and Ginobili are out there together, the Mavs may have to unleash Roddy Buckets or be run out of the gym. For those who have yet to see the first year Frenchman play, he is certainly in the conversation for fastest dude in the League and a true whirlwind defensively. The 22-year-old also made some solid offensive contributions, but because of the depth and make-up of this Mavericks team, Rodrique has not seen big minutes on a night-to-night basis. It may be asking a lot of the young fella, but in this showdown, his role could be pivotal.
Russell Westbrook: Russ has had an outstanding season, and certainly won’t be sneaking up on anybody in the coming weeks. He is one of the most explosive athletes in the game, and is growing in his understanding of point guard artistry every game. He and his Thunder teammates come across the defending Champs, who despite their recent struggles are still the prohibitive favorite to come out of the West. Showtime clearly has some vulnerability in their armor, however, that if exploited could turn this 1 vs. 8 matchup into a far scarier and more taxing one than the Zen Master and his aging superstar would prefer. Specifically, I refer to their well-publicized difficulty in defending quick, aggressive PGs. Russ clearly fits that description. The presence of Gasol, Odom and potentially Bynum will of course make any finishing at the basket a far more treacherous task than usual, but if Westbrook can consistently get into the lane, he will inevitably change the game and the way LA hoped it would proceed. They will have to scramble, overcompensate in help-side to control the dribbler, and lose their shape as a unit. OKC will find some open looks, space to create, an occasional gimme at the basket, a little more room for KD…it could get interesting. Dribble penetration can be a great equalizer amongst teams otherwise unequal. If Westbrook has a dominant series in the return to the city of his old college stomping grounds, this could be some fun.
AK-47 and Mehmet Okur: Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams are two of the most consistent performers in the NBA. Though more so in Deron’s case, both guys have also elevated their play in the post-season, and proved themselves in that pressurized environ where your real standing as a ball-player is weighed. Andrei and Mehmet…not so much. During the ’07 run to the WCF, Kirilenko saw his scoring average drop to 9.6, while Okur followed up what was perhaps his best regular season with a marked decline come Playoffs, scoring only 11.8 ppg on 39 percent shooting. The perceived lack of mental toughness and overall production earned the two the ire of their PG, who without mentioning names called out those team members who folded when the ante was upped. This year, neither player is as essential to the team’s offensive plans with the emergence of CJ Miles, Paul Millsap and Wesley Matthews, but the team will still need them to answer the bell when push comes to shove. In particular, Okur’s ability to stretch the defense and draw out opposing bigs could play a huge role against Denver, forcing Nene away from the hoop and opening up lanes for Deron & Co.
Kirilenko has the unenviable task of returning from injury just in time to defend perhaps the most complete scorer in the NBA, Mr. Carmelo Anthony. Melo should be able to dictate business in the paint and will be sure to get his as he always does. Nonetheless, when happy and diligent, AK has proved himself as one of the best on-ball defenders in the League, and his bounce, long arms, and quick hands could force Melo into volume shooting and a low percentage, which is all you can really ask for. Already a little beat up heading into the Playoffs, will these two have the onions for the task at hand?
JR Smith: There are a lot of guys in the League who have either a neutral or a positive impact on the game. When things are going well, when they’re in rhythm and on their toes, when they’re shooting the ball with precision, they can take you over the top and win a game for the team. When they’re struggling, they know the game and their role well enough to not rock the boat, play within themselves, and allow other teammates to step up. In short, they stay out the way and keep it simple.
JR Smith is not one of those guys. He can win and lose games for his team with nearly equal facility. Simply by the nature of his game, there are nights when he is fundamentally unguardable, with range extending to 35 feet or so along with the explosiveness to get to the rim and finish with unbreakable conviction. At other times, however, when things aren’t quite clicking for JR, his struggles infect and cripple the team. The poor decision-making, the bad shot selection, the long misses leading to transition opportunities for the opposition, and the lack of focus and discipline quickly snowball. JR’s mistakes are costly ones, and they undercut the efforts of the team as a whole. He does not acquiesce at these moments and acknowledge that it’s time to slip into the backseat. No, he moves on with the same zealotry regardless if he’s hitting or missing. There is little subtlety or nuance to his game. Everything is big and bold. So, when JR wins big, the team does too. When JR loses, though, the Nuggets go bankrupt.
It’s going to be a tough post-season no matter what in Denver because of the illness of George Karl and the rushed return of Kenyon Martin from injury. That said, if JR can either a.) ride a hot streak for an extended period of time or b.) moderate his impulses and play more principled basketball, the Nuggets could revert back into the contender they were for most of the season.
Marcus Camby: Brandon Roy’s meniscus tear is the keystone to the series; if he can play at anything resembling full strength, Portland could certainly win this one. With or without him, though, the Trailblazers need to contain STAT, the most complete offensive 4 in the Association. I assume Coach McMillan will match up Aldridge with either Collins or Lopez (if healthy), and put he of the backhanded high-five and disavowed Final Four run on Amar’e. Marcus has one of the better skill-sets to defend a guy of Amar’e’s pedigree; their battle will go a long way towards finding our winner.
These six guys could be sneakily influential this post-season.
Anyone else who comes to mind?