In every playoff series there is a player that will be menacing to the losing team for the bench points they provide or what coaches call the little things (rebounding, slowing the game down, adding to the team’s chemistry).
When teams face off in succession the way they do in playoffs, these player’s performances are often times the difference between an early vacation or the conference finals for an entire organization.
Here we take a look at some of the players who may prove to be that difference in one way or another over the next few weeks.
1. Chicago Bulls: Luol Deng- Small Forward
Deng has been the third option that Chicago has needed him to be this year averaging 17.5 points per game. The Bulls should be able to cruise by Indiana but in the games that will follow, Deng has a crucial role to play for the Bulls in relieving pressure on Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer. With the ability to make a major impact on a game, the former Duke University player needs to carry his share of the offense for Chicago to go all the way. When Deng scores 20 or more, the Bulls are 24-6 this season.
2. Miami Heat: Mike Bibby- Point Guard
The Heat needed outside shooting so they made the necessary moves to acquire Bibby, who wanted out of Washington after Atlanta sent him packing. Thus far, Bibby is averaging 27 minutes per game for the Heat but providing them with just seven points per outing. He’ll have to give them more than that and 2.6 assists per game if they are going to match the hype that surrounds this team.
3. Boston Celtics: Jeff Green- Small Forward
After being acquired from Oklahoma City to provide bench points, Green has been an inconsistent performer under Doc Rivers. His best performance came against Golden State in early March when he dropped 21 but has rarely approached that number since. His efficiency has increased slightly with the Celtics given the fact that he plays half as many minutes as he did for the Thunder, but that could change. Against the Knicks, Green’s ability to fill in for Paul Pierce and keep up with the fast paced style of Mike D’Antoni’s offense makes him Boston’s x-factor.
4. Orlando Magic: Ryan Anderson- Power Forward
Even with all of the talent in the starting lineup, Orlando still has a difficult time scoring. The Magic however, rank 16th in the NBA in points per game and lack a consistent balance to their offense. Dwight Howard carries the team too often while the rest of the starting lineup is hit or miss and reliant on three pointers. Bench scoring and success from downtown is a crucial part of what makes Orlando successful or not and Anderson can effect both categories. With 28 against Chicago last weekend, Anderson showed he can be relevant in big games. He is shooting around 40% from beyond the arc this season and is an 80% free throw shooter.
5. Atlanta Hawks: Jamal Crawford- Shooting Guard
With Joe Johnson failing to deliver more than 18.5 points per game after his max deal over the summer, no player has been more important to the success of the Atlanta back court than Crawford. Averaging 14 points per game, Crawford is a reliable jump shooter and ball handler off the bench for the Hawks and a player they’ll need to continue performing at his current level if they are going to get past Orlando.
6. New York Knicks: Toney Douglas- Point Guard
The development of Douglas in New York has played a big part in the team’s success. He is shooting just under 40% from 3-point range and has proven to be a good barometer for the success or failure rate of the Knicks. When Douglas scores 20 or more, the Knicks are 9-3 and are tough to beat. Decrease his scoring and the Knicks don’t get much out of their bench aside from a lot of Ronny Turiaf fist pumps.
7. Philadelphia 76ers: Thaddeus Young- Power Forward
The Sixers are one of the better teams in the playoffs in the sense that no single superstar does all the work, everyone contributes. But if Philly can get fourth year forward Thaddeus Young rolling, they’re tough to beat. When Young scores 20 or more, the Sixers are 12-3 and if he can grab more than his usual five boards per game against a small Miami team, the Sixers could cement Doug Collins as coach of the year just by taking the Heat to seven games.
8. Indiana Pacers: Tyler Hansborough- Power Forward
Capable of dropping 29 points and 12 boards one night and 10 points and 5 boards the next, Hansborough’s consistency issues make him a major x-factor for the Pacers. If he can provide Indiana with one or two of his better performances, Chicago will find themselves working much harder than the anticipated first round sweep everyone is expecting.
1. San Antonio Spurs: Gary Neal- Shooting Guard
With Manu Ginobili banged up, the Spurs need help from somewhere to replace the 17.4 points and 5 assists per game that the Argentine averages. Neal and George Hill will be charged with that task but most of the workload will likely fall to Neal. Shooting 42% from beyond the arc is a good indication that with a slight step up in his minutes per game, Neal could give the Spurs all they need to get past Memphis.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Andrew Bynum- Center
Just as he was making the Lakers look like they’d be impossible to beat again, Bynum went down with another knee injury. Luckily for the Lakers, it won’t keep Bynum from playing but how effective he is and whether or not he can avoid any further problems is crucial to the depth that makes the Lakers so dangerous. In the first round, Phil Jackson may be better served letting Pau Gasol line up against Emeka Okafor and saving Bynum for the following series as the Lakers can most likely cruise through the first round without him.
3. Dallas Mavericks: Corey Brewer- Small Forward
After losing Caron Butler to injury, the Mavericks offense has operated predominantly through Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, but Brewer gives Jason Kidd a viable third target that can drive to the basket or knock down a jumper. Perhaps his most important role however, will be to try and shut down Gerald Wallace.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka- Power Forward
Since the arrival of Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka’s numbers in the blocks department have increased significantly. When both are playing, the Thunder have one of the toughest interior defenses to get past and how the pair do against Nene and Kenyon Martin could decide the series. If Ibaka can match Martin for points, Oklahoma City can book their trip to the second round now.
5. Denver Nuggets: Raymond Felton- Point Guard
Several analysts have pointed to J.R. Smith as the Nuggets x-factor, but it will be the ability of the Nuggets point guards to get him open shots that will make the difference. Felton is a better passer than Ty Lawson, so off the bench he could impact games greatly with his ability to run the floor and dribble into the lane for a kick out to an open three. How important is Felton’s ball movement to Denver success? They’ve not lost a game when he’s assisted eight or more times since his arrival.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy- Shooting Guard
After undergoing double knee surgery it looked like Roy’s season was done, but he has showed his mettle by coming back to come off the bench to back up Andre Miller. Upon his return, he found a team that is no longer dependent on him as LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Gerald Wallace have all made Portland into the scariest first round match up possible for Dallas. That said, Miller won’t be able to stifle Jason Kidd on his own so Roy will be needed to keep Kidd at bay. The consensus is that this series will be decided inside between Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki, but if the Blazers need a big shot, Roy could be the one that decides it as he will likely end up with the ball in his hands.
7. New Orleans Hornets: Trevor Ariza- Small Forward
Chris Paul and Emeka Okafur are going to need help offensively and with the team’s leading scorer David West out of the lineup, the task falls to Ariza. During the regular season, he averaged 11 points per game, but against his former team Los Angeles, Ariza is going to need to find open spaces on the floor to knock down jumpers to give the Hornets some kind of outside presence that can stretch the Lakers defense. It would require a massive stepping up of his game, but that’s what New Orleans season is coming down to.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley- Point Guard
Matching up against Tony Parker is no easy task on an average day, but doing it when the Frenchmen is charged with the task of willing his team into the next round while carrying his banged up fellow veterans on his back is going to be even tougher. Conley’s ability to keep Parker in front him is the key to slowing down the Spurs potent offense. On his end, Conley has to mirror Parker’s offensive output in at least the assists department for Memphis to have a chance at beating San Antonio.