NBA Playoffs 2012: Players Who Must Step Up for First-Round Underdogs

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IApril 27, 2012

DENVER, CO - APRIL 18:  Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets controls the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers at Pepsi Center on April 18, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Clippers defeated the Nuggets 104-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The NBA playoffs get underway tomorrow, and most of the lower seeds are facing serious uphill battles in the first round. Still, a few big games by a few key players can turn the tide in a seven-game series.

This trio will have the most to say about whether their clubs can pull the upset to open the playoffs:

Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets

One of Denver’s biggest advantages is an ensemble cast that doesn’t depend too heavily on any one player for its scoring. Against the bench-poor Lakers, one way to capitalize on that asset will be to push the tempo—a job for which few point guards are better suited than Ty Lawson.

Lawson won a national title at North Carolina, partly on the strength of his extraordinary fast-break abilities. If he can force the Lakers (and particularly aging Kobe Bryant) to play an up-and-down game and get back on defense, he’ll put Denver in the best possible position to spring the upset.

Amar'e Stoudemire, New York Knicks

Carmelo Anthony has taken over as the leader of this year's Knicks squad, but in the first round of the playoffs, 'Melo will have his hands full (and then some) with LeBron James. Amar'e Stoudemire, on the other hand, has a legitimate matchup advantage against Miami PF Chris Bosh.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 21: Amare Stoudemire #1 of the New York Knicks dunks on Thaddeus Young #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 21, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
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Neither of these players is a wonderful defender, but Stoudemire is more effective as a go-to scorer than Bosh (and will get more looks anyway). If Stoudemire can score bunches of points, get Bosh in foul trouble or both, New York could steal a game or two from Miami despite the Heat's edge in sheer talent.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Most of the Dallas roster, patchwork as it is, will be at a serious disadvantage against the young, athletic Thunder. One of the few players who can work the matchup to his advantage will be defending NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki can draw one of OKC’s shot-blockers (either Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka) away from the rim, where neither defender will be comfortable. Even so, it will take a shooting exhibition at least as dazzling as the one Dirk put on a year ago—27.7 points per game, .460 shooting from beyond the arc—to keep this series competitive.