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.
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.