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One Player Who Must Step Up on Every Projected Playoff-Bound NBA Team

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2016

One Player Who Must Step Up on Every Projected Playoff-Bound NBA Team

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    Stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant are supposed to be the ones shining in the NBA playoffs, but any team with a postseason ticket is going to need at least one player in a supporting role to step up, too.

    The reason is simple: Playoff defenses are designed to take away whatever their opponents' first options are. In most cases, that amounts to increased pressure on big-name players. That extra attention opens up opportunities for reserves and role players to have big impacts.

    That means guys like Ray Allen and Serge Ibaka will have to take their games to another level in order for their teams to be successful.

    Don't be mistaken; playoff teams live and die with their best players, and it's no coincidence that the higher up the playoff ladder you look, the more stars there are. But some of the lesser players on playoff-bound squads are going to have to raise their games to help out.

    Here's a rundown of who those guys are.

Milwaukee Bucks: Ersan Ilyasova

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    Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings tend to get the bulk of the headlines for the Milwaukee Bucks, but Ersan Ilyasova is going to have to take on a more prominent role in the postseason if the Bucks are to have any hope of being more than a total walkover in their opening series against the Heat.

    The sharpshooting forward's value is in his efficiency, a quality neither Ellis nor Jennings possesses.

    On the year, Ilyasova is averaging 13.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on 44.7 percent shooting from long range. His skills as a floor-stretching shooter along with his solid work on the offensive boards will be big keys against Miami.

    As the Heat bottle up Milwaukee's guards, Ilyasova may find himself with the opportunity to shoot over or drive past any late Miami rotations—assuming there are any.

    Look, it'd take a miracle for the Bucks to do any damage against the Heat in the first round, but a little extra boost from Ilyasova wouldn't hurt. And for what it's worth, his play has been trending in the right direction lately.

    Since the All-Star break, Ilyasova has posted averages of 17.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

    He'll need to do that (and more) for the Bucks to have a prayer.

Los Angeles Lakers: Antawn Jamison

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    It'd be tempting to cite any one of the Los Angeles Lakers' stars as players who'll need to step up in the postseason.

    But for guys like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, it's not really about "stepping up" at all. Instead, they just need to play to their potential—whatever that actually is.

    Antawn Jamison, on the other hand, is a player who has the ability to change the way opponents defend the Lakers.

    At this juncture, it's necessary to mention that what really matters for L.A. is its inability to stop anyone. But nobody on the roster is capable of filling that void, so we're focusing on Jamison's shooting.

    Anyway, as a forward who can knock down a three (he has hit 41.3 percent of his long bombs since the All-Star break), Jamison allows the Lakers to toss a changeup at opponents when Gasol or Howard sits. His presence on the court creates more space in the lane for Bryant (or whomever else, given Kobe's injury) to work his way to the hoop and also takes a big man away from the basket on D.

    L.A.'s optimal lineup features both Gasol and Howard on the court together, but if Jamison can gut out his wrist injury and force defenses to change their approach by hitting a few outside shots, he'll help vary the Lakers' attack in an important way.

Utah Jazz: Derrick Favors

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    Derrick Favors is one of the most promising young big men in the NBA. Eventually, he's going to end up with a handful of All-Defense selections on his resume.

    But for the Utah Jazz to play their best in the postseason, he's going to have to realize some of that potential a little early.

    As a defender and shot-blocker, Favors is unmatched by any other player on the Jazz. In fact, his forceful work on the defensive interior is about as different from Al Jefferson's as can be imagined. There's no question that Utah suffers on offense when Favors is in the game—he makes the Jazz 3.4 points per 100 possessions less effective—but his presence on D accounts for a positive bump of 3.8 points per 100 possessions.

    And as we've all heard ad nauseum, defense counts for a little extra in the postseason.

    Favors is already the future in Utah. In order to extend the Jazz's stay in the postseason, he'll need to be their present, too.

Boston Celtics: Avery Bradley

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    The Boston Celtics are all but assured of a first-round meeting with the New York Knicks, a team that thrives on short possessions and a high volume of threes early in the shot clock.

    One of the best ways to slow the Knicks down is to apply pressure to the ball-handler as he brings the rock up the floor.

    And that's where Avery Bradley comes in.

    Boston's defensive terror is hell on opposing point guards, hounding his assignments from the moment they take the inbound pass. If Bradley can force Raymond Felton (or whoever brings the ball up) to burn up a few seconds by applying pressure, the Knicks won't be able to wear the Celtics down by turning the game into a back-and-forth affair.

    It's almost impossible to stop New York from casting away in transition, but Bradley has the skills to slow them down.

Houston Rockets: Jeremy Lin

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    The Houston Rockets are one of the most predictable offensive teams in the league. Virtually everything they do begins with a high pick-and-roll involving James Harden. The Rockets space the floor and let Harden decide what to do with the ball.

    Considering how exceptionally effective Harden has been this season, there are certainly worse options than letting him initiate everything from the same set.

    But good teams will take away the Rockets' No. 1 option—to the extent that's possible—and Houston is going to have to get a big performance from another guard on its roster.

    Jeremy Lin is going to have to be that guard.

    As a second ball-handler who typically sets up on the weak side when Harden operates, Lin is going to be the recipient of a lot of swing passes when defenses force the ball out of Harden's hands. If he can be an effective penetrator and facilitator, the Rockets will be much harder to stop.

    On the season, Lin has been just slightly better than average from a statistical standpoint. His 15.05 PER (15.00 is, by definition, average) attests to that.

    He'll have to be much better than that in the postseason.

Atlanta Hawks: Jeff Teague

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    The Atlanta Hawks' playoff success rests in the same place it has during the regular season: with Jeff Teague's performance at the point.

    In its wins this season, Atlanta has gotten an average of eight assists and just 2.7 turnovers per game from Teague. In its losses, Teague has dished out an average of just 6.2 dimes and committed 3.1 turnovers.

    Relying on win-loss splits can be misleading, but Teague's status as a key to the Hawks makes sense. Without a steady distributor, the Hawks tend to fall apart. Josh Smith tosses bad shots, Kyle Korver doesn't get enough touches on the perimeter and Al Horford doesn't see as many pick-and-pop looks as he should.

    Teague is charged with keeping Atlanta's offense in order. For that reason, his team's postseason fate will depend on his ability to step up and run the show.

Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson

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    Everybody knows that the Golden State Warriors live and die with Stephen Curry's gorgeous jumper, but Klay Thompson's ability to contribute as a second scoring option is going to be a huge key for the Dubs in their first postseason appearance since 2007.

    The Warriors run both Thompson and Curry off of a never-ending series of screens and curls in the half court, and there's a good chance that the latter is going to see much more defensive attention than the former during the postseason.

    If defenders are preoccupied with denying Curry the ball (they should be), Thompson is going to have some space to operate. If he can hit a few jumpers on the catch and slip a few pocket passes to David Lee, the Warriors will be better for it.

    The long ball will be there for Thompson, who has hit 40 percent of his triples this season. Plus, his development into the Warriors' best perimeter defender makes him valuable against the West's bigger wings.

    The key, though, will be his ability to draw some defensive focus when the game slows down.

    Golden State doesn't want to play half-court basketball, but if it has to, Thompson must become a factor.

Chicago Bulls: Nate Robinson

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    Sometimes, the little guys have to play big. That's often a figurative statement, but it applies literally to the Chicago Bulls and their pint-sized spark plug, Nate Robinson.

    With Derrick Rose's return date feeling shakier than a row house next to the "L" train, the Bulls are going to need some backcourt scoring from their sixth man to complement what will hopefully be a healthy big-man rotation of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.

    Chicago also knows it'll be getting solid, gritty play from wings Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng.

    And that leaves Robinson as a potential lynchpin. If he can have a couple of performances like his 35-pointer against the New York Knicks on April 11, he might single-handedly steal a game or two for the Bulls.

    The more discount double-checking Robinson does in celebration of made threes, the better off the Bulls will be.

Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley

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    Mike Conley is as close to a star as any player mentioned to this point, so maybe asking him to step up goes against the parameters established in the introduction.

    But hey, it's not like we're asking for Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph to raise their games. Those guys are typically regarded as the Memphis Grizzlies' marquee players. Conley has been viewed as more of a complementary piece during his career in Memphis.

    But his status as a supporting player has begun to change lately, and if he can carry his improved play into the postseason, the Grizzlies might have an outside shot at a title.

    After topping the 20-point mark just five times in the season's first four months, Conley has posted at least 20 points 12 times since March 1. In addition to his improved scoring, the Grizzlies point guard has taken a larger leadership role and absorbed many of the late-game shots that Rudy Gay took before he was traded to the Toronto Raptors.

    Based on the past couple of months, stepping up in the postseason isn't going to be a problem for Conley.

Brooklyn Nets: Joe Johnson

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    Joe Johnson hasn't had the kind of year he or the Brooklyn Nets hoped he would. Statistically, the 12th-year guard is having his worst season since he was a reserve scorer for the Phoenix Suns in 2002-03.

    Johnson's field-goal percentage, points per game, assists per game and rebounds per game are all lower than they've been in more than a decade.

    That's hugely disappointing for Johnson, and even more devastating for the Nets, who are going to pay their underperforming guard nearly $70 million over the next three seasons. But one thing can help ease the pain of Johnson's bloated contract and his poor overall performance: a game-winner in the playoffs.

    And that's something Johnson knows how to deliver.

    Sometimes, stepping up means hitting a single big shot, rather than raising one's overall level of play. If Johnson can make a jumper when it counts, his ugly season will be quickly forgotten.

Los Angeles Clippers: DeAndre Jordan

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    DeAndre Jordan is going to have to become more than an occasional entrant on the NBA's nightly highlight reels if the Los Angeles Clippers are going to make much noise in the postseason. Big slams are just fine, but what L.A. really needs is a defensive presence in the middle.

    The athleticism, size and wingspan are all there for Jordan. So the only thing keeping him from being a game-changing player on D is his desire.

    But maybe it's asking too much of Jordan to suddenly require him to transform into someone like Larry Sanders. So here's a more modest request for him: Stop being an absolutely horrendous defender!

    According to 82games.com, the Clips allow 107.1 points per 100 possessions when Jordan is on the court. When he sits, they allow just 101.3 points per 100 possessions.

    If Jordan can manage to break even on defense, the Clippers suddenly become a very scary team. So in this case, for Jordan, "stepping up" means having a clue on the defensive end. That doesn't seem like a lot to ask, does it?

Indiana Pacers: George Hill

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    Since the All-Star break, George Hill has averaged just one turnover in over 32 minutes per game. To be fair, that minuscule per-game figure is somewhat artificially lowered by the Indiana Pacers' plodding style.

    Still, Hill's ball security is a key to Indiana's success, as it embodies the way they refuse to beat themselves.

    To do damage in the playoffs, though, Hill is going to have to become more than a mistake-free player. He'll have to up his aggression against the surprisingly poor cadre of Eastern Conference point guards he's likely to face.

    Excepting Deron Williams, there's not a better two-way point guard in the East playoff picture than Hill. For that reason, he's going to have to attack his lesser competition.

    There are plenty of bigs to match up with David West and Roy Hibbert; Hill has a chance to exploit his matchup in a way that could give Indiana a massive edge.

Denver Nuggets: Wilson Chandler

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    Andre Iguodala figures to take up most of the slack for the injured Danilo Gallinari, but Wilson Chandler is going to have to do his part, too.

    And if his performance (albeit in a small sample size) since Gallinari's injury is any indication, Chandler appears capable of filling the void for Denver on the wing.

    In his last three starts, Chandler has averaged nearly 23 points and eight rebounds while making at least half of his shots in every game. He won't have to be quite that spectacular to replace Gallinari, but he'll certainly have to continue providing the outside shooting and transition smoothness that has made his cameo as a starter so successful.

    Injuries usually don't have silver linings, but in this case, Gallinari's torn ACL is giving Chandler an opportunity to show he's capable of shouldering a bigger load in the postseason.

New York Knicks: J.R. Smith

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    The Knicks are going to head into the postseason with the smallest roster of any playoff club. Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, Amar'e Stoudemire and Marcus Camby are all currently sidelined with various injuries, and it's hard to know how healthy any of them will be for New York's first-round series.

    Carmelo Anthony will probably try, but he can't carry the Knicks alone. So J.R. Smith is going to have to help out.

    It's a good thing the Knicks' sixth man has revamped his game in recent weeks:

    J.R. Smith averaged 1.5 free-throw attempts per game in the 2nd half of last season. He's averaging 5.2 FTA since the All-Star game this yr

    — Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) April 12, 2013

    Aggression on the court has never been a problem for Smith, but controlling it has.

    If Smith can continue to do his damage by attacking the rim, defenses won't be able to relax for a second against the Knicks. Whether leading the second unit or forming a high-scoring tandem with Anthony, Smith is New York's second-most important player right now.

    That'll be the case in the postseason, too. So No. 8 will have to stay on the attack. That seems like something he's OK with.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka

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    Last year, James Harden was a spectacular third option for the Oklahoma City Thunder—both during the regular season and in the playoffs. But with the Beard in Houston, Serge Ibaka is going to have to serve as the primary supporter of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

    During the 2012-13 season, OKC's young big man has shown some excellent signs of growth.

    His scoring average has gone up four points per game since last season, his field-goal accuracy is all the way up to a career-high 57 percent, and he's even added a three-point shot to his arsenal.

    Offense won't be an issue for Oklahoma City in the postseason, though. So Ibaka is going to have to be the defensive anchor.

    And that'll require more than just blocking shots. His rotations will have to be crisper, his awareness sharper.

    The Thunder's best lineup features Ibaka playing center, so if he can hold down the paint effectively, OKC will be able to punish teams on the other end with its superior athleticism and speed.

    Ibaka has taken a step this year. But he's going to have to make a leap in the playoffs for the Thunder to be a title threat.

Miami Heat: Ray Allen

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    The Miami Heat will go as far as their top three players can take them. Chances are, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be able to deliver a championship all on their own.

    But guys like Ray Allen can sure make the task a lot easier.

    During the 2011-12 postseason, Shane Battier hit 1.8 threes per game on 38 percent shooting from beyond the arc. That's some decent production from a solid role player, but what if Allen can bring his historically great shooting skills to bear during the playoffs?

    This season, the NBA's all-time three-point king has shot 42.3 percent from long range. If he can post that kind of number during the postseason, teams will have no choice but to pay attention to him—especially in the corners.

    That'll mean more space for the Big Three to operate and more open looks for Miami's other long-range shooters (like Battier).

    And don't assume that it's a safe bet that Allen will bring his A-game to the postseason. Last year, he made just 30 percent of his playoff threes. If he can knock down triples at his usual rate, the Heat should capture their second straight title with ease.

San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

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    With Manu Ginobili ailing, Kawhi Leonard has enjoyed something of a breakout over the past few weeks. During February and March, the San Antonio Spurs' promising wing averaged more than 14 points and six rebounds per game.

    But since taking over a starting role, he's been putting up 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest in the month of April.

    In each of those months, Leonard has shot at least 46 percent from the field while playing some stifling perimeter defense.

    Knowing all that, it shouldn't seem like a tall order for Leonard to assume Ginobili's role as the Spurs' best all-around wing player. But Leonard has played just 14 postseason games in his career while averaging just 8.6 points.

    He'll need to double that scoring average and add plenty of all-around contributions to equal Ginobili's typical production. Leonard has the skills to get the job done, he just has to put them all together on the big stage to push the Spurs to the finals.

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