The NBA playoffs should be exhilarating as usual, but several players in particular for the association's top squads will figure prominently in shaping how the postseason plays out.
As defending champions, the Miami Heat are the prohibitive favorite, and they are a slightly different, more cohesive team than a season ago. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder are vying for an NBA Finals rematch after falling 4-1 in the championship series less than a year ago.
The revitalized New York Knicks need some sort of edge to get by Miami in the East, while the San Antonio Spurs will look to exact revenge on the Thunder if they meet again in the conference finals.
Let's take a look at the biggest individual X-factors for each of those top-notch squads and how they might change the dynamic of their respective team's chances.
Miami Heat: Chris Andersen, PF
Due to the salary cap restrictions of the Heat's star trio, acquiring a lot of talent around them has proven difficult. Miami took a flier on Andersen in the middle of the year after he had not played all season, and he has proven to be a valuable asset.
The player known as "Birdman" gives the Heat a much-needed physical presence in the paint, with the ability to alter shots and also clean up misses at the rim.
His numbers of 4.9 points, four rebounds and one block per game in 17 minutes won't stun anyone, but it's what Andersen does outside of the box score that matters most.
Chris Bosh discussed how the element of energy that Andersen brings with the second unit is so essential to Miami's success. Andersen then tried to downplay his impact, per Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald:
“He just keeps it going,” Bosh said of Andersen. “For the second-group guys, energy is the most important thing and he has come in and matched or exceeded us on a night-to-night basis."
“I think the guys already knew the urgency they needed to prove to everybody that we are, they were, another championship-contending team,” Andersen said. “They did it on their own. They just brought me in and that’s all there is to it.”
Andersen's hustle and humility bodes well for the team's chemistry, and he is the classic "glue guy" that the Heat needed to enhance their chances at repeating as champions.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka, PF
Now that the 23-year-old has developed a solid mid-range jumper, there is no telling exactly where Ibaka's ceiling is.
Ibaka had never scored in double digits prior to this season, but he is now averaging 13.3 points thanks to the added dimension—and partially due to more shot opportunities sans James Harden.
Filling that role gives the Thunder's starting five another legitimate, consistently reliable scoring option. That is necessary especially when the offensively inept Kendrick Perkins is on the floor, and the Thunder can still play lockdown defense with that lineup.
The impact that the big man makes on the defensive end has never been in question, as Ibaka leads the NBA with 3.05 rejections per contest.
It will be important for OKC to get bench production from Kevin Martin, who has reached the postseason only once.
However, Ibaka's offensive output and ability to stretch the floor a bit at the 4 will open up the lane for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to establish tempo early, and aggressively attack to get the Thunder off to good starts.
New York Knicks: Raymond Felton, PG
The 2005 No. 5 overall pick has never quite lived up to the hype coming out of North Carolina, but to be fair, he is enjoying a nice season in 2012-13.
Felton has reached the postseason twice, with his teams having not won more than one game combined. Thankfully, the Knicks have a strong supporting cast and it won't all fall on him.
Having said that, the point guard has to effectively run the show and play stellar defense for New York to capitalize on its best position in the playoffs in nearly two decades.
Shooting efficiency is usually a problem for Felton, but his numbers are fantastic since the All-Star break. Felton is just a shade under 47 percent from the field and is still around 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Alan Hahn of MSG Networks reported that Felton hyper-extended his knee against the Chicago Bulls last Thursday, but he's seemed to be fine in two games of slightly less action since.
It will be interesting to see how Felton handles the playoff stage. He must be on top of his game, as the Knicks are set to open with the Boston Celtics, who are crafty, experienced team that is capable of neutralizing him with brilliant on-ball defender Avery Bradley.
San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili, SG/SF
It's rather apparent, but the Spurs simply aren't the same team when Ginobili isn't on the floor. He's been out for most of the past 10 games with a hamstring injury, and San Antonio is just 4-6 in that stretch.
Good news has presented itself, however, as Ginobili is expected to return as early as Wednesday, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Daily-News:
Ginobili's production is down this season, as he's averaging just 11.9 points—the lowest output since his rookie year. A history of injuries and reckless playing style seem to be taking their toll on the 35-year-old.
If the sixth man extraordinaire is healthy enough to be a viable contributor for the postseason, though, the Spurs' outlook totally changes.
Gregg Popovich does a marvelous job of shuffling his lineups and rotations around with such a deep roster, even electing to sit his veterans for rest on any given night. That job will be easier with Ginobili in the fold, and if the Spurs are meant to emerge as Western Conference champions, Ginobili will be vital to their success.