Predicting the Biggest X-Factors of the 2013 NBA Playoffs
The greatest authors of playoff glory are the superstars.
But postseason achievement isn’t just a story written by the game’s elite, as a subcast of lesser-thought-of players often determine a team's success.
This postseason’s band of X-factors, players whose performances will ultimately decide the fate of their respective teams, are both household names and role players.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant keyed titles, but Robert Horry and Derek Fisher were just as vital.
Heading into this year’s NBA playoffs, there are plenty of players who will have instrumental roles—good or bad—in deciding a champion.
Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder
X-factor: Can Kevin Martin replace the ghost of James Harden when the house is haunted?
The new flame and the ex are going to the same postseason party.
Martin will meet face-to-face with Harden as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets converge in the first round of the playoffs.
The expectations on Martin are even higher when sharing a court with the scoring talents of Harden. Harden scored 16.3 points per game on 41.0-percent (1.6-of-3.9) three-point shooting in Oklahoma City's run to the Finals last season.
My opinion hasn't changed one bit. OKC will miss Harden in the playoffs. Kevin Martin is a huge downgrade. He can't make Harden-esque plays— Jarrod N Rudolph (@JRudolphSports) March 8, 2013
Martin is certainly more limited in his scoring versatility, but he is a more efficient shooter when left open, a perk of playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder will need Martin to knock down those looks if they hope to win the West.
He should do just fine. Martin is shooting 42.6 percent (2.1-of-4.8) from three-point range this season.
This is, however, just Martin's second postseason. He was a scorer for the Sacramento Kings in 2005-06 and shot just 31.6 percent from three-point range then as a second-year player.
Martin sat the team's final two games with a back injury, though it won't hold him out of the playoffs.
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
X-factor: Can Pau Gasol continue to step up?
Sure, Dwight Howard is the new leader now that Kobe Bryant is out.
But just as it was when Bryant leaned on his big man for titles in recent years, Howard will need top-tier play from Gasol if the Lakers have any shot at winning in the playoffs.
Gasol entered the final game of the regular season averaging 17.6 points and 11.0 rebounds in April. Then he proved even more valuable. Against the Houston Rockets in Wednesday's finale, Gasol had a triple-double with 17 points, 20 rebounds, 11 assists and two blocks.
Dwight & Gasol combined for 38 of the team's 57 total rebounds. Very, very good stuff from the bigs on the boards.— Lakers Nation (@LakersNation) April 18, 2013
The Lakers, especially in a matchup against the frontcourt of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, will need Gasol's production to continue.
His 3-of-17 performance against the Spurs on Sunday was not a tremendous sign for the matchup, but his 16 rebounds and three blocks that night were still part of a winning recipe.
Avery Bradley and J.R. Smith, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks
X-Factor: Can Avery Bradley lock up J.R. Smith?
With all the talk of the Celtics' midseason performance without Rajon Rondo, the one name that comes to mind is Avery Bradley.
When Rondo was playing, the team was blaming its slow start on the absence of Bradley. Bradley began the season on Jan. 2 after recovery from two shoulder injuries, a point at which the Celtics were 14-16.
After losing his initial game back, the team rallied for six consecutive wins including one on the road against the Knicks. The Celtics are 27-23 when Bradley plays.
Offensively, he’s not a gifted scorer, but he’ll help by getting out in transition for easy buckets. The strength of Bradley lies in his defensive assignment against the volume-shooter, Smith.
That’s not an easy cover.
J.R. Smith avg 22.1 ppg since March 1st (26 gms) - 10th in the NBA in scoring over that stretch. JR also averaged > rebs than Brook Lopez— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) April 18, 2013
But the Celtics are the best team at defending the outside shot, allowing just 32.4 percent from beyond the arc since Bradley returned on Jan. 2 (per NBA.com's advanced stats tool).
Bradley is the chief reason for the stifling perimeter defense, and he is one of the best on-ball, pressure defenders in this postseason. He will be accountable for limiting Smith.
Carmelo Anthony, who no doubt should put on a spectacular show against Paul Pierce, is going to carry this Knicks team offensively. But the Celtics’ greatest opportunity to pull off the upset as a No. 7 seed against the No. 2 Knicks will be Bradley’s performance as a defender.
Smith, an X-factor in his own right, has become one of the top offensive threats in the last month of the season. During New York's stretch of 15 wins in 16 games, Smith scored 23.6 points per game on 48.3 percent from the field. He wasn't settling for jumpers, either, as he began to attack more often.
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
X-factor: Can Ty Lawson reach a superstar level this postseason?
OK, enough. The Denver Nuggets weren’t considered legitimate contenders due to the absence of a superstar.
But they have that guy now.
Stamp it. Call Twitter. It's official.
Ty Lawson, before sitting out eight of nine games from March 21 through April 10 with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, was the Nuggets’ superstar.
Before Lawson was hurt, Lawson hit his peak and became the Nuggets' leader in February. In that month, he averaged 23.3 points and 8.4 assists, shooting 50.3 percent in 38.5 minutes per game.
Though the Nuggets played well during his absence, winning seven of eight games, his return to a newly established elite level is pivotal to the Nuggets' postseason success.
When the team went on a 15-game winning streak from February 23 through March 23, it was Lawson who became the clear front man of a team founded on transition play.
Despite the injury to Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets remain a threat in the Western Conference so long as Lawson keeps pushing the tempo.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
X-factor: Will Dwyane Wade continue his elite play?
Wade is the best player who is not the best player on his team.
Playing alongside LeBron James will do that to a guy; just ask Scottie Pippen. That is, if you can find him in Michael Jordan’s shadow.
But Wade has had a phenomenal season. He's eighth in the league in scoring at 21.2 points per game and he's top 20 in the league with a 52.1-percent shooting percentage, the best of his career.
It’s fair to say that Wade is having one of the most overlooked seasons of the last few years. James has been that good, yes, but Wade has been just as much part of the Miami Heat’s league-best success.
In last year's title-claiming postseason, Wade scored 22.8 points per game, and he added 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Though the Heat have only lost 14 times this season with Wade in the lineup, it's clear his performance is part of the Heat's success:
Defensively, Wade initiates the Heat’s transition game. He is sixth in the league with 1.9 steals per game.
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
X-factor: How will Manu Ginobili look in his return from injury?
The San Antonio Spurs will only go as far as Ginobili's hamstring takes them.
Before returning for Wednesday's final warm-up with two points in 12 minutes, the veteran guard had missed nine consecutive games due to the injury. In that stretch, the Spurs went 3-6.
Spurs just aren't the same late-game threat without Ginobili. Even with a healthy Parker.— Eric Freeman (@freemaneric) April 5, 2013
Yes, the Spurs have been resting much of their talent, but the return of Ginobili will be the biggest factor in San Antonio's attempt to win another championship with its core of him, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
The Spurs are 45-15 this season when Ginobili plays and 13-9 without him.
The key for Spurs' second unit to succeed is ball movement for easy baskets. Not getting it without Ginobili to orchestrate.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 5, 2013
In all the Spurs' championship years, he has been a top performer, averaging 16.2 points and 3.8 assists in 136 postseason games.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
X-factor: Will Stephen Curry be able to lift the Golden State Warriors past the Denver Nuggets?
Curry, who set an NBA record with 272 three-pointers this season, could shoot the Warriors into the second round.
In a matchup with fellow superstar-in-the-making Ty Lawson, Curry could be set to launch himself into an even greater national spotlight.
The 2013 postseason may be Curry’s big splash.
And if he stays hot—he has scored 26.0 points per game on 47.6-percent shooting since the All-Star Game—he could carry the sixth-seeded Warriors to a first-round upset against the Nuggets.
Curry led the Warriors to just their second postseason in 19 seasons. In his eight games in April. he wasn't just scoring, but he was also adding 8.1 assists while connecting on 4.5-of-10.1 three-pointers per game.
And as good as Denver is at home, Curry shoots just fine on the road. He connects at a 45.5-percent clip from three-point range at home and shoots 45.1 percent away.
In other words, he could light it up in Denver.
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
X-factor: Could Derrick Rose return in the postseason and push the Chicago Bulls to a title run?
That's a question that's been asked for 82 games already.
The Bulls, without Rose, ultimately landed the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference and a first-round date with the Brooklyn Nets.
But as much as the flirting has seemed to heat up, all the talk of a Rose return has so far been just a tease.
And the teasing continues.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, according to a report from Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, isn't shutting the door on Rose's return in the playoffs.
Cowley quotes Thibodeau: “It could be. He’s still not ready. We feel good about the guys we do have, and we just want to keep improving and let Derrick handle his rehab and just be ready for whoever we’re facing.’’
Thibodeau also added:
Whenever he’s ready, we’re going to welcome him back because, obviously, he adds a lot to the team. It’s the same as [Noah] and Taj [Gibson]. They come back and they’re playing limited minutes, but it’s a big plus to the team just because of what their strengths are. All those guys are team-oriented, and it makes your team a lot better.
Rose certainly makes the Bulls better. And as surprising as Chicago's success has been, the team doesn't appear likely to contend for a championship without its superstar guard.
Rose hasn't played since tearing his ACL in the first game of last year's postseason. If he returns for the playoffs, he becomes the biggest X-factor of them all.