NBA Playoffs 2013: Biggest X-Factor for Teams Making Trip to Conference Finals

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2013

May 15, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat point guard Norris Cole (30) reacts during the second half against the Chicago Bulls in game five of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Miami Heat won 94-91. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

You might need stars to win championships, but you can't win unless you have a balanced team.

The Miami Heat figured that out after losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. Having the Big Three wasn't enough to guarantee postseason success. Credit the Heat's management as it has built a much stronger team, and one certainly capable of lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy for a second year in a row.

It's much the same situation for the other two teams that have punched their respective tickets to the Conference Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to lead what is a well-balanced team. Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies have a strong supporting cast to help Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

Here are X-factors for each of the three teams in the Conference Finals. These guys can't single-handedly win a series, but their performances off the bench can be pivotal to their team's survival in the playoffs.


Miami Heat: Norris Cole, PG

With so many stars on the Heat, it's amazing that so much of Miami's NBA Finals chances can hinge on a player like Norris Cole.

Cole was good in the first round, but he really found his form in the Conference Semifinals against the Chicago Bulls. He went for 18 points in Games 2 and 3. Cole's season high was 16 points, and that came when Miami rested its main starters against the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 15.

ESPN's Tom Haberstroh put it best regarding Cole's performance in the playoffs:

Having the trio of Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is great and all, but it's guys like Cole who can make the difference between postseason exit and a second straight NBA title. He can be counted upon to knock down open shots. Cole is the kind of shooter who can help to open up the floor for Wade and James.


Memphis Grizzlies: Quincy Pondexter, SF

Quincy Pondexter had a relatively undistinguished regular season. He only averaged 6.4 points a game. Pondexter has been nothing if not consistent in the postseason, putting up 6.5 points a game.

In the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers, Pondexter's production off the bench really helped out the Grizzlies. In three of their wins, he went for double digits.

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Pondexter hasn't been asked to do as much, but he still went for about 6.6 a game.

When Pondexter shot, he made it count. He's knocking down 45.3 percent of his shots in the playoffs, including 42.9 percent from three-point range.

Memphis won't be relying on Pondexter to win its games against the Spurs, but a couple of key three-pointers can go a long way for the Grizzlies.


San Antonio Spurs: Gary Neal, PG

On one hand, it has to be a little frustrating backing up a point guard like Tony Parker. You're stuck behind one of the best point guards in the NBA. Don't look for Gary Neal to complain, though, as he's been a nice option behind Parker and filled in to starting duties when necessary.

Although Neal's numbers have dropped from the regular season to the playoffs, a lot of that can be contributed to Parker playing more minutes and Neal playing fewer.

What's a bit disconcerting is that Neal is only shooting 35.0 percent from the field, including just 25.0 percent from behind the arc.

He'll need to find his shooting stroke in the Conference Finals. The Grizzlies are so strong inside the post. Neal's offense off the bench can be huge.