NBA Players Who Must Step Up Entering 2014 Playoffs

Joshua J Vannuccini@@jjvannucciniSenior Analyst IIIApril 6, 2014

NBA Players Who Must Step Up Entering 2014 Playoffs

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The 2014 NBA playoffs draw closer, and teams are locking in for the long haul. Only, there's been a few squads around the league that have tripped as they draw closer to the finish line.

    The blame can be squarely placed on the players, as some have seen their production falter as of late. Whether it's led to concern, blame or outright panic, it's not abnormal to see the pressures of the postseason begin to creep in.

    For this list, we'll focus on production seen in March, as it gives us better insight into recent performances, as opposed to the broader window since the All-Star break.

    Not all those listed are superstars, but each is integral to his team in some way. These players will need to gear up over the next few weeks as they look to regain their A-games entering the playoffs.

The Shooters

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    Nam Y. Huh

    Before we get rolling on the players, there are a few key contributors who are struggling with their outside shot. Their roles are mostly integral to their team's success, yet simultaneously aren't of a profile high enough for a lone place on the list.

    Shane Battier, Miami Heat

    Once an integral piece to the Miami Heat's championship puzzle, Shane Battier has became a little dislodged.

    Renowned for his prowess both defensively and from beyond the arc, Battier's struggle with the latter has seen him fall out of the rotation in Miami. He shot a dismal 23.3 percent from long range through March, and has played sparingly over the past few games.

    Battier went as far as committing to retirement at the season's end, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, saying "it would take an act of God to change it." It's a shame to see "Batman" go out this way, but here's hoping he can improve his stroke leading up to the postseason.

    Miami will certainly need it, as his presence on the floor gives the Heat a whole new identity and dynamic to work with.

    Channing Frye, Phoenix Suns

    It remains to be seen whether Channing Frye's drop in minutes and field-goal percentage are linked, but they certainly seem to be.

    Since December, Frye's conversion rate from three-point range has continually lowered, plummeting to 28.6 percent in March. He has upped that to 30.8 percent in two games through April, but it's still concerning for the Phoenix Suns.

    They need Frye's shooting to space the floor on offense, which opens up driving opportunities for Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, and in turn opportunities for his teammates. Frye needs to get his stroke back for the playoffs; that is, if the Suns are able to sneak in, as they are currently tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed.

    Anthony Tolliver, Charlotte Bobcats 

    Anthony Tolliver has just about worked his way off this list after a bizarre stretch of games through March. 

    After converting on 42.6 percent of his threes in January and 46.9 percent in February, Tolliver proceeded to unload on just 27.1 percent this past month. He saw his minutes drop to 16.5 per game, similar to his 14.9 minutes per game in November where he shot 36.7 percent.

    It's clear rookie coach Steve Clifford knows when to pull the plug, but Tolliver recently found his shot, and in turn an increase in minutes.

    He knocked down four threes in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Orlando Magic in recent days, with a superb 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists off the bench on April 2. It did come against lowly Philadelphia, one of the league's worst defensive teams, but it still was a resurgent performance nonetheless.

    Through April, he's upped his shooting to 58.8 percent from deep. The three games he's played are a small sample size, but Tolliver will need to keep at that pace as the Bobcats enter the playoffs.

    Norris Cole, Miami Heat

    Much like teammate Battier, Norris Cole has lost his shot at the worst possible time. The difference with Cole is that head coach Erik Spoelstra can't exactly take away his PT.

    With Dwyane Wade still nursing a hamstring injury, Cole has been expected to fill in off the bench. He has done well all season, but shot just 35.2 percent last month. He also knocked down just 28.6 percent of his three-point attempts, which has dropped to an even worse percentage of 12.5 in April.

    Cole is a defensive guard first, but he also needs to hit his shots when his number is called. The Heat have played him alongside starting guard Mario Chalmers recently, but it can only work if Cole is able to knock it down from outside.

    Miami absolutely needs him going forward, especially with Battier's struggles.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    *When healthy.

    That asterisk has lingered over Dwyane Wade for the past few seasons, as the shooting guard has constantly battled injuries. Here's a quick rundown of his DNPs for this season:

    While that listing is a bit overwhelming (and probably unnecessary), it helps paint a picture of just how inconsistent Wade's health has been throughout the season. The majority of his absences seem to be precautionary, but the list remains alarming.

    The postseason is just days away, thus making it even more important that Wade finds himself injury-free. The Heat are looking for a third consecutive championship, but can only achieve that goal if they have their shooting guard at 100 percent.

    With such a weak Eastern Conference, Miami could possibly hold Wade out for the entire first round if necessary. The Heat will play the Atlanta Hawks or the New York Knicks. Even without Wade, Miami should be able to make quick work of either.

    It's a luxury the Heat can afford with such a talented roster, but they'll eventually need Wade to be successful. It's difficult for Wade to step up his game when he isn't even on the court. For now, he needs to focus on his body and try to ensure his health for the long haul.

    Wade's 19.2 points, 4.8 assists and 54.6 percent shooting for the season have been stellar. It's just his inconsistent appearances and tenuous healthy that put him on this list.

LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Bear with me.

    LeBron James' MVP-caliber season leaves little room for scrutiny considering his 26.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. James has been praised for his 56.8 shooting accuracy, but it's slightly deceiving.

    At this point in the season, 44.8 percent of LeBron's total field-goal attempts have come within five feet from the rim. It's a true testament to how difficult he is to contain, but also overshadows the struggles he has from the outside.

    James has shot just 33.2 percent on jump shots this season, down from last season's figure of 38.2 percent. He dropped just a shade below that in March, converting on 32 percent.

    LeBron can be unstoppable heading to the rim, but those opportunities only come if he's able to force opponents to defend closer on the ball when he's knocking down jumpers.

    He's shown the ability to make shots (see 2013 NBA Finals), but it's something he should look to improve heading into the playoffs, as opposed to leaving it to chance. 

    The nature of such a concern would be of higher importance if it were someone else, and hence a higher placing on this list, but LeBron gets the benefit of the doubt. 

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Much like Wade, Russell Westbrook will need to gear up health-wise for the postseason.

    He looked terrific in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 106-94 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, as his 27 points, six assists and four steals helped snap the Spurs' 20-game winning streak.

    Westbrook is slowly rounding into form in time for the playoffs but has battled inconsistency. It's only natural to see a bit of a learning curve as he returns and adjusts. Westbrook committed 4.5 turnovers per game through March.

    He did increase his shooting percentage to 47.9 percent and 37.3 percent from long range, all the while putting up 21.8 points and 7.3 assists, so it's no real cause for concern. But as Oklahoma City's primary ball-hander, Westbrook needs to reel himself in a bit for the playoffs.

    He's renowned, and perhaps infamous, for his insane speed that can either leave defenders helpless or contribute to his propensity for turnovers.

    Westbrook is a much better player when he's in control. But when his emotions take over, his efficiency can suffer.

    As seen on Mar. 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Westbrook had 14 assists en route to a triple-double in just 21 minutes. He did commit six turnovers, but in this video it's clear he has the ability to pace himself and run the offense. 

    Doing so going forward would not only benefit the Thunder as a whole, but it would eliminate some injury concern that comes from Westbrook's wild style of play. 

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats

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    Matt Slocum

    The Charlotte Bobcats are officially back in the playoffs, having clinched a berth on Apr. 5 in a 96-94 overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Al Jefferson has been on a tear, averaging 24.7 points and 10.7 rebounds since the All-Star break. Point guard Kemba Walker has played a significant role as well this season, but he has struggled with his shot since the break.

    Walker's done an admirable job of running the Bobcats' offense, averaging 7.5 assists and just 2.3 turnovers since the break. But his 36.7 percent shooting puts a damper on what would be a terrific output in the season's second half.

    He's down to 34.1 percent in April, which is a cause for concern if Charlotte is looking to make an impact in the postseason. The Bobcats aren't likely to pull off many upsets, but it's almost a guarantee that they won't if Walker is unable to find his shot.

    He converted 90.8 percent of his free-throw attempts in March, hence a possible approach would be to work his way to the line and find a rhythm from the stripe. Walker's speed and ball-handling should see to that quite easily, as he's averaged 4.6 attempts per game for the season.

    Walker would rank higher, but Jefferson's terrific play has him as the clear-cut leader of this team. As such, Walker gets a lower place on the list.

    In any case, Charlotte will need him as a perimeter threat to have any chance of advancing through the playoffs. 

Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors

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    Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher said it best in the above video: "What the hell happened?"

    Harrison Barnes, once a prime piece of the Golden State Warriors puzzle, has struggled mightily. He's been mired in a shooting slump all season, dropping to 29.6 percent from the field and 18.4 percent from three-point range in March.


    The Warriors have played well despite his struggles, but could certainly use his production off the bench. Barnes has improved to 34.6 percent thus far in April, but it's still below what's expected given last season's 43.9 percent shooting from the field.

    Bucher notes that Barnes isn't truly a playmaker off the bench, hence his slump may have more to do with how the coaching staff is using him. It's virtually impossible that will change with six games left in the season, so it's up to Barnes to improve his play heading into the playoffs.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    A strong game against the Los Angeles Lakers almost saved Damian Lillard, but he remains on the list.

    Despite a 34-point, eight-assist showing against the Lakers on Apr. 1, Lillard's poor play as of late remains glaring. He shot 39.6 percent in March, converting just 31.6 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

    Lillard is a phenomenal shooter having converting 40.4 percent of his threes prior to the All-Star break, but has dropped to 35.6 percent since. His scoring and distributing has remained consistent, but his overall lack of accuracy lands him here.

    It isn't a huge concern, as it can be largely blamed on the Trail Blazers being without LaMarcus Aldridge for seven games in March. But it still remains noteworthy considering Lillard's status as his team's best perimeter scorer.

    The Blazers won't get far in the postseason with him struggling. His scoring is instrumental to the offense running smoothly. Portland's poor defense will see the team try to win with offense, but Lillard needs to be locked in for that to happen.

    Despite his great play against Los Angeles, he followed it up with a 5-of-13 shooting night against the Phoenix Suns on Apr. 4 for 15 points in a 109-93 loss. It's just one game, as was Lillard's night against the Lakers, so he isn't free from his slump just yet.

    Much like Walker, Lillard's role as the team's second-best player finds him this high on the list. He would rank higher, but others have played worse and have more to prove.

Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The Indiana Pacers have fallen from the top spot in the East, and it's been a collective effort. But Roy Hibbert's subpar play has been particularly noteworthy.

    Hibbert is not a high-scoring big man. His defensive prowess is what sets him apart. His 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds are solid but not what might be expected considering his 7'2", 290-pound frame. His numbers are low in part because of he can't stay out of foul trouble.

    He's averaged 3.4 fouls in 30.2 minutes for the season, with a small spike in March to 3.7 in 29.4 minutes. Hibbert is up to 4.5 fouls in 30.5 minutes in April, which spells trouble with the playoffs approaching.

    Given the slower pace of the postseason, it'll be difficult for the Pacers to use Hibbert as an advantage against smaller teams (specifically the Heat) if he isn't able to stay on the court.

    In addition, Hibbert's field-goal percentage dropped to 42.2 percent and 39.1 percent in March and April respectively. His accuracy is well below what's anticipated from someone his size.

    Hibbert needs to reel himself in defensively, and commit to defending without fouling. He's shown the ability to score as well, averaging 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds in the 2012-13 postseason.

Paul George, Indiana Pacers

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    How do you stop the Pacers' offense? Contain Paul George.

    It's a feat easier said than done, but it's a game plan many seemed to implement as Indiana went 8-10 in March. The Pacers offense dropped to a league-worst 89.2 points on 42.3 percent, and in turn George's play dipped significantly.

    He scored 18.7 points on 37.2 percent last month, sinking only 29.7 percent of his three-point attempts. George has played well thus far in April, but his best game came against the defensively-inept Detroit Pistons.

    Indiana, much like the Chicago Bulls, can dominate games by playing suffocating defense, even if the offense isn't clicking. But the Pacers still rely heavily on George's offensive ability.

    In wins this season, George has shot 44.4 percent as opposed to 38.6 percent in losses. He's the only player Indiana has, save for Lance Stephenson and maybe David West, who can truly create on the offensive end.

    George has struggled against some poor defensive teams, so it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly has him bothered. Whether it's his bizarre "catfishing" saga or other off-court drama, it's clear George wasn't himself in March.

    The Pacers will absolutely need him to find his way as they look to challenge the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference crown. Indiana took the Heat to seven games last season, but will only have a chance to do so again on the shoulders of George.

    He tops his teammate Hibbert on this list because of his star profile and his recent slump. Hibbert may face a bigger mountain to climb back to redemption, but he won't even get the chance if George isn't geared up for the postseason.