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Who Will Be Brooklyn Nets' Playoff X-Factor?

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Who Will Be Brooklyn Nets' Playoff X-Factor?
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"That's why they got me here!"

That's what Paul Pierce shouted after he drilled his fourth straight basket to seal the Brooklyn Nets' Game 1 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.

Pierce is right. Hitting tough shots in big games is why the Brooklyn Nets traded for him last summer. The move was a response to the Nets' startling exit in the opening round of last year's postseason. Given the chance to advance with a victory on their home court, the Nets lost a heartbreaking Game 7 to a Chicago Bulls team missing multiple starters.

In the fourth quarter of that season-ending defeat, the Nets scored 18 points on 7-of-23 shooting, dooming them to a long, gloomy offseason after an otherwise successful inaugural year in Brooklyn. 

Months later, in a transaction that shook the franchise, the Nets acquired Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a trade, having in mind the duo's ability to turn it up for big games.

This quality is what makes Pierce Brooklyn's X-factor in this year's postseason.

This coronation of Pierce as the Nets' most important asset isn't just a an impulsive reaction to his excellent finish to Game 1. Fans and critics alike have anticipated an uptick in Pierce's performance for the playoffs since he joined the team, and it was such a belief that buoyed hope for his turnaround after a slow start to the year.

Thus, his fourth-quarter dramatics in the first game of the Raptors series feel less like a surprise than a destined return to glory for the former Finals MVP.

Although it's inevitable that great attention will be paid to the game's final minutes, Pierce's contributions were visible at other key moments in the game. He may have been outscored by the Nets' younger superstars, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams (24 points apiece), but he led the team with a plus-20 plus/minus and four assists.

He also made a three-pointer to start the game that momentarily quieted a raucous Toronto crowd, converted a circus three-point play late in the first quarter and finished with 35 minutes played, seven more than his season average.

And even though it sometimes looks like Pierce is moving in slow motion on defense, his signature long-armed presence was part of a cohesive perimeter effort by the Nets that held Toronto's dangerous wings, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, to 4-of-17 shooting combined.

The label of X-factor is not handed to Pierce for merely his one-game performance, though. Rather, it is a prediction for the games to come, starting Tuesday night with Game 2 in Toronto.

The origin of the term "X-factor" is embedded in mathematics; the guy whose performance is most likely to decide his team's fortune becomes equivalent to a key variable on a graph or in an equation, one that disproportionately affects the entire outcome.

Perhaps no player on the Nets has the potential variability in his play that Pierce does. He started Game 1 strong as the Nets jumped out to an early lead, disappeared for a few quarters while the Raptors fought back to momentarily take a one-point lead and then reemerged to finish Toronto off in the final five minutes.

As Pierce went, so did Brooklyn.

And we can extrapolate this pattern upon the entire series. Many of the Nets have somewhat predictable outputs. Johnson will get his 15 shots through slash-and-kick threes and isolation. Williams will fuel the offense from the top of the key, picking his spots to attack the basket or pull up from deep. Mason Plumlee will finish his handful of rim-rocking dunks. 

Pierce is harder to nail down. It's this volatility that explains periods like the second week of March in which he missed all of his three-pointers in an embarrassing loss to the Boston Celtics and then came back five days later to score 29 points in a huge road win over the Miami Heat.

The Nets' fortunes in those games was indicative of a season-long trend. In the 33 games in which Pierce has shot at least 50 percent from the floor, Brooklyn is 23-10. In the 29 games in which he has shot 40 percent or worse, the team is 11-18.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

It's not difficult to see why Pierce's play so thoroughly affects Brooklyn's fate. The Nets have enough weapons to complement a hot Pierce but don't possess the offensive firepower to consistently handle his droughts. When Pierce's shots are falling, he can either succeed in one-on-one situations, as he did Saturday against Patrick Patterson, or draw enough attention to open up space for his teammates, as evidenced by his four assists.

But when he's cold, opposing defenses can focus more on flocking to Johnson's backdowns or tripping up Williams inside. Moreover, Pierce, as an experienced veteran who's earned his minutes, will always get enough court time to influence the outcome. Jason Kidd can bench Marcus Thornton for bricking his shots, but sitting a future Hall of Famer is less likely. 

So far, Pierce has saved his better moments for the important games such as the Nets' four wins over the Miami Heat in the regular season (21.3 points per game for Pierce) or Saturday's opener against Toronto.

Brooklyn can only hope this pattern endures since a subpar string of games by its X-factor could spell a second consecutive early postseason exit. 

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