The Most Critical Player on Every Remaining NBA Team in the Playoffs
In the 2014 NBA playoffs, one player can shift a game or series in his team's favor by himself. Whether it's scoring the basketball, crashing the boards or clamping down on defense, these select few are critical to their teams' success.
In most cases, these kind of players are your franchise players. Your leaders. Your alpha dogs. What are the 1990s Chicago Bulls without Michael Jordan or the Showtime Lakers without Magic Johnson?
There are rare cases where the most important guy on the floor is the sidekick or a secondary player whose unique skill set is imperative in certain situations. Jordan needed Scottie Pippen to lighten the load. Larry Bird needed guys such as Kevin McHale to handle business in the paint.
Today, we'll take a look at the most critical players on every remaining team in the playoffs. Granted, some of these names will be obvious. There will also be teams where you can argue a case for a number of different players.
Is Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook more important to the Oklahoma City Thunder's success? Truthfully, it's like picking which arm you like the most. Since one needs the other, this will be less about who is more important and more about whose presence has the most overall effect on his team's success.
As always, your feedback is the most critical to these kind of articles. If you agree, disagree or just want to add something to the conversation, feel free to drop a few lines in the comments section.
Los Angeles Clippers: PG Chris Paul
This was a tossup between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin up until the second half of the Los Angles Clippers' series-clinching win in Game 7 over the Golden State Warriors. The Clippers trailed in that game up until midway into the third quarter.
It's no coincidence that things started to turn in Los Angeles' favor when CP3 finally got going. Paul finished the game with 22 points with a brunt of his scoring coming after halftime. He also chipped in 14 assists and came away with four steals.
Dealing with a myriad of injuries as well as off-the-court drama, Paul showed a ton of heart throughout the series and really let the ventricles show when the team needed him most. His leadership, toughness and ability to affect the game on both ends of the court gives him the edge over Griffin.
Paul is the league's reigning steals champion (2.5 thefts per game). He also led the league in assists (10.7 dimes a night) during the regular season. He makes those around him better and puts them in perfect positions to score. His defense is also crucial to securing easy transition buckets and causing shifts in momentum.
The Clippers' success going forward will be contingent on the little guy's body holding up, which will allow his overall excellence to carry the team.
Oklahoma City Thunder: G Russell Westbrook
I already know what you're going to say. "Nobody is more important to the Oklahoma City Thunder than Kevin Durant! He's the league's MVP (h/t to ESPN's Marc Stein on the news)!" True, but nobody is more crucial to KD being able to do what he does than Russell Westbrook.
Durant is an all-world, once-in-a-generation talent, but he can't do it all on his own. Yes, his struggles early on against Memphis coincides with Oklahoma City failing to put away the Grizzlies, but it wasn't like Westbrook was having a great series either.
Game 7 showed what Westbrook (and, by extension, the rest of the team) can do when he's firing on all cylinders. His final stat line? Twenty-seven points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block. Meanwhile, Durant (on just 18 shots) finished with 33 points and eight rebounds.
Westbrook became the second person in NBA history to have a triple-double in two Game 7s (Boston's Rajon Rondo being the other). Eight of Durant's 12 makes were assisted by Westbrook. The two are great individually, but the Thunder are at their best when these two are on the same page.
Much like Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers, Westbrook's ability to affect the game in numerous ways gives him the slight edge. Oklahoma City needs his explosiveness on both ends of the court as well as his vision to get others involved like he did in Game 7.
Portland Trail Blazers: PG Damian Lillard
Point guard Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge deserve to share the credit for the Portland Trail Blazers notching their first playoff series win since 2000. The Blazers' elimination of the Houston Rockets was as much about Aldridge's dominance down low as Lillard's excellence from outside.
In the end though, Lillard was the one who put the dagger in Houston's heart.
In the first five games of the series, Lillard averaged 25.6 points, 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game. The only other two players to average at least 25-5-5 in their first five postseason games? LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
When Lillard gets hot from deep, he can shift the game in Portland's favor. He's proven to be unaffected by the situation, the distance or if there's a hand in his face or not. If he's feeling it, it's going up, and chances are it's going in.
Regardless of who Portland draws in the second round, it'll need Aldridge to replicate his opening-round performance down low. However, Lillard's continued growth will be the X-factor. He's the guy you want with the ball in his hands when it matters most.
For that reason, he's the most critical player on this Blazers roster.
San Antonio Spurs: PF Tim Duncan
At 38 years old, Tim Duncan shouldn't still hold the San Antonio Spurs' fate in the palms of his massive hands. After all, Tony Parker is now the team's leading scorer. Tiago Splitter leads the team on the glass in the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is the future face of the franchise.
This is supposed to be the time where Duncan takes a backseat while the kids win one for "The Big Fundamental."
Good luck with that.
While Duncan isn't the phenom he once was, he still manages to utilize his flawless technique and veteran savvy to his advantage. He's like The Undertaker. He saves his best performance for the biggest stage and when it matters most (yes, folks, I dropped a wrestling reference on you).
While others have replaced him on the team's leaderboards, Duncan's stat line is still pretty impressive for a guy wrapping up his 17th season in the NBA. He's averaging 17.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in these playoffs. He's also shooting 55 percent from the field.
Parker, Leonard and Splitter will all be huge factors in how deep the Spurs go in the postseason, but it will be Duncan's ability to still hold his own against a younger generation of big men that will matter the most. After just barely missing out on his fifth ring last year, Duncan will be looking to cement his legacy and keep his own streak of greatness alive.
Hopefully for the Spurs, there isn't a Brock Lesnar lurking in this year's playoffs.
Dallas Mavericks: SG Monta Ellis
The Dallas Mavericks brought Monta Ellis in to give their offense a jolt and take some of the pressure to score all the time off Dirk Nowitzki's shoulders. So far, Ellis has lived up to his end of the deal. After averaging 19 points per game in the regular season, Ellis stepped it up a notch to lead the team with 21.8 points per game in the playoffs.
As a result, the Mavs have pushed the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs to the brink of elimination and stand one win away from pulling off a surprising upset.
The key to Ellis' success has been an ability to score from anywhere on the floor. This is an attribute that hasn't gone overlooked by former Mavs guard Jason Terry.
Monta has the best ability in the league, to me, to straight-line drive and get to the basket," Terry told ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM's Hoffman and Locker, according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "He's been able to finish at the basket, and when he's not finishing at the basket, he can stop on a dime and knock down the jump shot.
Another added dimension of Ellis' game, according to Terry, is the guard's killer instinct:
"Since he stepped foot on the court in the league straight out of high school, he’s played with that fearlessness. Reckless abandon for his body. When he goes in, he can finish amongst big guys, three people at times. At other times, he’ll come down and pull up 1-on-3 on a fast break, a la Jet."
As we've seen with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team with a great big man inside needs a guy on the outside who isn't afraid of taking tough shots and ripping the heart out of an opponent. Ellis appears to have that kind of ruthless aggression.
His fearlessness and ability to put the offense on his back is a huge plus for the Mavericks and an even bigger help for the aging Nowitzki.
Washington Wizards: SG Bradley Beal
This could have gone either way between John Wall and Bradley Beal. Wall is the more dynamic athlete with the capability to get others involved and be a factor on the defensive end. This is evidenced by Wall leading the team in assists (6.8 per game) and steals (2.2) during the postseason.
The only thing missing from Wall's game is a consistent outside jumper. While it has improved over the last few years, the former No. 1 overall pick (2010) is still converting just 27 percent from three in the playoffs and just under 31 percent for his career.
Meanwhile, in just his second season as a pro, Beal has established himself as a three-point marksman. After shooting 40 percent from deep in the regular season, the former Florida Gator has nailed 45.5 percent of his treys in the postseason.
That's been a huge reason behind his team-leading 19.8 points per game as well as the Washington Wizards' standing as the second-best three-point shooting team in the playoffs (38 percent). The Wizards' ability to stroke it from the outside will be their biggest advantage going forward, and that's what makes Beal so important.
Wall will be the playmaker, and his speed makes him a nightmare for opposing point guards. However, if Beal gets hot from the outside, the Wizards become a tough team to beat.
Indiana Pacers: C Roy Hibbert
The Indiana Pacers were able to survive against the Atlanta Hawks without much help from Roy Hibbert thanks in large part to Paul George and Lance Stephenson. With all due respect to the Hawks, the Pacers' competition is about to get a little more formidable and they are going to need their franchise big man.
Without Al Horford, Atlanta didn't have the size to fully exploit Hibbert's mysterious decline. The Hawks still managed to stretch the series out to seven games and give the Pacers a run for their money.
You think Indiana fares as well against Marcin Gortat and Nene in Washington if Hibbert is still on the back of a milk carton? How about trying to stop Miami's Big Three from owning the paint without the former Georgetown Hoya patrolling the paint?
Paul George and Lance Stephenson are excellent two-way players, and they've done a great job of putting the team on their backs so far. The same can be said about power forward David West.
However, the Pacers are a defense-first team, and they need their best rim protector to come back off hiatus. The key to Indiana's success is hindering its opponents' offense and scoring just enough to get by. The Pacers aren't going to win too many shootouts.
Hibbert had somewhat of a resurgence in the deciding Game 7 against Atlanta. He scored 13 points, grabbed seven boards and swatted away five shots. It was a nice sight after the 7-footer averaged just four points in the previous six games.
"We know that when he is locked in offensively, his defense is off the charts. That's when he becomes special," George said about Hibbert, according to The Associated Press. "I thought he was very special for us."
The time has come for Hibbert to shake off the doldrums and go back to being the guy who looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the first half of the season. George, Stephenson and West can keep Indiana competitive, but Hibbert is the only one who can keep it from getting dominated inside.
Toronto Raptors: PG Kyle Lowry
This was another coin flip between DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan has led the team in scoring throughout the playoffs with an average of 24.8 points per game. He's even contributed some on the boards as well as on the defensive end.
However, like any great No. 1 option, DeRozan needs someone to have his back, and Lowry is that guy. The Villanova product is a man who wears many hats. He's not just a scorer (20 PPG), but a man who sets the table for others (7.4 assists in the regular season, five dimes a night in the playoffs) as well as helps out on the defensive end (little over a steal per contest).
Of the two, Lowry is the better outside shooter as well, which makes him even more valuable when the offense needs a spark. He's shown a knack for making tough shots throughout this series with the Brooklyn Nets and has had the added duty of trying to shut down Deron Williams.
DeRozan is the steadier hand of the two. Lowry is the wild card. Ever since his All-Star snub, he's played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. More importantly, he's playing for a new contract this summer. That kind of motivation makes him a dangerous man in these playoffs.
Brooklyn Nets: PG Deron Williams
A testament to the importance of Deron Williams and how his play resonates with fans is the fact that someone felt compelled to hang "missing" posters with the point guard's face on it prior to Game 6.
In truth, Brooklyn's $100 million man could be playing better than he has during the team's series against the Toronto Raptors. He's shooting just under 42 percent from the field, including a paltry 30 percent from behind the arc.
However, Williams has still managed to average 17.5 points and 5.8 assists per game in the postseason. When D-Will has scored at least 20 points in these playoffs, the Nets are 3-0. Unsurprisingly, Brooklyn is 0-3 when he's held to under 20 (or, more specifically, 15 points or less).
While those numbers don't tell the whole story, that stat is telling of Williams' impact on the team. When Williams plays like the franchise player he's being paid to be, the Nets (surprise, surprise) seem to benefit.
When he's playing more like Shammond Williams, Brooklyn doesn't fare as well.
Aging veterans like Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson can only carry the Nets so far. This is Deron Williams' team, and he'll be the guy who gets the credit or the blame at the end of the day. Franchise players shouldn't compel the public to draw up signs questioning their whereabouts during the most important time of the year.
This team will only go as far as D-Will takes it, and it starts with the finale against Toronto.
Miami Heat: F LeBron James
This one shouldn't warrant too in-depth of a discussion, should it?
Here's a list of statistical categories that LeBron James leads the Miami Heat in after four playoff games:
- Points (30 per game)
- Rebounds (Eight per game)
- Assists (Six per game)
- Steals (2.5 per game)
He also has the highest field-goal percentage of any of Miami's perimeter players (just under 56 percent). It should go without saying that the best player in the NBA also happens to be the most critical to his team's chances at notching a three-peat.
Yes, the Heat need Dwyane Wade to stay healthy and be Robin to King James' Batman. Yes, Miami needs Chris Bosh to be a presence on the inside and make up for the team's lack of a bona fide center. Yes, the team will need contributions from guys like Ray Allen and Chris "Birdman" Andersen.
All of those are moot points if James doesn't bring his otherworldly talents on a nightly basis. The big guy is a triple-double waiting to happen, and his athletic gifts make him a menace on the defensive end. As he's proven over the years, it's going to be a long night if James decides he wants to take over.
James' dominance in nearly every relevant category speaks to his impact on the team. Barring something unforeseen, there isn't much standing in the way of LBJ's fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.