NBA Playoffs 2014: Role Players Who Will Help Define Conference Finals Outcomes

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 21: Danny Green #4 of the The San Antonio Spurs dribbles up the court against The Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 21, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Not everything can be about the stars. The Miami Heat are a lifeless husk without LeBron James, as are the Oklahoma City Thunder without Kevin Durant, the Indiana Pacers without Paul George and the San Antonio Spurs without—well, OK, Gregg Popovich could probably win 50 games with five sacks of potatoes.

You get the point.

The NBA is a star-driven league, a fact not even the most hipster fan can deny. But it's also a league where, time and again, entire playoff runs are defined by secondary talent.

The Miami Heat don't win Game 3 on Saturday night without Ray Allen, overqualified for a role player position, going for 16 points in the second half. Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen stepped up defensively with Chris Bosh in foul trouble. Perhaps the Pacers wouldn't flounder with their bench on the floor had the Luis Scola, Evan Turner or Andrew Bynum pickups worked out. 

The entire Spurs-Thunder series has provided evidence for the necessity for top-tier role players. Oklahoma City has died on both ends of the floor without Serge Ibaka being the third in its "Big Three." San Antonio has Danny Green knocking down seven three-pointers in Game 2, Boris Diaw doing Boris Diaw things and Tiago Splitter remaining an under-appreciated cog in the system.

Jeremy Lamb, ostensibly playing the James Harden role of this 2012 playoff redux, can't even get off the bench until garbage time. Unless you have LeBron—and, sadly, only one team can—being top-heavy is a one-way ticket to a playoff ouster. Even the Heat at their most top-heavy in 2010-11 were eliminated by the deep Dallas Mavericks.

With that in mind, let's do a mid-series check-in with each team and highlight the secondary fixtures who could define their run.

Miami Heat: Norris Cole

MIAMI, FL - May 24: Norris Cole #30 of the Miami Heat takes a shot against the Indiana Pacers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA playoffs at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on May 24, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Quietly, it seems Erik Spoelstra is planning a seed change at point guard. Norris Cole has eclipsed Mario Chalmers' minutes in each of the last two games, including a 33-14 split in Miami's Game 3 victory. That provides a stark contrast to the Brooklyn series, where Cole struggled to get off the bench for the last few contests while Chalmers played the bulk of the minutes.

It seems Spoelstra flip-flopped at the perfect time.

Cole combined for 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting in Games 2 and 3 and played inspired defense on the perimeter. He's done a solid job of sticking to C.J. Watson's and George Hill's hip pocket whenever he comes in off the bench, so much so that both have largely avoided shooting when he's in the game.

Chalmers, meanwhile, has been a turnover-prone mess at times. He coughed the ball up five times in 24 minutes in Game 2 and was picked off three times in his 14 minutes Saturday night. With the Pacers struggling to find any success in their half-court offense, Miami can't afford to give up free possessions. It's been an inspired run for the greatest Tumblr ever created in this series.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 20:  George Hill #3 of the Indiana Pacers brings the ball up the floor as Mario Chalmers #15 of the Miami Heat defends during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 20
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Heat have outscored the Pacers by 24.7 points per 100 possessions with Cole in the game. That's the best of anyone who's actually played in all three contests. Miami has been outscored by 24 points over that same possession rate with Chalmers in the contest. I wasn't a math major in college, but I believe that's a 48.7-point swing. 

Admittedly, the sample is minuscule and those numbers are noisy. The Heat bench has destroyed their Pacer counterparts in this series, which is reflected in those numbers. The four best net ratings on Miami's roster are bench guys. Cole greatly benefits from that split.

But Spoelstra's willingness to trust him and Cole's pesky nature is instructive. With Chalmers hitting free agency this summer, perhaps this is a bit of an audition tape for an impending ascent into the starting lineup. If he continues playing like this, Spoelstra might want to make that move before we even get to next season.

Indiana Pacers: C.J. Watson

INDIANAPOLIS, IND - MAY 20:  C.J. Watson #32 of the Indiana Pacers drives to the basket against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 20, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. N
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Let's be clear: No Pacers bench player is winning this series for them. Like it has been all season, Indiana's run will be defined by how much of a cushion its starting lineup can give before the bleeding starts. It would be hard to blame Frank Vogel if he just threw caution to the wind and played all five guys 44 minutes for the rest of the series.

The Pacers' bench has been that bad.

Scola is a sieve defensively and wildly disappointing offensively. Chris Copeland must have burned Indiana's Christmas ham; he can't get out of Vogel's doghouse. Ian Mahinmi's brand of energy and athleticism isn't as effective against Miami as it was during the first two rounds. Evan Turner exists solely so the Internet finally has something upon which we can all agree: He is not very good at basketball.

By sheer process of elimination, Watson becomes the team's most integral bench force. He is the only reliable floor spacer beyond Paul George whom Vogel actually trusts. The Pacers were able to break Miami traps for open threes in Games 1 and 2, but shot just 6-of-21 from deep on Saturday. Watson has largely been inconsequential after a solid Game 1, combining for six points total in Indiana losses.

Vogel will need Watson to be at or near double-digit scoring going forward.

Whether it was a return home or just the extra days of rest, Miami came out engaged and emboldened in Game 3. The Pacers turned the ball over on more than 40 percent of their pick-and-roll possessions, per Synergy Sports. It was the basketball embodiment of everything that goes wrong with Indiana's offense and everything that goes right with an engaged Heat roster. 

The only way the Pacers can get Spoelstra to dial back his strategy is to start beating it. Roy Hibbert has been solid throughout the series when he gets the ball, but Miami keeps betting (and winning) on his inability to do so. If Watson can help space the floor and make a few solid passes, this series is far from over.

If he's absent on both ends as he has been of late, though, we all might as well book our trips to South Beach now.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka

OK, we're kind of cheating here. Given the way the series has gone for Oklahoma City, it's just impossible not to. The Thunder have a minuscule chance of repeating their 2012 ouster of San Antonio, when they came back from a similar 2-0 deficit to win four straight. The teams are wildly different now from then—even if a majority of the main cast is similar.

For Oklahoma City to have even a remote shot, Ibaka has to be a reasonable facsimile of his pre-injury self. Ibaka's calf strain was initially expected to keep him out for the remainder of the postseason. Only a semi-miraculous recovery has him on the precipice of playing Sunday, though he's still walking with an obvious limp and admitted he's in pain.

"It's 100 percent going to hurt," Ibaka told ESPN. "For sure if the doctor gives me the OK and I feel better tomorrow, I will be 100 percent with the pain for sure, but like I said, I'm going to do whatever it takes to help my team."

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 13: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers drives against Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 13, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Ar
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Thunder are crossing their fingers that he's able to gut it out. The Spurs have scored a ridiculous 123.4 points per 100 possessions so far, a rate that would have put a California Chrome-esque lap on the entire field. They've knocked down 45 percent of their threes and 53.8 percent of their shots overall, toying with Oklahoma City's defensive scheme like a menacing big brother.

San Antonio has had particular success on the pick-and-roll, drawing out help defenders and then swinging it around the perimeter of an open shot. The Spurs are averaging eight threes of the corner variety through the first two games.

They've also had a ton of success driving right to the rim and finishing above big defenders. Steven Adams, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison pale in comparison to the rim protection Ibaka provides. San Antonio is shooting 78.6 percent on 56 shots in the restricted area. During the regular season, Ibaka held opponents to a stifling 43.9 percent shooting at the rim, per SportVU data provided by the NBA.

Ibaka's length and quickness getting into the passing lanes and his rim protection are enough to swing at least one game if he can get on the court. He might not be a "role player," but without Ibaka playing his roles within the Thunder system, they're dead in the water (and might be regardless).

San Antonio Spurs: Danny Green

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 21: Danny Green #4 of the San Antonio Spurs drives against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 21, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: U
Noah Graham/Getty Images

You saw the reason in Game 2.

The Spurs had enough cushion to render Green's seven three-pointers mostly overkill, but they sure helped. His hot hand forced Thunder defenders to stick near his hip for a beat or two extra rather than offering help, allowing San Antonio ball-handlers to drive unimpeded to the paint. When Oklahoma City did help, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, et al. fired a pass to a wide-open Green, who'd coolly stroke the ball through the net.

After a miserable start to his postseason, Green has been on fire of late. He's averaging 19.7 points on 71 percent shooting in San Antonio's last three games, including a 15-of-21 mark from beyond the arc. That small sample is obviously not repeatable over the long term. The Thunder are going to start focusing more attention his way, sticking one of their myriad freaky-long players in his face and disrupting his rhythm.

For as good as Green has been offensively, he's been just as stellar (if not better) defensively. Oklahoma City players are shooting 20.6 percent on plays where Green is the primary defender, per Synergy Sports. Keep in mind that Green has spent time covering Russell Westbrook and Durant for a significant portion of his on-court minutes. He's been possibly the best two-way player in a series that features no fewer than five Hall of Fame players.

We all should bow down to Lord Popovich for the work he's done with Green.

From totally irrelevant fixture on the 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers to an integral starter on (likely) back-to-back Finals teams. That's how far Green has come in San Antonio. When Pop finally retires, all opposing coaches (and sideline reporters) are going to have much better hairlines.

Note: Stats are via unless otherwise cited.

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