The 1 Player Holding Back Every NBA Playoff Team

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJune 2, 2021

The 1 Player Holding Back Every NBA Playoff Team

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Among the 14 teams still competing in the NBA playoffs, it's become easy to see who's carrying their franchises and who's dragging them down.

    While superstars like LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Damian Lillard and others have all stepped up to lead their squads, there have been plenty of guys on the other end of the spectrum.

    Whether they've had poor shooting performances, gotten torched on defense or failed to put up adequate scoring numbers, the following 14 guys—one per team—need to step it up for their teams to stay alive.

Atlanta Hawks: F De'Andre Hunter

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    No one could reasonably expect Hunter to step in and light the court on fire after missing the majority of the season with a right knee injury. However, the Hawks have shown enough confidence in Hunter to start him in every game against the New York Knicks.

    The 23-year-old has also played the fourth-most minutes on the Hawks (117), even if he's clearly not 100 percent.

    Hunter is putting up just 9.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game and has yet to record a steal in four games. A 35.3 percent shooting mark ranks dead last among Atlanta's rotation players.

    While Trae Young has thrived in his playoff debut (27.5 points and 10.0 assists per game), Hunter's knee has prevented him from making anywhere near a similar impact.

    With Cam Reddish out with a sore Achilles, Atlanta needs Hunter to be a two-way force to become a serious threat in the East.

Brooklyn Nets: F/C Blake Griffin

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Griffin has assumed Brooklyn's starting center role, a job totally unfit for his current skill set.

    With Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving combining to average 85.2 points per game this postseason, Griffin certainly doesn't need to score. Rather, the Nets need him to rebound, protect the rim and take high-efficiency shots.

    Griffin, however, has continued to struggle defensively, with Boston's frontcourt of Jayson Tatum, Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams III combining to shoot 69.0 percent (20-of-29) against him in the series.

    The 32-year-old is grabbing just 9.6 percent of all available rebounds, a figure that ranks worse than fellow teammates Irving and Bruce Brown and only bests Joe Harris in the Nets' starting lineup.

    Griffin's best role would be a playmaking, floor-spacing power forward off the bench, not a defense-and-rebounding starting center.

Dallas Mavericks: PF Kristaps Porzingis

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    While Luka Doncic has battled a neck strain to average 33.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game and shoot 40.9 percent from three against the Los Angeles Clippers, he's received little help from his co-star.

    Porzingis has topped 20 points just once in the series and has failed to grab more than five rebounds in any of the first four games. While he's supposed to be one of the team's premier floor-spacers, Porzingis is just 5-of-15 (33.3 percent) from three thus far.

    Even Tim Hardaway Jr. has outscored the former All-Star (16.3 points per game), doing so on remarkable efficiency from deep (55.6 percent).

    With Doncic's neck injury only getting worse and the Clippers thin up front because of Serge Ibaka's back injury, Porzingis needs to play like the max player he is and win a game for Dallas.

Denver Nuggets: F Michael Porter Jr.

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    It's not that Porter hasn't played well for Denver, but rather that the Nuggets need more from their star forward with Jamal Murray out with a torn left ACL.

    MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic has done everything in his power to help make up for Murray's absence (32.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 41.9 percent shooting from three), with Porter needing to take on much more of the scoring load.

    The 22-year-old is putting up a respectable 17.4 points on 54.1 percent shooting overall and 37.9 percent from deep, but even those numbers are a far cry from his regular-season production.

    After Murray went down in mid-April, Porter answered the call by averaging 23.5 points while shooting 56.0 percent overall and 48.9 percent from three. The Nuggets likely need that version of Porter to even make it past the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, much less have a chance of making real noise in the West.

Los Angeles Clippers: F Marcus Morris Sr.

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Morris brings previous playoff experience from his stops in Detroit, Boston and now Los Angeles, but this has been by far the worst showing of his five total trips.

    A career 43.5 percent shooter from three in his first 45 playoff games, Morris is shooting 33.3 percent (6-of-18) against the Dallas Mavericks thus far. His 9.3 points per game rank below teammates Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, and a putrid rebound rate of just 6.5 percent is eighth among all Clippers rotation players.

    As the team's starting power forward, Morris needs to at least improve his rebounding, defense and three-point efficiency. Some additional scoring would be a bonus as well. As it stands, Morris has the worst on/off mark on the team at minus-49.6 points per 100 possessions.

    The third-highest paid player on the team only behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Morris needs to be better for the Clippers. Losing in the first round a year after blowing a 3-1 lead in the second would be devastating for the franchise.

Los Angeles Lakers: SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    After missing Game 4 with a left knee injury, Caldwell-Pope returned in Game 5, only to go scoreless in his 15 minutes.

    The Lakers' third-leading scorer behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the playoffs last season, the 28-year-old shooting guard is giving L.A. just 3.0 points on 22.2 percent shooting thus far.

    The majority of those misses have come from outside the arc, where Caldwell-Pope is just 1-of-13 from deep. His confidence is clearly shaken; James was seen encouraging him to shoot after he passed up a wide-open three-pointer at the end of Game 2.

    Now with Davis questionable to return to the series with a strained left groin, the Lakers need a healthy and confident KCP even more.

Memphis Grizzlies: F/C Jaren Jackson Jr.

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Jackson played in just 11 regular-season games while returning from left knee surgery, so some rust in the playoffs was to be expected.

    The Grizzlies have still trusted him as their starting power forward and giving him a healthy 27.0 minutes a night.

    While he's been a solid finisher around the basket, Jackson likely doesn't have his normal leg strength, which could help explain his dip in three-point accuracy. Over half of his shot attempts in the series have come from deep (51.2 percent), yet Jackson is making just 27.3 percent of them.

    Jackson will likely remain on the perimeter when he shares the floor with Jonas Valanciunas, meaning finding his three-point shot will be crucial if the Grizzlies want to spring an upset over the Utah Jazz.

Milwaukee Bucks: No One? SG Pat Connaughton?

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    There was no one holding the Bucks back in their first-round sweep of the Miami Heat, a series that saw Milwaukee get strong contributions from stars and role players alike.

    The only bad news was that starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo suffered a torn ligament in his left ankle that will sideline him for the rest of the season.

    Connaughton stepped into his role in the starting lineup in Game 4 following a pair of strong games off the bench, only to go 1-of-5 overall and 0-of-4 from three to finish with just two points in 21 minutes.

    For now, Connaughton is the only concern for the first team to advance to the second round, where a matchup with the Brooklyn Nets will certainly test him.

New York Knicks: PF Julius Randle

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Randle's first career trip to the playoffs has been a forgettable one thus far.

    Randle, the NBA's Most Improved Player this season, is shooting just 27.4 percent over the first four games. Of the 169 players this postseason who have taken 10 shots or more, Randle ranks last in shooting efficiency.

    Before we throw too much credit at the Atlanta Hawks defense, it's worth noting that Randle is shooting just 25.0 percent (9-of-36) on open (nearest defender 4-6 feet away) and wide-open (six-plus feet) shots in the series.

    The Knicks just don't have enough scoring outside of Randle to win a series with him going cold.

Philadelphia 76ers: G Shake Milton

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    Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    Most of Philly's roster has stepped up in building a 3-1 lead over the Washington Wizards, whether it be Joel Embiid's dominance in the paint, Tobias Harris' scoring or Ben Simmons spreading the ball around.

    Milton, the 24-year-old guard who went from starting playoff games last year to barely squeezing into the rotation now, is one of the few 76ers players whose play needs drastic improvement.

    Receiving just 10.3 minutes thus far, Milton has done nothing to earn more playing time with averages of 3.8 points, 0.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists while shooting 22.2 percent.

    The 76ers may not need Milton to play well in order for them to make it to the NBA Finals (the health of Embiid's right knee would be the biggest concern), but having him as an efficient scorer and playmaker off the bench could swing a game or two along the way.

Phoenix Suns: F Jae Crowder

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton seemingly can't miss a shot for the Suns this postseason, Devin Booker is thriving in his first playoff trip, and Chris Paul has battled through injury to help Phoenix tie the Los Angeles Lakers at two games apiece.

    However, the Suns need more from Crowder, who's unofficially become the streakiest shooter in playoff history. With the Miami Heat in the playoffs last season, Crowder drilled 41.7 percent of his threes over the first 10 games, only to to fall to 26.0 percent over the final 11.

    Currently on a cold streak, Crowder is just 8-of-37 from three to begin the series (21.6 percent). That's a huge blow to the Suns offense given 77.1 percent of his entire offense consists of outside shots.

    While he's done an admirable defensive job on both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Crowder needs to start hitting some shots for the Suns to advance.

Portland Trail Blazers: C Enes Kanter

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Portland needs all the help it can get to slow down Nikola Jokic, which means Kanter's minutes—reduced as they may be—need to be productive.

    Kanter has gotten his reps against Jokic, although without much success. The front-runner for MVP has scored a whopping 34 points on Kanter in just 10:24 of total matchup time, shooting 52.2 percent overall and 42.7 percent from three.

    Offensively, Kanter has made just four total baskets in his five games, with his rebounding (13.2 percent) well below his career average of 19.9 percent.

    Kanter is far from the most important player in this series, but he's given the Blazers almost nothing so far.

Utah Jazz: SG Jordan Clarkson

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    While there's no one holding the Jazz back thus far, Clarkson hasn't played his best basketball yet, either.

    The NBA's Sixth Man of the Year this season, Clarkson is shooting just 39.3 percent overall and 23.3 percent from three against the Memphis Grizzlies. In four games he's handed out a total of just four assists against 10 turnovers.

    An on/off rating of minus-5.3 is a tad worrisome as well, especially considering Mike Conley Jr., Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell all boast ratings of plus-7.9 or better.

    Clarkson is the ultimate microwave scorer and could easily go for 30 points on 60-plus percent shooting any given night. The Jazz have to hope his early shooting woes are just temporary.

Washington Wizards: PG Russell Westbrook?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Is Westbrook holding the Wizards back, or do they only have a sliver of a chance in their series against the Philadelphia 76ers because of him?

    At this point, it's getting tough to tell.

    Westbrook is the only player in the postseason averaging four turnovers or more (4.3) and shooting under 35 percent from the field (32.8 percent)—areas that have plagued him for years. He's also the only player averaging a triple-double, with 17.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 12.3 assists per game (which also leads the NBA).

    The Wizards won Game 4 despite Westbrook going 3-of-19 from the field (15.8 percent), mainly because he pulled in 21 rebounds and dished out 14 assists.

    Washington still needs Westbrook to have a chance in the series, even if he kills the team's shooting efficiency on some nights.

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