It’s tired and clichÃ© but it’s still true: the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. What worked during the 82-game run may not work in the playoffs. Still, normally you can find clues to determine who will move on and who’s starting the summer early, and it’s not always the big names that make the difference. It’s the supporting cast, the good players, the guys only the bloggers and hardcore fans who watch the same team every night of the year truly appreciate. (Guys like James Harden.)
With that, here are my key players for each series:
Indiana and Chicago
Key number: 15
Don’t expect a big series from Darren Collison. He’s checking Derrick Rose, who has a penchant for destroying smaller, slippery guards. In fact, in four meetings this year, Collison shot under 35 percent from the floor against the Bulls. Chicago has been one of the best teams all year at contesting off the dribble, and figures to tear down the Pacers’ outside shooting just as they did in three of their four regular season games.
The biggest question mark is going to be Roy Hibbert. It’s unbelievable, but in the Pacers three losses against Chicago this season, Hibbert scored 10 points combined. In their one win, he had 15. While he had one of the odder years in recent memory â€“ playing like an All-Star early, then completely falling off only to regain at least some consistency â€“ Hibbert has to be a factor if Indiana even hopes to win a game or two. The Bulls feast on creating bad-shooting nights on defense, and if Hibbert can’t create enough easy shots to average 15 points, then this series will be over quick.
My prediction: Chicago in four
Philadelphia and Miami
Key number: 17
Williams was up and down this season against Miami, having games of 15 points and seven assists, and 24 points and five assists while also putting together a night with only four points. Miami has advantages at nearly every position; the Sixers’ best players â€“ forwards Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala â€“ are unfortunately matched up with Chris Bosh and LeBron James, and in three regular season games, the Heat won each game by at least nine points.
The Sixers face a tough test, but one advantage they do have is their bench play. Between Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams, they should be able to dominate Miami’s second unit. Williams especially will have to win his matchups with Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. Actually, he needs to destroy Miami’s point guards. If he an average 17 points a game, up from 13.7 this season, it’ll give Philly a shot.
*Lou is a game-time decision with a hamstring injury, but he plans on being out there.
My prediction: Miami in five
New York and Boston
Key number: 40 percent
Fields has been a revelation as a rookie, and looks to have found a home as a role player next to Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. And despite the Knicks 0-4 record against Boston this season, Fields played Ray Allen really well at times.
In the first two games they checked each other, Allen was just 1-9 from beyond the arc while shooting 33 percent. But in their final meeting, Jesus brought Hell down on the Knicks’ heads, scoring 26 points and hitting four threes. If Fields can hold Allen to around 40 percent from the field for the series, it’ll give the Knicks a chance at the upset.
My prediction: Boston in five
Atlanta and Orlando
Key number: 22.6 percent
Very few people are giving Atlanta a shot in this series even though they won three of four against Orlando during the regular season. That’s what happens when you lose six straight to start the playoffs and half of your players already seem mentally checked out.
Still, Atlanta had success using a blueprint against Orlando that revolved around…Jason Collins. With Collins in to defend Dwight Howard one-on-one, the Hawks stayed clasped to the Magic’s three-point shooters, disrupting the entire rhythm of the offense. Against the Hawks this season, one of the league’s most dangerous deep-ball teams instead shot 22.6 percent from beyond the line. In Atlanta’s three wins over Orlando, they held Dwight & Co. to 82, 81 and 74 points. If they want any chance in this series, they’ll have to limit Orlando’s three-point shot, something the Hawks didn’t do in the playoffs like year.
My prediction: Orlando in five
Memphis and San Antonio
Key number: 4.5
Allen has been perhaps the league’s biggest surprise this year, barely playing in the early part of the season for a team destined for the Lottery, before leading a renaissance that has Memphis dangerous and poised to cause havoc in the playoffs.
His 4.5 steal percentage (basketball-reference.com) is by far the highest in the NBA, and he’s taken what he learned in Boston on the defensive end and used it to transform the Grizzlies into one of the league’s toughest teams.
Whether he’s matched up with Manu Ginobili (doubtful for Game 1) or Tony Parker or Richard Jefferson (he will probably guard all three at times), Allen’s physicality will be crucial. This is his shot at a coming-out party.
My prediction: San Antonio in six
New Orleans and L.A. Lakers
Key Number: Three
Somehow, Belinelli is going to have to guard somebody in this series, whether that’s Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest or anybody else. Willie Green and Jarrett Jack play behind him, but neither one is big enough to consistently check either of the Lakers’ starting wing players. Plus, neither one is a great shooter. Belinelli has to compete enough defensively so that he can stay out on the court and stretch the floor.
Against the Lakers this season, he shot a ghastly 30 percent from the field. If the Hornets want to surprise people, Belinelli has to make at least three treys a game to keep the Lakers from collapsing on Chris Paul.
My prediction: Lakers in five
Portland and Dallas
Key number: Four
I feel like Batum is always the x-factor with Portland. When he plays well, especially at home, they look like a top-three team in the West. With so many injuries, the Blazers are lacking for size. Their best lineup is normally going small with LaMarcus Aldridge at center and counting on the versatility of Gerald Wallace and Batum to save them.
The big issue? Dallas has size. It’s not great size, but seven feet is seven feet. Batum is going to have to play both big and small, and will probably spend time defending nearly everyone in the Mavs’ rotation. Because covering Jason Kidd is like playing a wing player at this point and because checking Dirk Nowitzki is like going against a tall small forward, Batum will be checking four different positions during this series. He better be ready.
My prediction: Dallas in seven
Denver and Oklahoma City
Key number: Six
If Denver wants to have any shot in this series, Nene has to be huge. He has to dominate. The Nuggets score the most points in the NBA, but have struggled to open the court up during their last two meetings with the Thunder. The problem for the Nuggets is that Kendrick Perkins is one of the best post defenders in the league. We’ve seen Perkins and Nene get into it already. It’s bound to happen again as this series moves along.
Still, I’m not sure if Nene can score enough inside to balance out Denver’s offense. His one antidote might be the number six, as in six fouls. The first time these teams played after Perkins came to the Thunder, the ex-Celtic had 14 rebounds and held Nene to just three buckets all game. But in the second meeting just three days later, Perkins got into early foul trouble, and Nene responded (18 points, 9 rebounds). That’s about what he’s going to have to average if the Nuggets want to pull off this upset.
My prediction: Oklahoma City in six
Who do you think is the key player for each series?
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