How great have the NBA Playoffs been so far?
It seems like every night multiple games come down to the final possession. In the second round, five of the six games have been hotly contested thus far, with the New York Knicks’ Game 2 blowout of the Indiana Pacers being the lone outlier (Indiana was up by two until an absurd 36-4 second-half run by the Knicks closed the door).
As expected, the stars are shining brightly. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker have all stepped up. All the household names have played at levels ranging from good (Parker, Wade), to great (Durant, LeBron, Melo), to I’ll-remember-exactly-where-I-was-when-this-guy-went-off (Curry).
Just as important, however, have been some of the unheralded performances by role players. Here are the four non-star players I think are most important to their team’s postseason success, as well as a few honorable mentions.
The Four Biggest X-Factors of the NBA Playoffs
Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls
You could say the entire patchwork Chicago Bulls team is an X-Factor, given how admirably they’ve scraped by after suffering a rash of injuries to their entire starting backcourt and star forward Luol Deng. Still, what Butler has done is pretty incredible.
Butler has played all 48 minutes of three consecutive playoff games, with the latest coming in a Game 1 upset of the top-seeded Miami Heat. His assignment on defense during that game? Oh, just LeBron James, who received his fourth career MVP award prior to tipoff.
James finished with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting in the loss, and Butler is to be credited with doing as good a job as one could expect against the league’s best player. On his own stat sheet, Butler poured 21 points of his own and grabbed 14 rebounds. Not bad for a guy with tired legs going up against a superhuman cyborg.
Tayshaun Prince – Memphis Grizzlies
It’s kind of strange, because Prince was also the x-factor on the 2004 Detroit Pistons team that beat the Los Angeles Lakers – who we led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant – in five games to win the title. He then became more of a focal point of Detroit’s game plan, which led to both he and the team struggling.
Now Prince has basically taken over Rudy Gay’s minutes after Gay was traded to the Toronto Raptors, but Prince brings a varied skill set that is more valuable to this Grizzlies team. Since Memphis mostly works at a methodical pace in the half-court, bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph take up a large percentage of possessions. Prince is valuable because he isn’t a volume shooter and his best abilities – mid-range jumpers, occasional post-ups, solid passing – don’t get in the way of what Memphis does on offense.
More importantly, Prince is one of the few players in the league with the length to do a passable job defending Kevin Durant. The reality is, no one is going shut Durant down, but the combination of Tony Allen’s aggressiveness and Prince’s size at least give Durant different looks and make him work harder. Plus, Memphis can go to a small ball lineup where Prince is a capable power forward.
Danny Green – San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are perhaps the best team in the league at defining specific roles for their players and then having those players execute to near perfection.
Gregg Popovich’s assignment for Danny Green? Drain threes and try not to get embarrassed on defense by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jarrett Jack. In the ridiculous double-overtime showdown against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1, Green played 44 minutes and provided two game-saving long-balls to keep the Spurs alive. Manu Ginobili has received most of the praise for his game-winning shot (and quite a bit of criticism for his boneheaded one right before it), but without Green’s makes, Manu never gets the chance to be a hero.
Just as important is Green’s ability to guard on the perimeter. He isn’t an elite defender, but he is certainly above average, and he has enough length to at least bother Curry a little bit. Not that it matters, because Curry could probably bury 30-footers with NBA Jam characters jumping in front of him at this point. But Green can at least stay in front and contest shots, and his defense is perfectly suited to match up against Thompson and Jack.
Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
Are you sensing a trend yet? In my opinion, after superstars, the most important players on the court in the today’s NBA are wings who can defend and shoot from behind the three point line.
Barnes, a rookie, has played his way into Mark Jackson’s starting lineup. His scoring is up in the playoffs, and he has even shown the ability to move to power forward when the Warriors go small (aside from an awkward Andrew Bogut-Festus Ezeli starting front line, the Warriors go small a lot).
In Game 1 against the Spurs, Barnes played an eye-popping 53 minutes en route to scoring 19 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. A key stat is that Barnes was 3-of-6 shooting from deep, since the increased focus on Curry and Thompson will create plenty of kickouts to Barnes.
When the small-ball lineup is in, the Spurs will often try to cover Barnes with a floor-stretching big of their own such as Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner, but Barnes is far more athletic than both and can find space before they are able to close out. This is a huge matchup advantage for Golden State, and it’s one that I expect Mark Jackson to exploit more as the series progresses.
Pablo Prigioni – New York Knicks
At age 35, Prigioni brings a heady, unselfish game as a complimentary ball-handler and solid outside shooter. The Knicks have been at their most dangerous with Carmelo playing power forward with two point guards on the floor at the same time. Raymond Felton usually handles the bulk of the facilitating, but when defenses key on him, Prigioni is able to execute the offense with little to no drop-off.
Prigioni is a bit of a hesitant shooter, but when he is given wide open looks he is very capable of knocking them down. He also plays very good defense, channeling penetration to Tyson Chandler and/or Kenyon Martin on the inside. It’s no coincidence that Prigioni (10 points, four assists, four rebounds, plus-23 plus/minus rating in 21 minutes) was on the floor and playing very well during that decisive Knicks run in Game 2 against the Pacers.
Tyler Hansbrough – Indiana Pacers
This one is simple: Hansbrough is a pest and the Pacers count on him for 10 to 15 minutes per game to annoy and pound on Anthony. He won’t give the Pacers much on offense, but he is an expert at playing over-aggressive, physical defense and knocking opponents out of rhythm.
Of course, some opponents feed off of that. Melo is that type of guy. The Pacers will have to hope that Hansbrough’s hustle will win out over Melo’s desire to destroy him.