While Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Paul Millsap, Chris Paul, and the likes are leading their teams to highly successful runs, it’s blasphemous to ignore the contributions of their teams’ “other guys”. These players are considered to be their respective teams’ x-factors as they all make huge contributions to a wide area yet they choose to fade slowly into the background after their job has been done. We identified these contributors and detailed how they impact the game and ultimately their teams’ playoff fate.
We begin with the top underdogs from the Eastern Conference counting down to the first seed!
8th seed – Boston Celtics, Jae Crowder
The Boston Celtics got themselves a very reliable swiss knife and energy guy in Jae Crowder when the team let go of Rajon Rondo via trade. The 6’7” swingman out of Marquette has earned the trust of Coach Brad Stevens and has since seen his minutes go up from 10 per game in Dallas to 24 in Beantown. The Celtics have gone one game over .500 whenever Crowder plays more than 20 minutes and that is a telling stat considering the team’s competency so far. He’s able to play multiple positions on the floor and has even taken a crack at point guard duties a few times. Crowder is a two-way player who, since arriving in Boston, has averaged 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes after 46 games as a Celtic.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the seventh seed in the East
7th seed – Miami Heat, Hassan Whiteside
Hassan Whiteside is probably the biggest surprise of the season from being plucked out of nowhere by the Miami Heat to producing nightly double doubles. Whiteside has been a beast in the defensive end averaging 2.5 blocks after 40 games. To put it in perspective, had he met the required number of games to qualify for the league leaders chart now, he would have been at the second spot behind Anthony Davis. He is Miami`s lone rim protector and they will heavily rely on him come postseason to protect the paint. The playoffs is a totally different monster than the regular season so it`s going to be Whiteside against himself if he truly wants to stay on the court.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the sixth seed in the East
6th seed – Milwaukee Bucks, Ersan Ilyasova
Ghostface Ilyasova has been a disappointment early this season but he has definitely stepped up in the absence of Jared Dudley and has slowly crept his way back into his old form, averaging more than 14 points and almost 7 boards while canning 2 threes per game over the past couple of weeks. If and when Dudley returns, the Turkish forward is still expected to get his minutes while giving Jason Kidd further depth. Being a stretch-four, his ability to knock down threes is a major asset, giving the Bucks another dimension in their offense but his non-stop motor is probably the most important factor that he brings to the court.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the fifth seed in the East
5th seed – Washington Wizards, Paul Pierce
First things first, the Wizards are likely to face a Chicago Bulls team in the opening round which boasts of highly productive players like Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, and Nikola Mirotic. The Wizards will definitely have their hands full if they do end up playing the Bulls, which is seeming more and more likely every day, the importance of forward Paul Pierce will be at an all time high if this team wants to succeed. Other than Butler, the Bulls don’t have many wing defenders, so Pierce will have to get his offense going. We know what John Wall, Bradley Beal, and the other starters can do offensively, the the floor spacing ability and leadership of Paul Pierce is one that no one else on the Wizards’ team has. Pierce has been relatively on and off of late, scoring in double digits for four straight games before putting up four single-digit duds immediately after. This is John Wall’s team, but Pierce is a key part to the Wizards’ success.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the fourth seed in the East
4th – Toronto Raptors, Lou Williams
The Raptors bench is being led by the hot shooting Lou Williams who has averaged 15.0 points after 70 games. He is to the Raptors what Jamal Crawford is to the Clippers, an instant scoring spark off the bench. With Toronto not having the luxury of more scoring punch than what they only have, Williams becomes ever more important to the team as he’s the type of scorer whom Coach Dwane Casey can put into the game and not worry about him being cold. He’ll find a way to score no matter how much sweat he’s already put out.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the third seed in the East
3rd – Chicago Bulls, Nikola Mirotic
Nikola Mirotic is no ordinary rookie as he’s already played professionally in the toughest league outside of the NBA and thrived in that level. The Bulls have such a gem in their corner as Mirotic has proven to be a very reliable player especially when one of their bigs misses time. In 13 March games, Mirotic picked up the slack from Taj Gibson and he absolutely exploded with averages of 21.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.6 threes giving Coach Tom Thibodeau a very good problem to solve. His experience and versatility adds to the very tough Chicago frontline and it only makes the Bulls an even more dangerous team come playoff time.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the second seed in the East
2nd – Cleveland Cavaliers, J.R. Smith
Many considered J.R. Smith to be an excess baggage when the Cavaliers traded for him and Iman Shumpert back in January. He was supposed to provide instant scoring off the bench at best. But J.R. Swish has been nothing but a pleasant surprise to everyone as he’s come to embrace everything about the team. Two months ago, I would not imagine myself saying this but Smith has been a positive locker room presence while being a good soldier on the court. He’s done whatever Coach David Blatt wanted him to do, from staying disciplined on offense by not forcing the issue to keeping focused on defense and he’s received nothing but praises from his coach and teammates. Averaging 13.0 points on 42.8% shooting from the field and 39.5% from distance after 37 games, Smith is such an integral part of the Cavaliers’ scheme of things with his ability to spread the floor and apply good pressure on defense. He’s the one player outside of the Cavs’ big three who’s very much capable of exploding on any given night.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the first seed in the East
1st – Atlanta Hawks, Dennis Schroder
One must learn to look into advanced stats in order to appreciate Dennis Schroder’s impact on the Eastern Conference leading Hawks. His season averages of over 9 points and 4 assists won’t turn heads but he has steadily improved his game through the course of the year to eventually have per 36 minute numbers of 17.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and 1.3 steals after 68 games. The German point guard has also proven that he can stand toe-to-toe with All Star Jeff Teague in certain games which only emphasizes the Hawks’ luxury of having him and it enables their backcourt to never miss a beat. Schroder will keep pressuring his defender as he can do a myriad of things on the court and he allows the Hawks to have that extra gear.
We continue the gallery with the Western Conference playoff teams’ important underdogs on the next page!
8th seed – Oklahoma City Thunder, Dion Waiters
Regardless of the fact that Dion Waiters is a former Cavalier, there’s no denying his value to the Thunder’s campaign this season. Indeed, Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind right now but without Kevin Durant, who still doesn’t have a target return date after suffering a setback to his injury, Oklahoma City would still need that one extra person who has the ability to carry the team and become the playmaker. I bet that Westbrook is human and not a cyborg so Waiters needs to get ready for his number to be called by Coach Scott Brooks. Although his numbers aren’t the most glaring ones, Waiters has already proven that he has the tools and talent to take over games.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the seventh seed in the West
7th seed – Dallas Mavericks, Tyson Chandler
Tyson Chandler is Dallas’ lone dependable anchor in the middle even with the presence of Amar’e Stoudemire who’s already a bit fragile nowadays. Not only he is gifted with the length and athleticism to change shots down the paint, Chandler is also a very intelligent basketball player. His true value are not the numbers that show up in the stat sheet but it is his immense basketball IQ. He understands the offense very well that he even directs his teammates and sets the right screens for the offense to move freely. Same goes on the defensive end as the former Defensive Player of the Year does not get lost on his assignment and is well aware of how things would turn out to maintain the Mavericks’ defensive rotation. Dirk Nowitzki even alluded to Chandler as the most intelligent player he’s ever played with.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the sixth seed in the West
6th seed – San Antonio Spurs, Boris Diaw
It’s very tough to choose one player from the Spurs because of the way they play the game – moving the ball around and always looking for the better shot. But one of the more able catalysts of the well-oiled machine that is San Antonio is Boris Diaw. We have witnessed from last year’s finals how he quietly dominated stretches of the game with his size that creates a lot of mismatches coupled with his skills. Diaw is an excellent and willing passer who perfectly fits into what the Spurs run that he even ends up being the one who gets more isolations than his other teammates because Pop knows that he will look to move the ball first and get his peers involved. His numbers don’t matter because the way he impacts the game does not show up in the stat sheet.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the fifth seed in the West
Western Conference Key Players:
5th seed – Portland Trail Blazers, Arron Afflalo
Arron Afflalo’s season started on a downward spiral as far as his stats go but he eventually found himself in a very good position to go deep in the playoffs with the Blazers. He’s a very capable defender who could guard three positions and this should prove vital in the postseason as the West is teeming with talented guards and wings. Portland has already lost starting shooting guard, Wesley Matthews, for the rest of the season but Afflalo is very capable of filling in for Wes as both of them are three-and-D players. Despite scoring 12.1 points per game in 8 games as a starter after Matthews went down, Afflalo’s shooting percentage leaves much to be desired but he is a veteran with plenty of playoff experience so that alone is enough to ease off the worries of fans in Portland. Once the former UCLA Bruin regains his touch, the Blazers will become even more dangerous.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the fourth seed in the West
4th – Los Angeles Clippers, Matt Barnes
Matt Barnes is one of Los Angeles’ most steady players and its most versatile wing. He has tons of playoff experience and is not afraid to mix it up with anyone, and I mean anyone. Barnes is a great three-and-D player who brings an edge to the Clippers’ game. The veteran forward is also enjoying a career year behind the arc shooting the ball with a 38.1% accuracy. Most importantly, his role as the team’s number one stopper should pay big dividends when the team goes deep in the playoffs and find themselves against James Harden’s Rockets or Klay Thompson and the Dubs.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the third seed in the West
3rd – Houston Rockets, Terrence Jones
Terrence Jones is one of the Western Conference’s most efficient yet silent operator. He’ll just do his job without any flair, only sheer effectiveness, and by the final buzzer he’ll be up there among the game’s most prolific stat men with perhaps a double double, a steal and a block plus a three pointer. The 3rd year forward out of Kentucky could be considered a poor man’s Draymond Green as he does almost everything on the court aside from being a good assist ‘ man. Jones is a very consistent player and if he can stay healthy through the remainder of the Rockets’ campaign then Houston has itself another important weapon that could bring them over the hump.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the second seed in the West
2nd – Memphis Grizzlies, Tony Allen
Despite averaging a little less than 9 points and over 2 steals per game, Tony Allen is not about the stats. He is Memphis’ bulldog and his main task is to stop the opposing team’s best wing scorer. He best personifies what the Grizzlies are all about and that is smashmouth old school style of basketball. His elite level defense is extremely crucial to the Grizzlies’ campaign especially when it comes to the postseason where every possession is magnified. Come playoff time, Allen won’t be asked to score but he’ll have the extremely crucial task of keeping in the face of the James Hardens and Klay Thompsons of the Western Conference.
Click “Next” to see the key underdog for the first seed in the West
1st – Golden State Warriors, Draymond Green
Draymond Green is arguably the Warriors most versatile player. The only thing that he probably can’t do on the court is coach. He’ll give you buckets, grab those boards, set up his teammates, ballhawk the opponents, swat some shots, and even hit one or two treys. He’s so good that former All Star and the Dubs’ highest paid player in David Lee got relegated to the background in favor of the do-it-all forward out of Michigan State. There’s no need to worry if he can continue this type of performance up to the postseason as he’s just carrying off his momentum from way back to last year’s playoffs.