X-factors for all 16 playoff teams
Here's a look at the non-stars who could wind up playing important roles in the playoffs.
The 34-year-old center's statistics aren't gaudy, but his ability to block shots and rebound made him a smart midseason pickup. Miami's route to a second consecutive title could well include contending with big men Larry Sanders, Brook Lopez or Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler or Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka or Tim Duncan.
New York Knicks: Jason Kidd
The Knicks are facing a tantalizing postseason: They could just as easily crash out to the Celtics in the first round as they could give the Heat a run for their money in the conference finals. That's the magic of a potent offense that can pour it in from deep. New York gets shooting from a number of sources, but Kidd seems as important as any of them. (J.R. Smith is overqualified to be an X-factor at this point.) The Knicks never looked better than when Kidd couldn't miss early in the season (50.9 percent from three-point range in November) and they never looked shakier than when he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn in February (15.6 percent).
How does a team with the league's best defense fail to win 50 games in the weaker of the two conferences? By posting below-average offensive efficiency numbers and asking Paul George and David West, two very capable players, to carry the bulk of the load. A third scorer will be essential to keep up in potential matchups against the Knicks or Heat. That's been Hill this season, as he's averaged a career-high 14.2 points while stepping in as a full-time starter for the first time. He hit for 20 points or more 12 times after having a productive 2012 postseason. A few well-timed assertive scoring performances from Hill early in the playoffs could change the general perception of Indiana's ceiling.
I'm stoked to see the 32-year-old power forward take his recent act to the postseason stage. His production down the stretch has been out of sight. Do you realize he hasn't finished with fewer than 10 rebounds in a game since March 9 and that he averaged 14.6 rebounds in 28 games after the All-Star break? Do you know he's topped 20 rebounds nine times this season? Are you aware that he's put up point/rebound lines of 22/26, 17/24 and 14/22 over the last month? His first-round draw, Chicago, is capable of matching his work ethic and shouldn't shy away from the physical challenge.
It's a terrifying proposition, but the man of 1,000 three-point celebrations might just be the do-or-die element for the Derrick Rose-less Bulls. Chicago will need all the scoring help it can get, and Robinson can at least be counted on to pull the trigger under any circumstances. The eighth-year veteran has played only 140 playoff minutes, but he's entering the postseason on a high note after averaging more than 16 points in his last 24 games.
The hardcore fans who tune in to Pacers/Hawks will be dying to see whether Korver, a sparkling 45.7 percent three-pointer shooter this season, can stretch Indiana's defense without being too much of a liability on the other end. The Hawks are 2-2 against the Pacers this season; Korver averaged 14.5 points in the wins and 8.5 points in the losses.
Boston Celtics: Jeff Green
This just might be the most obvious name on this list, if only because Green's entire existence is built on wide swings of the pendulum between "awesome" and "baffling." Green will guard Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony a lot in the first round and he'll need to work -- and consequently make the Knicks work -- on the offensive end, too. I pegged Green as one of the Eastern Conference's biggest X-factors back in October and nothing has changed.
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Sanders
The key here is the volatility factor. The Bucks almost certainly can't defeat the Heat with Sanders, but they might as well forfeit if the third-year center takes himself out of games with foul trouble, technicals and/or ejections. The playoffs could easily count as a moral victory for Milwaukee if Sanders keeps his focus and frustrates the Heat's stars with his paint dominance, even if that happens in a losing effort.
This one is right up there with Green in the "Duh!" category. Martin has appeared in only six playoff games in eight years and is replacing James Harden, who averaged 18.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals in the 2012 playoffs. Big shoes. Big shoes, indeed. There won't be any easing into it, as Harden's fun-and-gun Rockets will be the first-round opponent. Martin will need to bring his outside shot to the shootout.
San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili
A fully healthy Ginobili doesn't belong on this list, but that's one of the Spurs' biggest questions: How healthy is he after missing nine games with a hamstring injury and returning to play 12 minutes in Wednesday's regular-season finale? San Antonio lost seven of its final 10 games, by far its weakest stretch of the season. The Spurs are surely breathing a sigh of relief that they will be dealing with Jodie Meeks instead of Kobe Bryant in their first-round series with the Lakers, but a few solid scoring efforts from Ginobili would serve to ease some late-growing tension.
The league's No. 1 team in points in the paint (Denver) will go head-to-head with the league's No. 1 team in three-point percentage (Golden State) in the first round. That both teams rank in the top four in pace will make this even more hectic and amazing. For Denver, properly filling the hole created by the loss of Danilo Gallinari to season-ending knee surgery will require one of his replacements to provide some perimeter balance to the up-tempo and attack-the-basket primary options. Chandler, a 41.3 percent three-point shooter, appears to be the likeliest candidate.
Guards Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford and swingman Matt Barnes can all be difference-makers in their own right. But L.A.'s clear weakness is its front-line depth behind starters DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, making the 33-year-old Odom an obvious X-factor. Odom's regular-season numbers weren't much to look at (the former Sixth Man Award winner scored in double figures only three times in 82 games), but he will need to rebound and handle various defensive matchups in the postseason, and he might need to play big minutes if Jordan gets into foul trouble. With free agency coming in July, Odom couldn't pick a better time for a surprise career renaissance.
Memphis' starting lineup is solid and has played quite well after exchanging Rudy Gay for Tayshaun Prince on Jan 31. The Grizzlies' defense is unimpeachable but their offense is quite shaky, primarily because they connected on just 382 three-pointers all season, 64 fewer than any other team. Enter Bayless, who doesn't have an "off" switch and isn't lacking for confidence. That can be dangerous, as he's quite susceptible to ugly shooting nights. Bayless shot 20 percent or worse in 15 of 80 games this season. Some of those were oh-fers on limited attempts, but there was a 2-for-10, an 0-for-8 and two 1-for-8s mixed in there, too. A good reminder: It's just as easy for an X-factor player to shoot his team out of a game as it is to shoot it into one.
Landry, the Warriors' "other" Sixth Man Award candidate, could be even more important than guard Jarrett Jack in the first round, as Denver's long, athletic and fairly deep front line will put the 6-9 forward to the test. A dependable scorer and hard worker, Landry will need to hit his mid-range jumper to help open things up for Golden State's leading offensive weapons.
Los Angeles Lakers: Steve Blake
For better and worse, Blake has had his two highest-scoring appearances (23 against the Spurs an 24 against the Rockets) in the two games since Kobe Bryant suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. It wasn't always pretty -- witness Wednesday's 6-for-20 outing against Houston -- but the Lakers need anything they can get from the perimeter to replace Bryant, who attempted 20.4 shots a game and had a usage rate of 31.9 percent. Regardless of whether Steve Nash is able to return from hip and hamstring injuries, Blake will see his share of time defensively on San Antonio's Tony Parker, whose quickness will be a severe test for Blake.
Houston Rockets: Chandler ParsonsWith any luck, the exciting, likable Parsons will emerge as a household name against the Thunder. Parsons, a 38.5 percent three-point shooter, fills up the stat sheet (15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists) and makes defenses pay for over-committing to Harden. With Russell Westbrook sure to make life miserable for Jeremy Lin, Parsons will need to hold his own against Oklahoma City's long, athletic wings for Houston to make this first-round series as interesting as it should be.