Eastern Conference finals will twist and turn with the play of two erratic guards
The very concept of a basketball X-factor is a narrative creation -- so much so that even a basketball lifer like Gregg Popovich could find little practical sense in it. Those of us who predict, observe and document the game have a vested interest in classification and meaning, and thus long ago concocted this term to more precisely account for the unknowable. By labeling a player as such, we essentially acknowledge their potential for chaos -- that at some point, the internal order of the game may break down, and that these chosen players may be best equipped to thrive in the bedlam.
In the case of these Eastern Conference finals, the concept is perhaps best embodied by Miami's Norris Cole and Indiana's Lance Stephenson. Neither is an outstanding NBA player by any means, but they hold in their highly variable games the potential to influence the course of this series.
There are hot streaks, and then there is Cole's incandescent run of accurate shooting and sound decision-making through the first two rounds of the playoffs, each element of which strayed wildly from what we've come to expect from him. In the regular season, Cole was the one element of the Heat's rotation that could consistently undercut their combination of star power and floor spacing, often to the point of dragging Miami's best lineup combinations into a negative point differential. His defense was largely sound and quite impressive at times, but on offense he was an unconvincing scoring threat (and thus a player opponents could leave unguarded) who often attempted to do far too much with the ball. That may not seem like a grave basketball sin, but when the opportunity cost is wasting possessions that would otherwise be utilized by a hyper-potent offense, those limitations can prove rather damaging.
In current playoff form, Cole is one of the better role players available to the Heat -- an aggressive on-ball defender, a remarkably accurate shooter (Cole's 64.7-percent shooting on three-pointers in the postseason is the best across the league) and a tertiary dribble-drive option beyond James and Dwyane Wade. Yet in Game 1, we saw entirely too many shades of the old Cole, who used his ability to get into the lane as an invitation to attempt some clumsy passes in traffic. Here's one example:
Frankly, the Pacers want Cole to read and react; the more occasions in which the second-year guard has to make split-second decisions in traffic, the better off their defense is likely to be. In this instance, Cole failed to recognize that glaring trap even when he was caught within it.
All of which is a shame, because Cole otherwise played excellent, throttling defense against Indiana's primary ball handlers:
George Hill was so stifled by Cole's pressure that Indiana's offense gradually moved away from him as much as possible. Stephenson and Paul George were forced to initiate the offense on many late-game possessions (and they even brought the ball up court, as Cole picked up Hill from baseline to baseline), which marginalized Hill by parking him in the weak-side corner. With that strategic turn alone, the Heat gained the upper hand by forcing the offense through two fairly shaky ball handlers, imposing further constraints on a team that so often fails to run its offense efficiently.
If Cole can even split the difference between what he provided in Game 1 and his performance through the rest of the postseason, he'll be a huge benefit to Miami on both ends of the court -- particularly if Mario Chalmers' shoulder injury inhibits his play in any way. Yet this could well mark the beginning of Cole's steep slope back to his regular-season form. Whichever comes to pass matters a great deal in a series this competitive, no matter how marginal Cole may seem on a team loaded with high-end talent.
Stephenson's case is made all the more interesting by what has transpired between Cole and Hill, as the Pacers will be in even greater need of his helter-skelter offense should their point guard remain blanketed. While he shouldn't be depended on as an every play option, Stephenson has proven incredibly valuable to Indiana this season by way of fairly random scoring. The full range of those contributions can be seen in the Pacers' last two games alone: After physically dominating New York's guards and posting 25 points in a series-clinching win, Stephenson went 2-for-10 from the field with four turnovers against the Heat. Three of those turnovers came in the first five and a half minutes of the game:
Game 1 proved to be an ongoing struggle between his most helpful and most destructive attributes. For every smart hustle play there was a correspondingly terrible decision and then some -- my favorite of which was when he called for a clear-out in order to post up James:
Stephenson came to his senses in time to kick the ball to a cutting George rather than follow through with his iso attempt against James, but one can begin to see the costs of his self-assurance in that sequence. Over the remainder of Game 1, Stephenson shot a quick-fire, contested three (despite air-balling a wide open three-point try earlier in the evening), blew his attempts at the rim and then allowed the Heat to "hide" its foul-troubled stars defensively by covering him on the perimeter.
It was a rough night to say the least, but one that also bore a reminder of what the Pacers lose when Stephenson isn't a factor. Frank Vogel simply doesn't have alternatives. While the Heat can always trot out Chalmers or slide over James or Wade to the point when Cole comes up empty, the Pacers' bench is so barren with wings that Stephenson is needed on the floor for most every meaningful minute. He logged 43 minutes of action in Game 1, and though some of that playing time was justified by his defensive efforts against Dwyane Wade, there seems little question that Vogel would sub out his mercurial guard if he could afford to. Sam Young, Gerald Green and Orlando Johnson simply aren't cut out for a series of this magnitude -- thus leaving the Pacers at the mercy of Stephenson's meandering game for significant stretches.
No one expects Stephenson to again drop 20+ in these playoffs, but his unpredictability is his main assest. Indiana has a very good core, but lacks painfully for dynamism; most possessions consist of direct play actions and basic post entry, from which the Pacers create looks both inside and out. In most cases, Stephenson is a restrained part of that basic plan, yet it's his ability to overpower opponents on broken plays or storm down the court on the break that make him even more worthwhile to these Pacers. Rigid methods serve Indiana relatively well, but in Stephenson they have an element that's truly unruly, for better or worse. His impact could manifest in the form of an ill-advised three, or just as easily in a series of tough, contested rebounds (Stephenson had 12 boards, many of which were contested in Game 1):
Both Stephenson and Cole play a brazen game, and in that telegraph the quality most essential to the X-factor set. There are flaky contributors and unknown quantities on rosters across the playoff field, but the performance of so many of those iffy role players hinges on simply making an impact. Their goal is to find a way to contribute lest they fade away into irrelevance. These two bring no such risk. They are as loud and emphatic in success as in failure, and can sway the Eastern Conference finals with their play. All that's left to be determined is the magnitude of their ebbs and flows.