- Superstars usually hog the spotlight, but this postseason has been different. With the second round tipping off, The Crossover examines the biggest X-factor for each team.
Aside from standout performances from the likes of Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, much of the first round belonged to players unaccustomed to the spotlight. Slow-Mo-Joe Ingles methodically picked apart the Clippers' defense in the half-court, while Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams throttled Oklahoma City when James Harden left the floor.
The second round of these playoffs will be no different. Most will focus on John Wall’s races to the rim or Steph Curry’s long-range bombs, but just as important will be the performance of each team’s role players. Here are the X-factors for each team in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Javale McGee, Warriors
The enigmatic McGee has been a revelation in Golden State, reviving his career on his fifth NBA team. Many questioned whether the Warriors would have enough rim protection after losing Andrew Bogut in the offseason, but after four playoff games, it’s clear McGee is more than up to the task.
There were no Shaqtin’-A-Fool moments for McGee in the first round, who did his best impression of O’Neal for the Dubs against Portland. McGee shot an absurd 78 percent from the field, going a perfect 7-7 in game two. He swatted shots, slammed lobs, and ran the floor with abandon. In other words, the perfect Golden State center.
His assignment will get significantly tougher in the second round, however. After facing a depleted Blazers frontcourt in the first round, McGee will spend the next series going mano-a-mano with potential All-NBA center Rudy Gobert. With Golden State’s bevy of weapons there won’t be any scoring burden on the eighth-year reclamation project. But he will be counted on to protect the rim and keep the Stifle Tower off the boards.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs
Aldridge’s disappearing act in the Spurs opening series with Memphis was one of the more perplexing developments of the first round. A career 19 points per game scorer, Aldridge’s production dipped significantly in round one, averaging under 15 points per game while grabbing just over seven boards.
Those numbers may be alarming, but Aldridge’s lack of production can largely be attributed to Memphis’ bruising frontcourt. Grit-n-Grind has a way of bringing out the worst in opposing offenses, slowing the game down and dishing out punishment on every possession. A faceup four, Aldridge isn’t suited to bang inside with Memphis’ 500 pounds of fury.
Aldridge’s second round matchup will be the antithesis of what he faced against Memphis. He will be forced out onto the perimeter against Houston’s staple of shooters, often drawing the assignment of guarding gunner Ryan Anderson. If the Spurs chose to downside, he’ll play a more traditional five against NeNe or Clint Capela.
San Antonio struggled to generate any semblance of offense for much of round one outside of Leonard isolations. And while the Spurs could get away with it against the archaic Grizzlies, a similar performance will be no match for Houston’s offensive onslaught. For the Spurs to advance to their first conference finals since 2014, Aldridge must consistently produce on the offensive end.
Trevor Ariza, Rockets
Ariza has been one of the league’s preeminent swiss-army-knife defenders since entering the league in 2004. Long, agile, and with the smarts of a 13-year defender, Ariza can effectively guard point guards through power forwards. But the Rockets’ second-round battle with San Antonio may provide Ariza’s toughest task yet.
Leonard’s first round was a masterclass in offensive basketball, a clinic of midrange jumpers and shifty drives. He scored 31 points per game on a blistering 55 percent from the field, in addition to draining 48 percent from three. It will be Ariza who has to slow down the former Finals MVP, one of the tallest tasks in all of round two. Leonard has become one of the league’s most unstoppable scorers this year, and Ariza must make his life increasingly difficult for Houston to advance.
George Hill, Jazz
While Ingles may have shined for Utah in the first round, he may become unplayable against Golden State. The Warriors’ uber-athletic death lineup could force Ingles off the floor, flying in transition past the Slow-Mo-Joe. With Ingles’ shooting and smarts off the floor, an increased burden will be placed on Hill.
The 6’3” point guard is averaging a career high 17 points per game this year, second on the team behind Gordon Hayward. Hill is the perfect floor general for Utah’s plodding pace, surveying the floor and whipping the ball from side to side. The Jazz are a longshot to advance past the mighty Warriors, but if they do, it will be on the back of a superb performance from Hill.
Jae Crowder, Celtics
While Isaiah Thomas is clearly the engine behind Boston’s attack, the Celtics offense often hinges on the performance of its perimeter shooters. And no player better represents that than Crowder. Boston is 8-2 in the ten games this season when Crowder has made four or more threes, and Boston’s offensive rating was nearly 10 points better with the Marquette product on the floor during the regular season
Crowder’s importance to the Boston offense was perfectly demonstrated in Game 1. After Boston fell into a 16-0 hole four minutes into the first quarter, Crowder and Thomas combined to unleash a barrage of jumpers over the Wizards defense. Crowder drained six threes en route to 24 points, just one point short of his season high. If he can continue to connect from beyond the arc, Washington will be hard pressed to slow down the C’s.
J.R. Smith, Cavaliers
The J.R. Smith experience is usually confined to the offensive end. Whether it’s serving as a marksman alongside LeBron James or as a silky secondary ball handler, Smith’s exploits are predicated upon little more than getting buckets. But in the Cavs round two series with Toronto, Smith will earn playing time via his defensive effort.
Smith has the tools to be a quality defender. He’s got a lanky 6’6” frame, with quick feet and twelve years of experience. J.R. sported the highest defensive rating of his career in 2016-17 despite shooting a career-low 35 percent from the floor, and even when he struggled to find his stroke, an engaged Smith remained an asset for the Cavs.
Smith will draw an increasingly difficult assignment in the second round, facing off against Toronto’s leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan. The slithery DeRozan has a slew of moves inside the three point line, an expert and creating space for an open mid-range jumper. Toronto will look to him early and often in round two, and will rely on his scoring late in games. James may switch onto DeRozan for short stretches, but Smith should draw the assignment for much of the series.
P.J. Tucker, Raptors
Not known for his scoring prowess, Tucker was acquired from Phoenix in February for a purpose: stop Lebron James. LBJ has been a terror to Toronto over the past three seasons, going 11-3 including the playoffs. James consistently abused Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, often blowing by the Marquette product for uncontested dunks or dimes to open shooters.
Tucker will need to provide more resistance if Toronto wishes to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. At 6’6” and a stout 245 pounds, he’s the Raptor defender best equipped to slow down James and fight over screens when the Cavs unleash their lethal pick-and-roll. The former second round pick won’t give much of a boost offensively, but any buckets from him are essentially found money for Toronto. He’ll earn his stay on the defensive end in round two, facing off against the league’s most dangerous weapon.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Wizards
Washington’s starting lineup was an offensive machine during the regular season. Teams seemed nearly incapable of stopping the Wizard’s five-man lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, a group that logged a whopping 1347 minutes together. For reference, Minnesota’s starting five ranked second in minutes as a group, but they registered only 880 minutes together. With a net rating of 8.1, only the Warriors outscored opponents at a higher rate.
But as transcendent as Washington’s starters were, their bench was nearly as putrid. No Wizards bench player posted a positive on-court rating during the season, failing to generate any semblance of offense without Wall on the floor.
Bogdanovic gives Washington with the best opportunity to generate points off the bench. Shooting 39 percent from three with the Wizards this year, the third year pro provides a much-needed spark, capable of spreading the floor and preventing a clogged paint. Washington’s bench doesn’t have to be superb, they merely need to tread water while Wall and Beal sit. And it will be up to Bogdanovic to keep the Wizard’s offense afloat.