With the standings in both NBA conferences so tightly packed in the middle, the playoff permutations seem nearly limitless at this point.
In the East, the third through eighth place teams are only separated by eight games, with Washington holding down third at 36-23 and Detroit anchoring eighth at 29-32.
And then, there are four teams within four games of the Pistons, with the Knicks the lowest at 25-36 (12th place) and Miami (ninth place) within a game at 28-33. So, there is nothing assured in the East, yet.
In the West, the fourth through seventh place teams are separated by just two games. Utah is fourth with a 37-24 record, followed by the Clippers (36-24), Memphis (36-25) and OKC (35-26).
After that Denver has a tenuous hold on eight at 28-33 and are being chased by five teams within four games of them.
Crazy to contemplate it all.
While the team match-ups should be interesting, it’s the players involved who’ll have ultimate say in the proceedings. The usual cast of suspects, like LeBron James and Steph Curry, will rise to the occasion. The players teams should fear, though, are the quieter, less heralded types who put their hard hats on and go to work.
Here are 12 among the top 250 NBA playoff scorers who the opposition shouldn’t fail to game plan for (two teams with two players).
10. Jamal Crawford – L.A. Clippers
The Clippers, forever bridesmaids in the West, still have a very formidable line up that includes front court titans Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, capably quarterbacked by a back court featuring J.J. Redick and Chris Paul. Just behind Redick at shooting guard on the depth chart is veteran Jamal Crawford. The 36-year-old, now with his sixth NBA team, is currently sixth in team scoring with 11.4 points per game in 60 games (one start). He’s also a decent three-point shooter who has dropped 81 of 238 attempts (34 percent). When it comes to the post-season, Crawford has been involved in 62 career games (39 with the Clips) and has scored 913 points, which is 233rd all-time. In just six games during the 2016 playoffs, Crawford averaged a career high 17.3 PPG, adding 2.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.7 steals. Lifetime, his scoring rate in the post-season is 14.7. One to watch for come April.
9. Serge Ibaka – Toronto Raptors
When the Raptors went out and got power forward Serge Ibaka from Orlando at the trade deadline, they did so for his defence and toughness in the paint. His offence, which isn’t bad, is nice to have. He is averaging 6.9 rebounds per game this season (56 games with the Magic, four with the Raps), along with 1.6 blocks, making him a feared and tenacious defender. On the scoring side, he is averaging a career high 15.3 points, including a career best 39.3 percent average from beyond the arc (92-for-234). It’s that shooting prowess that should have teams worried about him in transition, particularly when he manhandles his foes in the defensive zone beforehand. Ibaka is 213th in all-time playoff scoring with 971 points in 89 games (10.9 PPG). He was at his absolute best in 18 games with Oklahoma City during the 2016 post-season, knocking down 31 of 69 three-point attempts for a career best average of 44.9 percent. Ibaka has also led the NBA in playoff blocks three times, with a high of 59 during 20 games in 2012. The Raptors will benefit from his two-way play.
8. George Hill and Joe Johnson – Utah Jazz
Any team that will face the Utah Jazz in the playoffs (they are currently fourth in the West) ought not look past the veteran presence of PG George Hill and SF Joe Johnson. Hill, 30, and Johnson, 35, are playoff hardened warriors looking to make their mark in their first seasons in Utah. Johnson, now with his sixth team in 16 seasons, is 81st on the all-time playoff scoring list with 1,674 points in 101 games (16.6 PPG). Even at his advanced age, he is still bringing it for the Jazz, scoring 8.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 60 games this season (eight starts). With Miami in the 2016 playoffs, he averaged 12.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in 14 games. Hill, who came over from Indiana in the off-season, is scoring a career high 17.2 PPG in 36 contests, along with 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. His 963 points in the playoffs (75 games) rank him 216th all-time (12.8 PPG, which is a point better than his regular season numbers). These two may be a force to be reckoned with in April.
7. Paul Millsap – Atlanta Hawks
Because he plays in Atlanta, Hawks star Paul Millsap doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. The straw that stirs the Hawks drink is leading his fifth-place in scoring with 17.8 PPG in his 11th season. The 6’8″ durable power forward has chipped in 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks to the Hawks cause, making him a potent two-way threat. Since coming to Atlanta in 2013-14, Millsap’s game in the post-season has improved measurably. Ranked 203rd on the all-time scoring list in the post-season, Millsap has played in 33 of his 81 playoff games with Atlanta (starting all but one) and averaged 16.5 points. In 10 games last year, Millsap recorded a career high 23 blocks, added 13 steals, 27 assists and 94 total rebounds (28 offensive). Along with big man Dwight Howard, the Hawks front court could be scary good in the playoffs.
6. Zach Randolph And Vince Carter – Memphis Grizzlies
Is it just us, or does SF Vince Carter never seem to age? Now 40, the man who launched “Vinsanity” in Toronto all those years ago, Carter still astonishes with plays made by much younger men. He, along with reserve PF Zach Randolph are playing key roles in a front court anchored by Marc Gasol. Randolph, a comparative spring chicken at 35, backs up JaMychal Green and he currently leads the Grizz in rebounds per game with 8.3, while contributing 14.3 points in 53 games. He is 181st in all-time playoff scoring with 1,076 points in 64 games for a respectable average of 16.8. In those post-season tilts, he has an overall rebounding average of 9.4. Carter, for his part, is 94th all-time in playoff points with 1,538 (18.8 PPG). In the 2016 playoffs, Carter contributed 11.3 points in four games, in addition to 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists. This season, Carter is backing up Chandler Parsons and has contributed 7.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 53 games. To top it off, his minutes have increased nearly seven a game over his 2015-16 season.
5. Rajon Rondo – Chicago Bulls
Swag, as he’s known to many, is still just 30 but it seems like he’s been playing in the NBA for 20 years. As it is, the 129th most prolific scorer in NBA playoff history (1,355 points) is in his 11th season and on his fourth different club. Rondo, now a smaller fish in a pond that includes big names like Taj Gibson, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, still runs the floor as the starting point guard (in 29 of his 52 games). He’s not scoring like he did with Boston for eight seasons with 6.9 points per game, but he is a deft passer who leads the Bulls in dimes with 6.4 per game. The three-time per-game assists leader has also played well defensively, recording 1.4 steals and 5.0 boards. Where his value to the Bulls will be seen in the playoffs, where his points per game average of 14.4 eclipses his regular season total of 10.7. He also has career post-season marks of 9.1 assists (and led the NBA playoffs four times in total dimes), 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals. The Bulls will be in good hands in the back court.
4. Jason Terry – Milwaukee Bucks
Terry is the true wild card here, given that the Bucks currently are in 10th in the East and will fight tooth and nail to make the playoffs. Even still, they are just two games back of Detroit with two games in hand. The old man on the team, SG Terry, is 39 and playing in his 18th season and on his sixth different club. A champion with Dallas in 2011, Terry is 74th on the all-time playoff points list with 1,729 (15.0 per game). During the Mavs’ run to that title, Terry was great in 24 games (0 starts), scoring 17.5 PPG and adding 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals. He was also 42-for-95 from three-point territory (44.2 percent). In his most recent foray into playoff basketball with Houston in 2016, the grizzled old vet scored 7.0 points and 1.2 assists in five games. As Tony Snell’s back-up, Terry will push him and the likes of Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs.
3. Manu Ginobili – San Antonio Spurs
Speaking of geezers, Manu “El Contusione” Ginobili is still going strong at age 39. The four-time champion shooting guard is in 15th season and in his last five he has been an invaluable sixth man. Backing up starting shooting guard Danny Green, Ginobili has scored 7.6 points per game in just 18.6 minutes average floor time and has hit over 40 percent of his three-point attempts (69-for-171). The Spurs, who are second in the West, will still lean heavily on Ginobili’s experience in this year’s playoff run. With 2,903 playoff points on his resume (27th all-time), Gino would still have some life left in his game. In the Spurs most recent championship season, 2014, Ginobili scored 14.3 points in 23 games (zero starts), including 39 percent shooting from beyond the arc (41-for-105). He also had 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game. When he’s on the floor with fellow veteran Tony Parker, the back court can still sizzle in San Antonio.
2. David West – Golden State Warriors
When a team includes such luminaries as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, even a two-time all-star like David West can get lost in the shuffle, but thrive all the same. West, 36, is third on the power forward depth chart behind Draymond Green, however, he is 149th all-time in post-season scoring with 1,200 points and is a good bench option come April. Now in his 14th season, West’s minutes are low (11.7 average in 47 games), translating to lower output, (4.1 PPG, 2.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists). He’s been great in the playoffs throughout his career and with proper utilization will do well in relief of Green. His career totals in 83 playoff games (66 starts) are: 14.5 PPG, 2.4 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 46.5 percent field goal proficiency. He’s never won a title, either, which should make him even hungrier to succeed this spring.
1. Richard Jefferson – Cleveland Cavaliers
Should injuries all of a sudden simultaneously befall small forwards Kyle Korver and LeBron James during the playoffs, Richard Jefferson could pick up some of the slack. The 36-year-old veteran, in his 16th season, has experienced a bit of skill fade since his prime, but has had enough jam off the bench this season to score 5.5 points per game in a shade under 20 minutes of floor time. He isn’t hitting threes like he did in year’s past (40-for-132) but at his age some things have to give. Once a standout performer in the playoffs with the Nets (he scored 22.2 PPG in 11 games in 2006), Jefferson was finally rewarded with a championship in 2016 after 126 games. The NBA’s 108th all-time post-season scorer tallied 5.5 PPG off the bench in 21 games for the Cavs during last year’s title run, including 11-of-28 from beyond the arc. Expect him to contribute like through Cleveland’s run this year.