The NBA playoff picture is set — after a wild three-team dogfight in the East — and the new season begins this weekend.
In the West, no surprise that the Golden State Warriors ran away with it and grabbed home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Dubs also enter the Big Dance as the hottest team in the NBA, having won 10 of 11 games to end the regular slate.
The Warriors will be presented a stiff challenge from the second hottest team, the Portland Trail Blazers, who reeled off an 8-2 run, securing eighth ahead of faltering Denver.
The East was more of a hot mess in the late stages, with so many teams within a game of each other entering the final night of the 2016-17 campaign. The only big separation was between fourth and fifth at six games.
Entering the post-season, there are many players who will play key roles for their teams. Outside of the usual suspects like Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, to name just a few, there are depth players and supporting cast who will have an impact.
We’ve come up with one player from each team, some big names, some not as much, who pool players and fans should keep an eye on, starting in the Eastern Conference.
16. Boston Celtics – Al Horford
The fact that the Boston Celtics are at the top of the heap in the Eastern Conference is a bit surprising, and not so much. Superstar point guard Isaiah Thomas made this team his own and finished second in scoring at 29.1 points per game. The Celts, though, are more than just floor general Thomas. Key off-season acquisition Al Horford has paid off in spades and he enters his first post-season with Boston battle-hardened from eight appearances in the playoffs with Atlanta. The 6’10” center fit in nicely in the Celtics’ scheme, averaging 14 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.75 steals and a team high 1.28 blocks per game. Even though he was part of some very strong 60-win, top-seeded teams in Atlanta, the typically reserved Horford is very excited about the Celtics prospects in the post-season. “I feel very strong about this group. I think we have a special group,” Horford said in an interview with ESPN. “I can’t wait for us to get started [with the playoffs].”
15. Cleveland Cavaliers – Kyle Korver
The defending champs limped into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record in the final two weeks of the season. Yet, after sitting the likes of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to get them some rest, the Cavs are still the team to beat in the East. One player champing at the bit to get into the post-season brawl is Kyle Korver, who battled foot issues late in the season. A former Atlanta Hawk, like Al Horford in Boston, Korver will provide the kind of steady perimeter shooting off the bench that Cleveland will need if they hope to repeat. The veteran shooting guard started just one of 34 games after being acquired in a mid-season deal with the Hawks, finishing with 10.9 points per game. He led the team by a wide margin in three-point shooting at 48.5 percent and it is expected he’ll shoot over 40 percent in the playoffs (he was 38.6 percent efficient in 91 prior post-season tilts).
14. Toronto Raptors – Kyle Lowry
It’s no coincidence that when Raptors star PG Kyle Lowry went down with a wrist injury in mid-February, the team just seemed off. They were able to weather the storm, playing better defence with newly acquired Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, but this team wouldn’t contend in the playoffs with back-up point guards Cory Joseph or Delon Wright running the floor (though they did an admirable job in his absence). Lowry, who averaged 22.6 points and a team high 7.0 assists per game, returned on April 5 and promptly poured in 27 points in a 105-102 victory over Detroit. He had three more games to gel with the “new” Raptors, who hope to make hay in the playoffs and possibly return to the Eastern Conference finals. How he fits in with a revamped roster and what he does with that surgically repaired wrist, especially from three-point range (team high 41.5 percent efficiency) will have a tremendous impact on Toronto’s fortunes.
13. Washington Wizards – Bojan Bogdanovic
We can only imagine third year shooting guard Bogdanovic’s delight at being dealt away from the hot mess in Brooklyn at the trade deadline. In short order, he went from being on a bottom feeder going nowhere to a contender which could surprise a few teams in the playoffs. With one of the better back courts in basketball in PG John Wall and SG Bradley Beal (both who finished with 23.1 PPG), the Wiz are well set up to make life miserable for their first round opponent and beyond. However, when Beal needs rest, Bogdanovic’s contribution off the bench may have a huge hand in any Wizards’ success. The perimeter sharpshooter was 38.9 percent efficient from three-point range in the regular season with Washington, after going 35.7 percent in 55 games as a starter in Brooklyn. The Wiz have a gamer in Bogdanovic, who should be hungry for playoff success.
12. Atlanta Hawks – Dwight Howard
Does the old man have enough left in the tank for a lengthy playoff run? We say old man because it just seems that Howard, 31, has been in the NBA forever and is still junior to Paul Millsap, who is 32. Now in his 13th season and first with the Hawks, Superman continues to be a force on the low post and finished the season with 13.5 points, a team high 12.7 rebounds and 1.24 blocks per game. As of Wednesday, Howard also had 53 double-doubles, which is the kind of production he had in his heyday with Orlando. The Hawks have to be excited about his post-season resume, too. Howard has been in 89 playoff games (all starts) where he had 70 double-doubles and averaged 19.1 PPG, 14.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 0.9 steals. Howard had big shoes to fill after Al Horford bolted for Boston, but Hawks fans have to be excited what he brings to the table come playoff time.
11. Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo
As the Greek Freak goes, so do the Bucks. If Milwaukee has any hope in heck of winning a playoff round, there is no one in their starting five or off the bench who can win them a game by himself like Giannis Antetokounmpo. The fourth-year 6’11” forward has amped up his game considerably for the playoff-bound Bucks, establishing career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), blocks (1.9) and steals (1.6). All those per game totals were best on the Bucks, too and he added a personal best 32 double-doubles and three triple-doubles to his growing regular season resume. The great unknown for Antetokounmpo is in the post-season. He has six games with the Bucks to his name, in one series in 2014-15 against Chicago. Milwaukee will need a whole lot of the Freak to get past the first round this year.
10. Indiana Pacers – Lance Stephenson
Bringing back shooting guard Lance Stephenson may be the coup the Pacers needed to get themselves over the hump in the playoffs. He left the Pacers in 2014 after playing four years there and since then floated around the NBA with stops in Charlotte, Los Angeles (Clippers), Memphis and then two six-game stints with New Orleans and Minnesota this season. In five games (as of Tuesday) since finding himself back on the Pacers roster, the veteran SG has had an effect on the team that can’t be measured in simple stats. The team won four of those five with him in the line-up to solidify their playoff hopes, including big wins over Toronto and Milwaukee. Stephenson has averaged 21.8 minutes off the bench and added 7.8 points, 3.8 assists and 43.2 percent field goal shooting. In his playoff career, Stephenson has played in 46 games, 38 of them starts (all with Indiana). The Pacers have to like his fit, so far.
9. Chicago Bulls – Dwyane Wade
The Bulls hopes of playoff success rest just as much with young star Jimmy Butler (27) as they do with old hand Dwyane Wade, who turned 35 in January. The Bulls were nip-tuck just to make the playoffs, but once they got there, Wade’s experience should pay off in the following days. He won three championships with the Heat and even though he’s experienced a bit of fade on his stat line, he’s still an elite shooter and defender who will stabilize the Bulls attack. This season, his first in the Windy City after 13 seasons in Miami, Wade averaged 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.7 blocks and 1.5 steals. While his points per game is the lowest of his illustrious career, Wade did turn around his horrible three-point shooting of a year ago (just 15.9 percent in 74 games), upping it to 31.0 percent this season (the second highest percentage of his career).
8. Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant
From the top down in their starting five, the Warriors are an all-star team. The newest addition to the front-running Dubs, KD, has a lot to prove come his first game in a Warriors uniform in the playoffs. This season he has been Golden State’s top defender, much as he was in nine seasons with Seattle/Oklahoma City. A great shooter who was second on the team with 25.0 points per game, he led the Warriors in rebounds (8.3) and blocks (1.6) and was third in steals at 1.07. As of Tuesday, Durant had also posted 23 double-doubles and a triple-double. Ultimately, he will be judged on how well he does in what the Warriors hope is a deep, deep playoff run. In 191 career post-season games, all starts, Durant averaged 28.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals. That kind of production in the front court will be quite welcome.
7. San Antonio Spurs – Patty Mills
For the first time in 20 years, the Spurs won’t have Tim Duncan to lead them into the playoffs. The Spurs won five championships with Duncan in the line-up and now Pau Gasol fills his spot at center after he retired last year. Kawhi Leonard, 25, is now the face of a franchise that still has a few holdovers from all those championships, including Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. Parker, 34, is still the team’s starting point guard, however, he will need to be spelled liberally by Patty Mills, who has been pretty good while he sits this year. Mills finished fifth in scoring on the team with 9.5 points per game during 22 minutes of playing time. The Australian super-sub held his own in a reserve role during the Spurs last championship march in 2014, scoring 7.3 points and shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc in 23 games. If the Spurs hope to upend what might likely be a Western Conference final with Golden State, Mills will have to be that good again.
6. Houston Rockets – Lou Williams
The NBA’s third best team entering the spring showdown made themselves even more dangerous at the trade deadline by acquiring 2015 Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams from the Los Angeles Lakers. Sweet Lou, who averaged 18.6 points in 58 games as a reserve in L.A. continued his excellence in Houston, pouring in 15.3 PPG in 22 contests. The shooting guard hasn’t been as prolific from three-point territory as he was with the Lakers, but it’s hoped some rest this week will help him regain his form. He was good on 122 of 317 attempts with the Lakers (38.5 percent efficiency), but just 32.8 percent with Houston as of Tuesday. The 12-year veteran doesn’t have oodles of playoff experience, seeing action in 41 games in six post-seasons (a high of 13 with the Sixers in 2012). Yet, the Rockets will count on him to up his game in what could be the longest foray of his career.
5. Los Angeles Clippers – Austin Rivers
Just because he’s the coach’s son doesn’t mean Austin Rivers gets any special treatment with the L.A. Clippers. The former Duke standout joined his famous pop and coach, Doc, in 2015 to become the first player ever to suit up for his father. Doc Rivers relies heavily on the team’s three stars, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, who all logged well over 30 minutes of playing time again this season. He did slot in players like point guard Austin and shooting guard Jamal Crawford very well to pick up the slack, giving the back court ample time to re-set. The younger Rivers, in his fifth season, has played in 75 games and started more (29) than any other time in his career and the results have been favorable. He has established career highs in points (12.0), assists (2.8), rebounds (2.2), and three-point shooting percentage (37.1). He has 20 games of playoff experience, all with L.A., averaging 9.0 points and 1.6 assists. He’ll be valuable in the crunch.
4. Utah Jazz – George Hill
The Jazz haven’t been to the playoffs in five years and haven’t won a round since the last time they finished with 50 or more wins (2010). That’s where veteran point guard George Hill, acquired from Indiana in a trade for Jeff Teague last summer, will be a great help. The ninth-year man brings 75 games of playoff experience to a team short in that regard. He missed a lot of games due to injury, having played 48 as of Tuesday. However, he finished second in team scoring with 17 points per game and was first in assists with 4.1, while displaying good defensive skills with 1.02 steals (second on the Jazz). In the post-season, Hill was involved in back-to-back long runs with Indiana in 2013 and 2014, when the Pacers went to the Eastern Conference finals. During the 2013 playoffs, Hill started 18 games and had post-season bests in points (14.6) and assists (4.3). He’ll have to be that good if the Jazz want to win a round.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – Taj Gibson
Of all the “second tier” teams in the Western Conference playoffs, we like the Oklahoma City Thunder for their potential to knock off a top tier team. They would be the Houston Rockets, will have to stifle triple-double superstar Russell Westbrook in what could be a thrilling set. The Rockets will also have to contend with Westbrook’s supporting cast, which was augmented nicely with the acquisition of veteran power forward Gibson at the trade deadline. The seven-year veteran gives OKC a good weapon in the front court in place of underwhelming Domantas Sabonis. Gibson put up modest totals in 55 games with Chicago before the trade, averaging 11.6 points and 6.9 rebounds. They were even more modest in 22 games with the Thunder as of Tuesday (8.8 points, 4.4 rebounds). It’s his playoff stats that make him most intriguing, though. For instance, in five games during the 2014 post-season with Chicago, he averaged 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and overall in 56 games (just seven starts) he is a 50 percent shooter, too.
2. Memphis Grizzlies – Vince Carter
At 40, there is still a lot of life left in 19-year veteran Vince Carter’s legs. The eight time all-star could play a huge role in the Grizzlies’ first round tilt with San Antonio too. The ageless wonder started 14 of his 72 games this season (as of Tuesday) and averaged 24.7 minutes per game, his highest total since the 2012-13 season with Dallas. The Grizz got a lot of mileage out of Carter, as he averaged 8.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and shot 38 percent from three-point range (111-for-292). The oldest player in the NBA brings an impressive playoff resume to the table, having competed in 82 games over the course of career that took him from Toronto to New Jersey, Orlando, Dallas and now Memphis. He started all four games of the Grizzlies short run last season, scoring 11.3 points and hitting seven-of-10 three pointers. This could be his last hurrah and it might be a good one.
1. Portland Trail Blazers – Jusuf Nurkic
With a first round date with Golden State coming up, the Trail Blazers were wise at the trade deadline to deal center Mason Plumlee to Denver for fellow pivot Jusuf Nurkic. It was a huge upgrade defensively, as Nurkic has averaged a team high 10.4 rebounds, 1.90 blocks and 1.25 steals in 20 games since being dealt. Plumlee, who started 54 games with the Blazers at center, hauled in 8.0 rebounds, had 1.17 blocks and 0.93 steals. Nurkic has also been offensively superior, averaging 15.2 points to his predecessor’s 11.1. Where Nurkic lacks is playoff experience, or a lack thereof. He has yet to suit up in a post-season game, while Plumlee played in 11 with Portland last year and 27 total. The fly in the ointment, though, is a leg injury that Nurkic recently suffered. If he is healthy, the Blazers could win a couple against the rival Warriors.