The often monotonous 82-game NBA regular season has come and gone.
The worst teams have finished playing and the best 16 teams (yes, that is being generous to the Bucks) advanced to the postseason, guaranteeing high quality, spirited basketball.
The seedings and schedules have been set, and each conference has matchups that are incredibly intriguing. For each team in the first round, there is one player who has to emerge and play a key role for that club to advance.
Let’s have a look at who they are …
This should probably be a quick series, and if Miami really wants a sweep they’ll need a perimeter defender to handle Milwaukee’s offensively inclined backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Let’s assume LeBron James guards one of them and he’ll probably play lockdown defense.
But to really put the kibosh on any delusion that this series will go longer than five games, Miami will need Dwyane Wade to step up defensively. His 103 defensive rating and 3.5 defensive win shares this season actually ranks better than Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers this season, and Wade will likely get the task of defending one of the Bucks’ best players.
For Milwaukee, their only real clear advantage is down low with Larry Sanders providing an imposing presence and a deterrent for James and Wade to slash towards the basket. Here’s where Sanders provides a big boost for Milwaukee:
|Larry Sanders||Numbers||League Rank|
|Blk Per Game||2.8||2|
|Reb Per Game||9.5||12|
Sanders is the best shot blocker in the Eastern Conference and has emerged as one of the league’s best defenders. If he can prevent dribble penetration and turn Miami into a perimeter shooting team, then the Bucks will have a chance to steal a game or two.
New York Knicks vs Boston Celtics
It’s difficult not to mention the added emotion and passion the Celtics will have after Monday’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon, and the Knicks will have the tall task of matching the intensity that their bitter rivals always bring. With Kevin Garnett as Boston’s emotional leader, New York will need Kenyon Martin to lock horns with KG down low to give the Knicks much needed minutes for its aging and depleted frontcourt.
Martin is shooting a career high 60.2 percent from the field, and the Knicks are 13-5 when he plays. Martin has been at his best when he’s inserted into the starting lineup, which will likely happen if Amar’e Stoudemire continues to deal with his injuries. New York is 9-2 when Martin starts.
|Kenyon Martin||Minutes||FG %||Points||Rebounds|
With Rajon Rondo obviously out of the picture for the Celtics, Paul Pierce will need to emerge as the team’s offensive leader for the postseason. He’s been there for both team and city for so long and will have to do the same against the Knicks. And not coincidentally, Pierce’s numbers have gotten better as the postseason approached:
|Paul Pierce||Minutes||FG %||3FG %||Points||Rebs||Assists|
Pierce only played in five April games because the team’s playoff standing wasn’t really in question, but you can clearly see an uptick in March. Team and player will need that sustained production against the Knicks.
Indiana Pacers vs Atlanta Hawks
The Pacers are one of the league’s elite defensive teams, which is something Atlanta needs to contend with in its first round series beginning Sunday. Indiana’s field goal defense (42 percent shooting) is the best mark in the league, and the leader of this Pacer defense is certainly Paul George. George has not only replaced Danny Granger, but he’s probably usurped Granger as the team’s franchise cornerstone with his standout season this year, elevating the Pacers to the third season.
|Paul George||Numbers||League Rank|
|D Win Shares||6.3||1|
|Stl Per Game||1.8||7|
For the Hawks, the team’s ability to move the ball around is their biggest advantage against such a defensively prolific team. Atlanta is second in the league in assists per game, and point guard Jeff Teague leads the charge. He averaged nine dimes per game in April and will have to be a capable facilitator for the Hawks to hang around in the series.
Brooklyn Nets vs Chicago Bulls
Despite having the sixth best scoring defense in the NBA during the regular season, Brooklyn only has one player with a defensive rating of less than 100: Reggie Evans. With Chicago’s frontcourt so strong, the Nets are going to need its defensive and rebounding maestro to have a great series to match the toughness and ruggedness of the Bulls’ bigs. Evans won the rebounding triple crown, leading the league in offensive, defensive and total rebound percentage. He helped the Nets to a third place finish in team rebound differential, at +3.6.
Even with Derrick Rose out, the Bulls still have a point guard with the ability to take over a game and potentially change the complexion of a playoff series. His name is Nate Robinson. His three-point percentage and win share are both career bests, and his value to the team has only grown as the season went on.
|Nate Robinson||Minutes||Shots||FG %||3FG %||Points|
Robinson increased his scoring output despite taking a similar number of shots, and that kind of efficiency could lead the Bulls to an upset.
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