Who are the key role players on contending teams?


In the NBA, you win with star players (except if you’re the 2004 Pistons, the exception to every championship rule). They’re the guys you lean on in the closing minutes of tight games. The guys that can affect a game with their sheer talent and turn what looks to be a sure loss into a win.

But, even the most star studded teams need contributions from role players to reach the mountain top. The Derek Fisher’s. The Robert Horry’s. These players may not get the headlines day in and day out, but when looking at the rosters of title winning teams their names stand out. Without them, some of the brightest stars the game has seen might have a few less pieces of jewelry on their fingers.

This year’s title contenders are no different. They all have at least one key role player that will be depended on to be a difference maker this season. Who are they? Let’s explore…

Ray Allen, Miami Heat
Allen is used to playoff pressure cooker. He’s been around the block multiple times throughout his career and has stuck the dagger into opponents in the biggest games imaginable. When the moment is the biggest, you know what you’re going to get from Ray. He’s going to stroke that sweet jumper of his and opposing fans are going to hold their breath when the shot is in the air.

But Ray comes to Heat no longer one of his team’s best players. Once part of Boston’s big three, he joins a new triumvirate that’s not only already formed but has already tasted championship glory. With this group he’ll be asked to play a supporting role in limited minutes and excel while doing it.

And, for the first time in his career, there are questions as to whether he’s up to the task. How will he perform coming off the bench for the first prolonged stretch of his distinguished career? Is his defense up to a high enough standard to close games on a team that is already so good on the wing? After a somewhat disappointing playoffs last season, how many more jumpers do his legs have in them?

Knowing Allen’s history, he’ll prove any doubters wrong and hit a few more big shots for the Heat this season. But if Allen falters or if he can not approach his normal standard it will have a big affect on the Heat. Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier will need to play heavier minutes than planned. And for a team that’s coming of two straight Final’s runs it would be nice if Allen could soak up some minutes to keep those guys fresher throughout the marathon that is an NBA season.

Antawn Jamison, The Los Angeles Lakers
Jamison is the epitome of the accomplished veteran at the end of his career chasing a ring. He’s been a top scorer in the league and his team’s go-to guy. He’s gone to all-star games and won awards. What he hasn’t done is taste that champagne after his team wins its last game of the season. This is why he came to the Lakers.

The question is, however, does Jamison have enough left in the tank to be a key contributor on a title winning team? After 14 seasons of going being a featured player, it’s more than a fair question. And, so far this preseason, he’s not yet looked like the difference maker off the bench that the Lakers need him to be. His jumper has been erratic and the in-between game that’s been a staple of his success throughout his career has been more miss than hit. And there are, of course, still the long standing issues of his defense and rebounding. Those aren’t exactly the qualities the Lakers signed him for.

No, Jamison will need to hit shots and do so at a consistent enough rate to give space to the front court partner he’s flanking. Be it Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard, Jamison must be seen as a threat to the defense to help give them the room they need to operate in the post. To say nothing of the room created to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash on the perimeter. His scoring punch and the ripple effect it will have are tantamount to this Laker team.

Jamison has never had a role this important for a team this good. If he can play well, the Lakers are one major step closer to solidifying their bench and shoring up a major weakness from last season. If he’s not, they’ll have an even greater chance of being exposed even with the start power at the top of the roster.

Eric Maynor, The Oklahoma City Thunder
There may not be a more unheralded player that’s returning from injury in the entire league than Eric Maynor. Guys like Derrick Rose and Ricky Rubio are franchise altering talents, but it’s Maynor that plays on one of the clearly elite teams and can literally mean the difference between the Thunder advancing to the Finals or not; between winning a title or not.

No, he’s not one of the Thunder’s big three superstars. But Maynor is one of the league’s best (if not the best) back up point guards. And for a team that had to rely on Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher to back up Russell Westbrook last season, that’s a huge difference. Especially for a team that was so close to winning the title.

Maynor not only offers the Thunder a scoring threat off the bench but also a floor general that can run the team should Westbrook falter. Before he tore his ACL, Scott Brooks could turn to Maynor at any time to settle his team down, get them into their sets, and get the team going in the right direction. That type of luxury is so valuable to a team that, even with all its talent, can still be prone to lapses of judgment and too many unproductive possessions.

Maynor also offers them lineup flexibility, giving them a key contributor to any small-ball lineup Brooks wants to deploy. For example, a grouping of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka gives the Thunder a unit that can match up with the position-less Heat lineup that gave them so many issues in the Finals. There’s no hiding defenders against a lineup like that.

Word is that Maynor is fully recovered from his knee injury and should be ready to return to the form he showed before he got hurt. If that’s the case, one of the best teams in the league just added another fantastic young talent to flank their already stacked core. If he’s not, the Thunder will once again be stuck playing below replacement level players behind Westbrook.

Jeff Green, The Boston Celtics
Green is one of the most uniquely positioned role players in the league.

First, he’s coming back from missing an entire season due to having heart surgery. Second, he signed one of the more “wait, he got how much?” contracts this past free agency period. And third, he’s coming back to a Celtics team that has made itself over with smart signings and a solid draft to the point that they’re thinking their window isn’t quite yet closed yet.

How Green performs in the middle of all this remains to be seen. As a tweener forward, he’ll be asked to play in both big and small lineups and use his versatility on both sides of the ball. There will be times that he’ll have to chase small forwards around the perimeter on defense and then attack them in the paint on offense. The next night he may be spacing the floor on offense while playing on the back line of the C’s vaunted defense directing traffic while he hedges and recovers on a pick and roll.

Green has never proven that he’s been up to such responsibilities and that’s one of the reasons the Thunder were okay trading him away for Kendrick Perkins. Yes, his versatility was nice but at some point he needed to show that he could to deliver at a high enough level in those areas rather than just being good at them. With the Thunder, he never did get that done.

Will that change with these Celtics? Will coming off the bench help his game? Will playing with a point guard savant like Rajon Rondo (rather than the more shot happy Westbrook) help him find his stride on offense? Will learning at the altar of Kevin Garnett help him with his defense?

The Celtics can only hope that the answers to those questions are in the affirmative. They’ve invested a fair amount of time and money into Green and for them to be as good as they hope to be, they’ll need him to live up to his lottery talent.

Three Things to Know: Kevin Love is back, but it’s still all about LeBron in Cleveland

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kevin Love returns, but it’s still LeBron James’ night in Cavaliers win. Kevin Love is back — and he didn’t look bad considering the time off. Love had 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and seven rebounds (two offensive), but most importantly he was aggressive on the glass and worked hard on defense. He had four assists and the Cavaliers offense is just more dynamic with him because of his passing and ability to space the floor.

That said, Love needs to work on his form getting back on defense.

Love’s return is nice and all, but Cleveland goes as LeBron James goes — and he went off on Milwaukee. He always seems to get up for Giannis Antetokounmpo the Bucks. LeBron had 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists — all while guarded by Antetokounmpo (one of the leagues better defensive forwards because of his length). Take a moment on that: That’s three triple-doubles in four games, and LeBron became the third-oldest NBA player to have a 40-point triple double (Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Elgin Baylor are the two ahead of him). What LeBron has done this season at age 33, with 15 seasons of miles on him, is stunning.

The win has the Cavaliers back as the three seed in the East.

Antetokounmpo had a good night of his own, 37 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, but the Bucks continue to stumble, losing 8-of-12. Milwaukee appears destined for the eight seed in the East and a trip to Toronto to start the postseason.

2) Tyronn Lue is out as Cavaliers coach for “a while” in an effort to get control of health issues. There are things — frankly, a lot of things — more important than NBA basketball. Health is certainly one of them — for an NBA coach the long hours, stress, travel, eating on the go, all combine to form a far from a healthy lifestyle.

All of that caught up with the Cavaliers’ Tyronn Lue this season, who is stepping away from the team temporarily to get control of health issues.

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby (Altman, Cavs GM) and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season,” Lue said in a statement.

“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is.”

That’s scary (and the reports from people close to the team are worse — like coughing up blood worse). Reports out of Cleveland are that Lue will return before the playoffs, in fact, he’d like to be back on the sidelines in a week, but someone needs to slow his roll a little. Lue needs to prioritize himself and his health above a playoff run. Steve Clifford, the Charlotte coach to missed 21 games this season to get a handle on severe headaches and issues related to sleep deprivation, and Clifford has already reached out to Lue and the pair are expected to talk. That is a good start.

As for what happens to the Cavaliers while Lue is out… probably not that much. Assistant coach Larry Drew takes over, but this team’s systems and coverages are not about to change. The Cavaliers are who they are, the challenge is integrating all the new bodies — that includes Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and the rest coming off injuries — and to get some cohesion before the playoffs start. Right now, the Cavaliers are nowhere near that on the defensive end, and they don’t have a lot of time to sort it out.

3) Draymond Green leaves Warriors loss with a hip contusion — joining Curry, Durant, Thompson on sidelines — in Warriors loss. Curry could return Friday. The Spurs looked like a team about to drop out of the playoffs a couple of weeks ago — and Kawhi Leonard’s return remains a mystery — but the Spurs playoff streak looks like it will reach 21 seasons.

San Antonio has won four in a row and moved up to the fifth seed in the West following an 89-75 win over Golden State Tuesday. Fivethirtyeight.com has San Antonio with an 89 percent chance of making the postseason now, as they are full three games clear of the nine-seed Clippers.

The Spurs took advantage of a banged-up Warriors team — Kevin Durant (ribs), Stephen Curry (ankle), and Klay Thompson (thumb) were already sidelined for this one, and in the second quarter Draymond Green left the game with a hip contusion. X-rays were negative, he’s not expected to miss much time. Without their four All-Stars, the Warriors scored just 12 points in the fourth quarter, and that allowed the Spurs to pull away for a low-scoring win 89-75.

Curry is reportedly targeting a Friday return to the court, against Atlanta. All of the Warriors injuries are not expected to linger into the postseason — it’s something to watch, if Golden State is not at 100 percent the Rockets threat grows (and it’s already very real), but as of right now the Warriors should be a fully formed Voltron by the start of the playoffs.

Wild night in Miami: Heat top Nuggets 149-141 in 2 OTs

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MIAMI (AP) — They broke the stat system. That’s how good Miami and Denver were – even modern technology couldn’t keep up with the Heat and Nuggets.

For 48 minutes, they went back and forth.

And one overtime wouldn’t decide it, either.

Finally, after three hours, the Heat said enough. James Johnson scored a career-high 31 points, Kelly Olynyk added 30 off the bench and Miami set a franchise single-game scoring record by beating the Nuggets 149-141 in double overtime on Monday night.

“There didn’t deserve to be a loser,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Guys probably really enjoyed playing in a game like this.”

His guys did, anyway. Olynyk became the second reserve in Heat history to score 30. Wayne Ellington had 23 points, and the Heat made 20 3-pointers – second-most in franchise history.

All that comes with a serious disclaimer. There was no official boxscore after the game, because the system crashed in the first overtime and crews were scrambling to determine official numbers long after the final buzzer. What mattered most was the score – one that moved Miami (38-33) into seventh in the Eastern Conference and left the Nuggets two games back of the last Western Conference spot.

“They just executed,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said. “They got some, I think, fluke plays and a little luck and they’re at home, you know. Momentum shifted a little bit.”

Miami’s point total was also an NBA season high. Houston and Oklahoma City each scored 148 in games earlier this season.

Nikola Jokic had 34 points and 14 rebounds for Denver (38-33), while Wilson Chandler added 26 for the Nuggets. Jamal Murray scored 23 and Will Barton finished with 22 for Denver.

“There’s no stats. The stat machine blew up I guess,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But the only stat I cared about tonight is that I’m proud of the way we competed, I’m proud of the way we executed, I’m proud of the fact that we gave ourselves a chance.”

Neither team was at full strength. For Miami, Dwyane Wade (left hamstring strain) missed his fourth consecutive game, and Hassan Whiteside (left hip pain) sat out his fifth straight contest. Denver was without leading scorer Gary Harris, sidelined again by a strained right knee that could keep him out several more days.

Denver led 16-5 after 3 1/2 minutes, and that was the only double-digit lead by either side for about the next three hours. It was airtight until the very final moments, almost to an absurd degree.

After one quarter, Denver led by one.

Halftime, Miami led by one.

After three, Miami still by one.

After regulation, tied.

After one overtime, still tied.

“That’s as playoffs as it comes,” Olynyk said.

Back and forth they went all night, two teams who played a one-point game at Denver back in November – that one not being decided until Dion Waiters‘ missed jumper as time expired sealed the Nuggets’ win. This one had even more fireworks, with the Heat missing shots at the end of regulation and the first overtime before finding a way in the second OT.

Olynyk and James Johnson had all 13 Miami points in the first overtime.

“We didn’t exactly want it to be like this,” said Ellington, who rattled home a 3-pointer to start the second OT and put Miami ahead for good. “But these are the types of games that show your character.”


LeBron James’ triple-double lifts Cavaliers past Bucks

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 40 points as part of his third triple-double in four games and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 on Monday night as coach Tyronn Lue began his leave of absence to address health issues.

Lue said Monday in a statement he been dealing with chest pains and loss of sleep, and that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is. Associate head coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue’s absence.

James scored 17 points in the third quarter and finished with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his 16th triple-double this season and 71st of his career.

The four-time MVP took over in the third beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers. After not getting a foul called on a third attempt, he finished Cleveland’s next possession with a massive dunk. He was fouled attempting another dunk and made both free throws the following time down.

Milwaukee cut a 17-point lead to 117-109, but James drove the length of the floor for a dunk with just over a minute left.

Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love returned after missing six weeks because of a broken left hand and scored 18 points in 25 minutes. He sparked a 10-0 run in the second quarter with two 3-pointers

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and went 11 for 11 at the foul line for Milwaukee, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton had 30 points, making 11 of 16 from the field.

Milwaukee guard Jason Terry was given a Flagrant-1 foul for hitting Ante Zizic in the face with an open hand while the rookie center was putting up a shot in the lane. Zizic made both free throws, helping spark a run that built a double-figure lead.

Lue, 40, led Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season.

The Cavaliers (41-29) are third in the Eastern Conference and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.

No timetable has been given for when Lue will return. He missed the second half Saturday, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn’t feeling well. Lue also sat out a game against Chicago at home in December.


Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson has another surgery, will miss entire season now

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Pelicans say rookie guard Frank Jackson won’t make his NBA debut this season after having follow-up surgery to remove residual scar tissue from earlier right foot operations.

The Pelicans say Jackson also received an injection in his foot.

The club says a specialist in New York handled Jackson’s latest procedure.

The Pelicans acquired the 6-foot-4 Jackson through a draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected the former Duke player with the first pick of the second round last summer.

Following the draft, the Pelicans signed Jackson to a three-year contract at the NBA minimum with two years guaranteed, but Jackson needed a second foot surgery last summer to address a setback following his initial surgery last May.

Jackson spent one season at Duke, averaging 10.9 points.