Ray Allen

Who are the key role players on contending teams?

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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.

John Wall has 29 points, 13 assists as Wizards top Knicks 113-110

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on January 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) John Wall scored the pivotal points and made the saving steal, though the Knicks thought the Wizards had another defender who impacted their final possession even before Wall ended it.

Carmelo Anthony and Courtney Lee said a Washington assistant coach standing on the court too close to Lee kept him from taking a tying 3-point attempt. He instead passed to Brandon Jennings, who had the ball stolen by Wall.

“He was on the court,” Anthony said. “They had six players on the court.”

Wall didn’t need extra help. He had 29 points and 13 assists and scored the surging Wizards’ final four points in the last 32 seconds of their 113-110 victory Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Anthony’s miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

“Just trying to make the big-time plays,” Wall said. “But, if it’s me scoring or me passing, I’m going to live with the results if it’s the right read and the right play, and tonight I came up with some big shots and we won.”

Anthony finished with 34 points but threw the ball to Lee near the Wizards’ bench on the last possession. Lee said he heard someone standing close to him and yelling as if he was a nearby defender, confusing him enough into thinking that if he took the shot, it could be blocked.

Replays showed Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe standing on the court near Lee, who dribbled left and passed the ball hurriedly to Jennings, who had it knocked away by Wall.

“I’m not sure if he had his hands up or not, but I mean, he fooled me,” Lee said, adding he thought the NBA should look into the play. “I still should’ve took the shot, I mean it’s at the end of the game, but I drove and tried to make a play. I seen Brandon standing there but it didn’t work out.”

Derrick Rose added 20 points and Kristaps Porzingis came off the bench for 15 in his return from a sore left Achilles tendon.

The Wizards trailed 67-66 at halftime after Anthony scored a Knicks-record 25 points in the second quarter, then outscored New York 34-19 to take a 100-86 lead into the fourth.

The Knicks came all the way back to take a 110-109 lead when Rose put back his own miss with 48 seconds to play. Wall handled things from there as the Wizards won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 20-10 following a 3-9 start.

“It’s good to get a road win. We’ve had so many last-second shots on the road that didn’t go our way,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s nice to get a close-out tonight.”

Porter, who matched the career high for 3-pointers he set Wednesday against Memphis, had 15 points in the third quarter. The Wizards are 12-2 when he makes three or more 3s.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall, the NBA leader in total steals, has one in a career-best 30 straight games. … The Wizards have won six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Joakim Noah missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. The Knicks lost for the first time in six games this season without their starting center. … Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Allan Houston shared the previous franchise record, having both scored 24 points in a quarter. Reed also did it in the second period, while Houston’s outburst came in the fourth.

BACK-TO-BACK FACTS

Washington improved to 2-7 on the second night of back-to-back games – with both victories against the Knicks, who are even worse in that situation. New York is 1-9, including a loss at Washington on Nov. 17.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit the Pistons on Saturday. The Wizards won 122-108 at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 behind 29 points and 11 assists from Wall.

Knicks: Host the Suns on Saturday as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to beat his former team for the first time. Phoenix pulled out a 113-111 overtime victory against New York on Dec. 13.

Kawhi Leonard has 34, Spurs overcome Pau Gasol’s injury to top Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard runs up the court after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the short-handed San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver’s three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson‘s shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol’s return.

Murray started in place of Parker, who sat out with a sprained left foot. The rookie responded by shooting 7 for 11, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.

Popovich did not get to see the Spurs improve to 15-2 at home since Nov. 11 after picking up his fifth and sixth technical fouls. Zach Zarba ejected Popovich with 1:36 remaining in the first half after he became incensed over a foul called on Davis Bertans against Jokic.

Minutes earlier, Popovich was upset over a non-call for Bertans.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic has led the team in scoring or shared the high mark in 10 of Denver’s past 18 games after doing so just once in the previous 22 games. . Jokic was the only Denver player who did not have a losing record as a starter until Thursday’s defeat. He is 11-12 as a starter. . C Jusuf Nurkic had five points, leaving him one shy of 1,000 for his career. . F Juancho Hernangomez made his second career start. . During Popovich’s ejection, Nuggets G Emmanuel Mudiay shadowed Zarba and mimicked the official calling a technical foul and ejecting the Spurs’ coach. . Denver has had two three-game winning streaks this season. The previous streak was snapped 119-102 by the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20.

Spurs: Gasol missed his first game due to injury this season. He sat out two games for rest. He is averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games. . Parker has missed eight games this season, including two for rest. The point guard missed three games with a sore right knee, one due to a bruised left quadriceps and another because of a bruised left knee. . At least one Spurs player has appeared in the All-Star Game in all but two of the franchise’s 40 years in the NBA – 1989 and 1997. … Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 straight games, the longest streak by a Spurs player since Duncan had 75 in 2004-05.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night.

Spurs: At the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.

Goran Dragic scores 32 as Heat top Mavericks 99-95

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 22:  Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Arena on December 22, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) Just like in 2006 and 2011, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are essentially in the same place.

Different spot in the standings, though.

Goran Dragic had 32 points, Tyler Johnson scored 10 of his 23 in the fourth quarter and the Heat beat the Mavericks 99-95 on Thursday night, snapping Dallas’ season-high three-game winning streak.

“Like an old-school Miami-Dallas game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

He said it with a smile, not entirely serious, of course. The stakes in Heat-Mavs games are far different now, with both teams languishing in the bottom half of their respective conferences and not going back and forth in the NBA Finals. But both franchises have been a bit better of late, providing hope for the second half.

“We worked hard for this, the whole team,” Dragic said. “We lost a lot of close games, but we’re getting better in those close games and we feel like tonight we defended well, the ball was moving and we made the right plays.”

Hassan Whiteside scored 13 and Dion Waiters added 12 for the Heat.

Dirk Nowitzki had 19 points for Dallas, which went 1 for 8 from the field during a late stretch of the fourth quarter and never got the lead again.

“It was a really tough stretch for us,” Nowitzki said. “We went from being up a couple to down seven or eight and then we put the starters back in or the other unit, so that was a bad stretch … and after that we had to play catch-up.”

Wesley Matthews scored 18 for the Mavericks, who got 15 apiece from Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry.

“It’s not exactly 2011,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s two franchises that are competitive, and that are playing a little better in recent games. It’s a competitive game. We’ve had health issues. They’ve obviously had health issues.”

Nowitzki made two of three free throws with 18.5 seconds left to get the Mavs within 95-92. The Heat needed to burn two timeouts before even getting the ball inbounded on the ensuing possession, and Johnson hit two from the line five seconds later to help seal the win.

TIP-INS

Mavericks: J.J. Barea scored 13 points and has reached double figures in 11 of his 17 games this season. At 32, he’s on pace to average more than 12 points a game for the first time. … Dallas took only 11 free throws to Miami’s 29.

Heat: Miami improved to 3-21 when trailing at halftime. Dallas led 53-44 at the break. … Okaro White made his NBA debut. He was signed to a 10-day deal earlier this week. … Wayne Ellington got his 1,000th career rebound and is one 3-pointer shy of 500.

PROMOTION ISSUE

A fan avoided injury when a door – depicting a hotel room door – on a wheeled frame fell over during a promotion after the first quarter. The promotion had several fans slide hotel “keys” into the door, and the one that worked won a hotel stay. The floor was slightly damaged near midcourt.

BOGUT CLOSER

Dallas center Andrew Bogut missed his fourth straight game with a right hamstring strain. He worked out on the court before the game and is improving, though he isn’t expected to play Friday against Utah.

UP NEXT

Mavericks: Host the Utah Jazz on Friday. Dallas is 0-7 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: Host the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. Miami is 1-1 against the Bucks, with both teams winning at home.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving lead Cavaliers to 118-103 win over Suns

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 08:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against TJ Warren #12 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 8, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 120-116. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) Before their first home game following a long trip that ended with a miserable thud at Golden State, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue showed his team video clips to remind them who they are.

The message?

“Do that,” LeBron James said.

Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, James, his All-Star teammate, had 21 points and 15 assists, and Cleveland looked more like an NBA champion in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road swing (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss to the Warriors. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance, ball movement and defense while improving to 30-11 – the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA title season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

“Coming off our road trip we just weren’t playing Cavalier basketball,” said James, “and getting the ball popping from one side to the other. It was good to get back to the way we’ve been playing for most of the season.”

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games.

Phoenix closed within 12 in the fourth, but was unable to get any closer.

“They always make the right play offensively and defensively,” said Suns guard Devin Booker, who finished with 21 points on 4-of-12 shooting. “They’re always on a string together on both ends of the floor. You can hear them talking out there. You can hear them communicating. I guess that’s one thing you can learn from them, how comfortable they are with themselves and the way they talk to each other.”

Already thin on their front line with Love out, the Cavs lost forward Tristan Thompson in the second quarter with a dislocated left index finger. However, Thompson returned after halftime.

And Cleveland’s offense was in a much better rhythm from the start after a trip that wasn’t always pleasing to the eye.

Irving and James shined as always, but it was the contributions of Cleveland’s supporting cast that made the difference.

“We definitely needed it,” James said. “We needed guys to step up and you know, we had that tonight out of everybody, especially Channing.”

While trying to integrate newly acquired Kyle Korver into their rotation on the road, the Cavs got into some bad habits as they forced passes to one of the league’s best shooters. A couple of practices seem to have helped as Korver made a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter of his home debut to help Cleveland open a 21-point lead.

The Suns made a brief run in the third and got within 12 before Shumpert hit a pair of 3s and Jones hit one from long range.

IRON MAN

Thompson injured his finger when he got it caught on Chandler’s jersey. For a moment, he was worried it might affect his consecutive games streak that now stands at 411 – the longest current run in the league.

“Once they told me it was only dislocated, I knew the streak was still alive,” he said.

TIP-INS

Suns: G Brandon Knight returned after missing two games with a sprained right wrist, but had a short night after committing four fouls in four minutes in the first half. … Chandler has at least 15 rebounds in six straight games, matching the club record set by Jim Fox in 1969. … Booker had averaged 30 points in his past six games.

Cavaliers: Korver finished with nine points. … James, who missed his 46th career triple-double by one rebound, will be making his 13th consecutive All-Star Game appearance next month. He said the honor never gets old. “Just means I’ve been doing something right in this league,” he said. “Means I’m consistent and taking pride in my individual ability to go out and produce for the team every night, and whatever team I’ve been on in my career. It’s always great to see my name up there with the best guys in the league, so it’s a pretty cool thing.” … G J.R. Smith has had the hard cast removed from his surgically repaired thumb. He’s expected back in late March. … Jones made his first start since April 2, 2015.

UP NEXT

Suns: At the New York Knicks on Saturday. Phoenix won the first meeting this season in overtime.

Cavaliers: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday in a matchup between two of the NBA’s best teams.