New York Knicks v Boston Celtics

Seven players whose teams need them to step up big in the postseason


Jeff Green

Since his 43-point game in mid-March (excluding Boston’s season finale, when regular players rested), Green has averaged 20.0, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. By any eye test, he’s looked excellent. But in that span, the Celtics have been outscored by 3.6 points per 100 possession with him on the court and outscored opponents by 12.5 points per with him on the bench. Green has suffered from playing major minutes with the Celtics’ reserves, and when he’s played with the starters, he’s posted positive net ratings. Once Boston shrinks its playoff rotation, Green should turn into a player who excels individually and helps his team become more successful.

Tayshaun Prince

Prince, once a bastion of durability, just played his first 82-game season since playing every game between the 2003-04 and 2008-09 season. The 2008-09 season was also the last time Prince made the playoffs. In a four-game sweep to LeBron James’ Cavaliers, Prince looked worn down, scoring 15 total points on 27 shots. He’s probably more rejuvenated with Memphis, but he’ll need to show he’s not too old for a long playoff run.

Jerryd Bayless

Bayless has given the Grizzlies a nice scoring punch off the bench, leading the team’s reserves with 8.7 points per game. But he also makes Mike Conley better, allowing Conley a break from full-time ball-handling duties while keeping the starting point guard on the court and contributing as a scorer. In the 64 contest the combination has been used, Bayless and Conley play 10 minutes per game together and help the Grizzlies outscore  opponents by 10.2 possessions per 100 possessions. As long as Bayless plays well, that makes managing a think backcourt much easier easier.

DeAndre Jordan

Last season, Jordan’s playing time shrunk from 27.2 minutes per game in the regular season to 21.6 minutes per game in a playoff series with the Grizzlies. Now that that Jordan is down to 24.5 minutes per game in the regular season, how much less can can he play against Memphis this year? Los Angeles had Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin last season to battle Marc Gasol inside, but can the Clippers rely on Lamar Odom this year? If Jordan proves he can make his free throws and remain engaged, he’ll stay on the court and they won’t have to answer that question.

Jeremy Lin

In Houston’s two losses to the Thunder, Lin scored 13 points on 6-of-15 shooting. In the Rockets’ win, he scored 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting. James Harden can’t carry the scoring load alone, and Lin is the wildcard who could help him – or get shut down by Oklahoma City’s impressive defensive backcourt.

Steve Nash

Nash’s numbers are down – his win shares and win shares per 48 minutes are both his lowest in the last 13 years – partially because the Lakers’ Kobe-centric system kept the ball out of his hands. But at 39 years old, Nash is no longer close to the same player he was just two years ago. With Kobe out, the Lakers have little choice but to empower Nash to run the offense. Does he have enough left in the tank to lead one more playoff run? I doubt it, but that’s probably their only hope of advancing.

J.R. Smith

The Knicks started the season 23-10 and ended with a 16-2 stretch. Between, they went 15-16. Smith was effective during both New York’s high periods and its low period, and that illustrates the excellent season he’s having. But Smith was definitely better during the highs (shooting 45 percent) than the low (shooting 36 percent). Few players can match Smith’s talent, and when he’s using all of it, the Knicks are so much better. There risk of Smith flaming out in the playoffs is lower than most could have envisioned, but that doesn’t change how much better he can make the Knicks when he play his best.

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.