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Flip Murray's play last week gave the Bobcats a new franchise accomplishment.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Depth makes mark when it matters most

By Jeff Case, NBA.com
Posted Jan 9 2010 2:49AM

While we usually reserve this space in Five on the Rise to spotlight a player who stood out last week, we're changing things up a bit. In our review of the best Five on the Rise-type performances, we saw a trend: depth making an impact.

Whether it's contending for a championship or just trying to make the playoffs, quality depth is what makes either run possible. Last week, the Bobcats, Nuggets and Celtics -- all of whom have differing definitions of "contending" -- showed what depth did to help their causes.

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The Bobcats opened the new year with a tough stretch: back-to-back road games against the Heat and Cavaliers, a day off, and then a home game against the rising Bulls. All Charlotte did was go 3-0, thanks mostly to some key baskets from offseason acquisition Flip Murray.

Denver has been without All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups since Dec. 16 and All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony has a right knee contusion that kept him out of Tuesday's game against Golden State. Yet there was J.R. Smith, hitting key baskets in a crucial Northwest Division win at Utah and making a pair of free throws to seal a controversial home win over the Warriors.

Rasheed Wallace signed with Boston to provide some veteran experience and clutch baskets in the postseason. We still have yet to see if that happens, but Wallace sparked the Celtics to a win over the Raptors last week while starters Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce nursed injuries.

Thanks to those performances, Wallace, Murray and Smith all make their debut in this week's Five on the Rise. In fact, four of the five spots in this week's list are new faces. The one thing they all have in common? All five players kept their teams in the thick of whatever race (title-contending, playoff-chasing) that the teams were running.

NBA.com's Five on the Rise is a weekly look at which young players (and resurgent veterans) have yet to reach stardom and have made the biggest impact for their team in the last week. These rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Thursday during the season. If you have an issue with the names on this list, or have a question or comment for Jeff Case, send him an e-mail.

G. Flip Murray, Bobcats
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2720.39.02.21.70.70.2.376.278.667
Last Week's Rank - N/A
As a key midseason acquisition to the Cavs in 2005-06, Murray no doubt knows how loud Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena can get. So it's not a big surprise he was more than comfortable draining a late dagger 3-pointer against the Cavs in Sunday's 91-88 win. "After Flip made that shot, all we had to do was get stops," teammate Stephen Jackson said. "It's a great way to start off the year and to get some confidence and momentum." Murray said his shot felt like it "took the air out of the building" as Charlotte got its first win in Cleveland in franchise history. One night earlier in Miami, Murray delivered again, scoring 14 points off the bench as the Bobcats got a key win over a Southeast foe that could prove vital if Miami and Charlotte are battling for a spot down the stretch. Coach Larry Brown has shown confidence in Murray as one of Charlotte's clutch performers, starting with a Dec. 15 comeback win over the Knicks in which Murray hit a late 3-pointer. Since that game, Murray is averaging 9.7 ppg and is shooting 45 percent as the Bobcats have gone 4-5 and emerged as the No. 7 seed in the East. And as our own Sekou Smith points out, the combination of Murray, Jackson and rebounding dynamo Gerald Wallace give the Bobcats perhaps the toughest trio in the NBA since the Bad Boys-era Pistons. There's reason for hope in Charlotte if this keeps up.

G. J.R. Smith, Nuggets
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2827.515.42.82.31.10.2.411.329.695
Last Week's Rank - N/A
"Whenever I shoot the ball, I think I can make it -- that's why I never think I shoot any bad shots." That was Smith's quote to the Denver Post on New Year's Day, and little did he know his willingness to shoot would help (and not hurt) Denver last week. On Tuesday night, Smith's desperation heave from about 40 feet drew a controversial shooting foul on the Warriors' Monta Ellis, allowing Smith to nail the first two (and intentionally miss the third) free throws to give Denver a comeback win. In a road win over the Jazz, Smith provided a big scoring punch off the bench with 18 points and exploited the defense played on him by C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews. Give Smith credit for filling his usual role of sixth man and allowing Denver to stay atop the Northwest Division despite the injuries to Billups and Anthony. Coach George Karl knows, though, that for every game Smith puts in against Utah and Golden State, he'll also have to live with a 4-for-12, eight-point effort that Smith tends to sandwich between big games. "J.R., once you have a game like that, he continues to force the issue," Karl told the Denver Post. "He always takes one, two, maybe three more, and I don't think great players do that. . . . I just don't think great teams shoot a lot of degree-of-difficulty shots. The way our offense is structured, we're going to shoot more than most. But that doesn't mean we should be emphasizing to do so."

C. Rasheed Wallace, Celtics
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3322.49.64.51.01.20.8.399.295.822
Last Week's Rank - N/A
In case you've missed a good part of the season, 'Sheed hasn't exactly been tearing it up in Boston. He's averaging career-worsts in points (9.4), FG percentage (.394), 3-point shooting (.285 pct) and rebounding (4.3). Yet in that win over the Raptors, Wallace seemingly hopped into a time capsule and offered up a classic line: 16 points, 6-of-11 shooting, two 3-pointers, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Not only did 'Sheed's performance snap Boston's three-game slide, it also was the culmination of his efforts to lead Boston while KG, Pierce and Rondo are on the mend. Rondo and Pierce were both back for Wednesday night's thrilling OT win over the Heat, in which Rondo provided most of the highlights. But Wallace, starting again in place of KG, delivered a 16-point, nine-rebound performance and nailed a trio of 3-pointers. Credit center Kendrick Perkins with getting in Wallace's ear to take charge of the team while those three stars were out, something that Wallace said he embraced. "I realized that earlier in the summer, when Boston was one of the teams I was thinking about," Wallace told the Boston Herald. "I knew Kevin coming back wouldn't be 100 percent. If he was on a roll, feeling good and playing I knew my minutes would be down. On the other hand I knew that if he did go down I would have to step in there with more."

F. Zach Randolph, Grizzlies
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3436.720.311.42.00.90.4.512.250.843
Last Week's Rank - N/A
The Z-Bo redemption tour continues, this time with big stops in Phoenix and Portland. That Randolph put up monster stat lines in both stops (18 points, 11 rebounds in a blowout of the Suns; 27 points, 14 rebounds in a comeback win over the Blazers) wasn't a surprise; Randolph always seems to find his way to a double-double each night in Memphis. What's most surprising is that few would have thought that the Grizzlies' resurgence (and first time over .500 since 2005-06) would be led by Randolph. All that aside, another solid month from Z-Bo. He should be looking at his first All-Star game apperance. He is fourth in the league in double-doubles (behind former All-Stars Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard and Carlos Boozer) and has a healthy lead on the offensive rebounding crown, too. Memphis owner Michael Heisley, who was routinely criticized for his decision to trade for Randolph, has some chuckles of his own at his detractors now. "Everybody told me he was a black hole," Heisley told The Commercial Appeal. "I think we understand he's not a black hole at all. He ought to be an All-Star. ... I'm very happy with all of my guys. Quite honestly, if we play .500 ball for the whole season I'll be very, very happy."

F. James Posey, Hornets
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3322.55.43.71.40.60.2.366.354.844
Last Week's Rank - N/A
If New Orleans wants to keep its hopes of making the playoffs (or even moving up in the West) alive, the Hornets will have to do it on the road. The Hornets have 10 of their next 15 games away from Louisiana, with plenty of games scheduled against playoff hopefuls in the East and West. Posey, for his part, has helped New Orleans get off to a good start to their long jaunt. In a comeback win at home over the Rockets on Jan. 2, Posey nailed a late 3-pointer to give New Orleans a 93-89 lead and then took a charge from Carl Landry to help seal the win. He was equally huge in a road win over the Jazz, scoring 12 points as the Hornets moved ahead of the Jazz in the West among the playoff hopefuls. Finally, he had a solid nine-point night against the Thunder on Wednesday and hit two big free throws to clinch the win. In his last 10 games, Posey has gotten more playing time and has found his shooting touch from 3-point land, making .341 percent of his shots. For the Hornets to have a shot at regaining their status as contenders, Posey needs to continue making 3-pointers and break out of the season-long shooting slump that's made it all-too-easy to defend the Hornets this season.

The Next Five

G: Nate Robinson, Knicks -- After sitting on the bench in DNP-CD land for over a month, Krypto-Nate broke out on New Year's Day with a 41-point effort, which led NBA TV's Rick Kamla to say Robinson had the best New Year's Day of anyone on the planet. While that claim is tough to prove, undoubtedly Robinson has become a factor in the Knicks' rotation after a month in playing time purgatory. The Knicks needed all of his 41 to complete their overtime rally against the Hawks, but in New York's following game, it's becoming apparent that Robinson is back in the rotation. He played 23 minutes in a blowout of the Pacers on Jan. 3, scoring six points. Robinson was on the bench much of the season because the team played better with Larry Hughes, but as the New York Times points out in a recent article, coach Mike D'Antoni is going to play whoever helps the team win now. It will be interesting to see what happens when Robinson goes into a scoring slump, but for now, he seems to be a player on the rise in New York.

G: J.J. Barea, Mavs -- From playing time to scoring average, Barea is setting career highs in just about every statistical category. The stat we're most impressed with is this one: 10-4 -- that's the Mavs' record since coach Rick Carlisle made Barea a starter on Dec. 8. Barea put together a solid night in last week's win over the Kings (17 points) and gives Dallas' starting lineup a scoring boost in the backcourt while the Mavs weigh whether or not to put Josh Howard back into the starting lineup. While Barea has done a nice job in the backcourt, we're interested to see how his outside shot comes along and what the Mavs do next. Teams are backing off Barea and forcing him to score from the perimeter and in his 14-game run as a starter, he hasn't exactly delivered against the best teams. Just last week, he scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting against the Lakers, but the Mavs were blown out 131-96. "They're paying more attention to me, so it makes it a little harder, but I think it's all about my outside shot," Barea told ESPNDallas.com "If my outside shot goes in, it's easier to attack."

C: Andrea Bargnani, Raptors -- Bargnani caught our attention for his sweet baseline move and dunk on Tim Duncan in last week's home win over the Spurs. Then a few nights later, he put up 18 points and helped Chris Bosh keep Dwight Howard and the Magic frontcourt busy in a thrilling 108-103 win in Orlando. "Andrea did an outstanding job on Dwight,'' coach Jay Triano told the Toronto Sun. "He made him work all game. We tried not to double at any point. I thought Andrea did a real good job of playing him by himself and forcing him to take tough shots."

F: Kenyon Martin, Nuggets -- The Denver Post recently had a great article on how Martin has embraced the role as the Nuggets' middle linebacker of sorts, directing the defense on each posession and serving as the player who rattles young foes when they venture into the paint. Watching Martin work on defense is truly one of the under-appreciated aspects of the Nuggets, but of late, Martin has turned into quite the offensive force, too. He's recorded double-figure scoring in eight straight games, his longest streak since last season and the third-longest streak in his time with Denver. We'll be interested to see how Martin keeps up his offensive play and still manages the defense as Chris Andersen -- Denver's other low-post defensive whiz -- makes his way back from an ankle sprain.

F: Gerald Wallace, Bobcats -- Should he stay in the top five in rebounds per game (as he is now), Wallace would become perhaps the most athletic player to finish among the league's rebounding leaders since Shawn Marion was in Phoenix. We are consistently amazed each night by the rebounding totals Wallace puts up, especially considering his size (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) compared to the names above him (Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard) in rebounds per game. Heck, even Marion -- who is also 6-foot-7 -- has a five-pound advantage on Wallace. While Wallace doesn't have the clutch factor that Jackson and Murray possess, there's no doubt he's taking the burden of leading the Bobcats' playoff run on his shoulders. He's upped his scoring average each month this season, is second on the team in field goal attempts (trailing Jackson) and is averaging a career-best 7.9 free throw attempts per game.

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