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Fran Blinebury

For the Nuggets to repeat last season's playoff run, Carmelo Anthony must get back on track.
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Championship hopes tied up in how these seven stars fare

Posted Apr 16 2010 10:12AM

Beginning Saturday, every team has their eye on the same prize, every player wants to finish the season the same way -- holding onto the shiny, gold Larry O'Brien Trophy.

But between now and that jubilant night in mid-June, there will be so many different twists, so many different turns and a handful of players who need to step up big in order to give their stories a happy ending.

Ron Artest, Lakers -- No newcomer will spend more time in the spotlight for his team's postseason success or failure than Ron-Ron. He is averaging a career-low 11.0 ppg, shooting just 41.4 percent and has rarely been the bear-trap-tight, lock-down defender L.A. had hoped would turn up the intensity in the bid to defend their title. He's struggled to find his place in the offense as the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Artest himself has said that Trevor Ariza, the guy he replaced, is probably a better fit as a role player. Too late. It's his burden.

Vince Carter, Magic -- The Ron Artest of the Eastern Conference, the biggest change made to the lineup of a team that advanced to the NBA Finals a year ago. As Yogi Berra might have said, Half-Man, Half-Amazing and Half-Lost much of the season. Shoulder, toe, ankle, you name it. He always seems to be nagged by one injury or another. But the biggest shortcoming all season has too often been a reluctance to assert himself at key points in games. His predecessor Hedo Turkoglu came up big in last year's playoff drive and it's time Carter shifted out of neutral.

Richard Jefferson, Spurs -- Up until the final month of the regular season, Jefferson's nickname might as well have been "Chevy Corvair" for all the times San Antonio wished they could have gotten a recall on the deal that brought him in from Milwaukee. He couldn't find a place to fit on offense and his defense was almost nonexistent, proving that $14.2 million (his salary this year) doesn't go as far as it used to. Manu Ginobili's second-half explosion covered up a lot of Spurs' sins, but none more than R.J., who needs a solid playoff showing.

Kevin Garnett, Celtics -- It was just two years ago when K.G. was the living, bellowing, hyperventilating symbol of Boston's one-season turnaround into champions. Now Garnett is still the walking representation of the Celtics. But in this as-yet-unfulfilling season that means he's too often looked like a soon-to-be 34-year-old who is averaging the fewest points (14.3 ppg) since his rookie season and hasn't been able to be the ferocious, cover-up-for-everyone defender that used to make Boston so tough. Rasheed Wallace has been a flame-out disappointment and the other elder statesmen -- Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- are showing their age. The Celtics' chances of a long playoff run depend on Garnett turning back the clock.

Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets -- For much of the season, his performances and his numbers had him worthy of being in the MVP discussion with LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. But over the last month of the season, with coach George Karl not on the bench to keep him focused and driven, Melo's attention and game have drifted. He's also got to bounce back from crashing back to earth in last year's Western Conference finals, when he shot 31.9 percent in the last four games and Denver let L.A. off the hook.

Stephen Jackson, Bobcats -- Capt. Jack was unsettled and unhappy and talked his way out of Golden State for a cross country resurrection in Charlotte. He's joined Gerald Wallace to give the Bobcats a solid 1-2 punch and from past playoff performances at San Antonio and Golden State has shown that he can flourish in the postseason and be a pesky defender. Now the veteran is going to be hot, but stay under control if Charlotte is to have any chance of upsetting Orlando in the Bobcats' first-ever playoff appearance.

Carlos Boozer, Jazz -- A season that began with many people surprised that Boozer was still a with Utah in training camp has left all of the nasty talk on both sides about a divorce from the franchise in the past. After overcoming a slow start due to physical problems, he's back to being the dependable frontcourt scorer and rebounder. He's even saying he's happy and would like to re-sign with the Jazz this summer. It will likely take a strong showing by Boozer and a deep run by Utah in the playoffs to make that happen.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.

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