Posted Apr 13 2011 9:05AM
One thing about the NBA playoffs: there are no Butlers and no VCUs. No teams emerging from the shadows to pull a major surprise by reaching the championship round. Not in a postseason filled with best-of-sevens. That just doesn't happen.
But there are unexpected and pleasant playoff surprises, when someone or something surfaces to impact a series. Most of the stars will always show up this time of year, but what about the role players? Or the raw, young players? The veteran who's over two hills? Or the player who caught a lucky break and suddenly finds himself a starter?
Every playoff team has them, every playoff series has them. And below, we list them: Ten factors that could determine if certain teams will play into May and June:
The Boston Celtics' O'Neals: Hard to tell which would be taller, if you stacked them end to end: their height, or their ages. If this were 2002, the Celtics would own the best centers in basketball, rather than the oldest and shakiest -- physically speaking. Shaquille and Jermaine must collectively find a way to replace Kendrick Perkins or else this could be a short stay for a team that went the absolute limit last summer, and Danny Ainge will enter witness protection.
George Karl, Denver Nuggets coach: He missed the 2010 playoffs while recovering from cancer and the Nuggets clearly missed him. Now Karl and the Nuggets, back together again, are the postseason's most intriguing team. Can good coaching -- and a hard-working and deep team -- compensate for a lack of star power? This would be the most satisfying season Karl ever had if he gets the Nuggets out of the first round.
Oklahoma City's Ford Center: Loud, supportive, respectful and loyal. That about sums up the joint, which stole the show last spring when the Thunder had the Lakers sweating puddles. Oklahoma City will have home-court advantage in the first round this season, making Kevin Durant and company even tougher to beat. Only four teams (San Antonio, Boston, Denver and Chicago) lost fewer home games than OKC, which means if all goes according to form in the playoffs, the Thunder will get plenty of mileage from their Ford.
Carl Landry, New Orleans Hornets forward: Hopelessly underrated, Landry was lost in the mad shuffle in Sacramento. He then was dealt to the Hornets and backed up David West until West was lost to knee surgery. Landry has flourished in an enhanced role and for a stretch in mid-March, he averaged about 20.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg. With a solid spring, Landry, a free agent, might find a permanent role in New Orleans if West opts out of his deal this summer.
Jason Collins, Atlanta Hawks center: The Hawks aren't paying him for what he did this season. They're paying him for what he could do next week. His only job description is handling Dwight Howard, who has more talent in his left bicep than Collins has in his whole body, but for some reason gets flustered by a guy who boasts a 3.9 ppg career average. On March 30 in Atlanta, Howard shot 4-for-13 against what Stan Van Gundy called "the best defense I've seen all year on Dwight." Collins was good for one night, but a best-of-seven? He'll need help.
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder forward: He's playing the bulk of his minutes at his natural power forward spot following the Jeff Green trade (which brought Kendrick Perkins to OKC) and he's looking comfortable. Ibaka has added an offensive twist to his game, averaging 11.9 ppg in March, which is big for him. If a defensive specialist like Ibaka can chip in offensively, then Perkins has helped OKC at center and power forward.
Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies guard: Always solid on defense -- and becoming more reliable with the ball -- Allen should be a big asset to the Grizzlies, who are mostly void of playoff experience. He won't back down from whomever he's defending and, along with Shane Battier, gives Memphis some grit at the swing positions. In the event O.J. Mayo turns invisible, which is possible, Allen is needed insurance.
Chauncey Billups, New York Knicks guard: We're still not sure he's made for the Knicks, but Mr. Big Shot is definitely made for the playoffs, when the tempo slows and the game is taken over by smart players. He, of course, isn't shy about taking a big shot and he'll get his chances because the defense will play close attention to Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Gerald Wallace, Portland Trail Blazers forward: He was disappointed to leave Charlotte at the trade deadline, and you wonder what made him feel so blue? The barbeque he can't get in Portland? Because he isn't missing out on anything else. Wallace, an All-Star last season, helped the Bobcats make the franchise's lone playoff appearance last spring with a gutsy, workmanlike effort. He's expected to duplicate that for the Blazers, who need his rebounding next to Marcus Camby to pull off a first-round surprise.
The Chicago Bulls' bench: True, the Bulls win mainly with defense and Derrick (Rose). But their bench improved gradually through the season, to the point where Chicago is relying on the subs to play a major role. The Bulls are bringing shooters (Kyle Korver), rebounders (Taj Gibson), wisdom (Kurt Thomas) and variety (Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson) off the bench, allowing for different looks and tempo changes.
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