These 5 players must deliver once NBA playoffs get rolling
Savvy veterans, rising young stars will have much to prove once NBA's brightest lights turn on
Your pizza comes by car. FedEx uses jets to make sure your birthday present arrives on time. One of these days Amazon is going to drop anything you order on the doorstep via drone.
It’s all about the system of conveyance and with the playoffs approaching fast, we’re taking a look at a handful of key figures who’ll have to deliver if their teams are going to have a chance to take down the favored Cavaliers and Warriors:
John Wall, Washington Wizards: Since he came out of Kentucky as the top pick in the 2010 Draft, there’s never been a doubt that Wall possesses all the talent and skills you want in a point guard. He has dazzled attacking the basket to finish or to find an open man. He’s thrived in the open court or out of half-court sets. In his seventh NBA season Wall has fully bloomed, averaging career highs in points (23.2), assists (10.7) and steals (2.0) in leading the Wizards’ battle for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
It certainly helps that shooting guard Bradley Beal has stayed healthy and the pair has been able to legitimately enter their own not-so-humble-brag conversation as best backcourt in the league. But now he’s got to keep up the pace and the poise in the playoffs. In his two other career playoff appearances, Wall’s production fell in the postseason. In 2014, his scoring, assists and shooting percentage went from 19.3, 8.8 and .433 during the season to 16.3, 7.1 and .366 in the playoffs. In 2015, he dropped in shooting from .445 to .391. The Wizards’ solid all-around lineup needs Wall to lift his game in the playoffs.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs: For the first 15 seasons of his NBA career, whenever the Spurs have needed to get their motor really running, it’s been Parker who usually put the pedal to the metal. Whether it’s finding his way into the paint in transition and then getting to an open teammate at the 3-point line or finishing at the rim himself, Parker’s speed and quickness has often been difficult for opponents to handle.
That’s not so true this season. The point guard, who’ll turn 35 in May, has clearly lost more than a step in a season where he’s been hampered by foot and back injuries. Parker has been unable to find a rhythm all season long and he is no longer relied upon to be a primary weapon the offense. While Patty Mills has had some fill-up-the-basket streaks and rookie Dejounte Murray has had his moments, the backcourt is an overall weakness. The Spurs won’t get through the West without Parker being able to turn back the clock in critical situations.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: The 5-foot-9 bundle of confidence and energy will be the first to tell you that his stature doesn’t prevent him from measuring up against anybody else in the league. His fourth-quarter feats of fearlessness have been living proof ever since the season opened with Thomas bent on proving that last year’s All-Star performance was not a one-time thing.
He can fill it up with his jumper all over the court, gets to the bucket to finish and makes good decisions in the pick-and-roll. While other East clubs in Cleveland, Washington and Toronto were adding talent at midseason, the Celtics chose to go the distance with what they have. Doing so leaves much more of the burden on Thomas. Because he gives up so much at the defensive end, Thomas will almost have to be off-the-charts offensively in order for the Celtics to run the gauntlet in the East.
Ryan Anderson, Houston Rockets: Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was recently asked if thought Anderson got enough credit for his contributions this season. “He gets $20 million,” D’Antoni said. “I’d pat him on the back. But I think he likes the other better.” When the Rockets gave Anderson a four-year deal worth $80 million last summer, it was seen as one of the biggest reaches of free agency and labeled by some as the worst. Anderson had missed 60, 21 and 16 games in each of his three previous seasons.
What was once a near 40 percent shooting touch from behind the 3-point line had also fallen off during his last two seasons in New Orleans. He had also lost his spot as a starter mainly due to gaping defensive holes. However, D’Antoni has worried less about the defense than Anderson’s ability to keep the floor open around James Harden. He has not received nearly the acclaim as teammate and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon, but Anderson is just as important to the Rockets’ bombs-away attack if they’re going to advance.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz: The only other time that Hayward got a sip of the playoffs was in his second NBA season (2012) and a four-game sweep by the veteran Spurs left a bad taste. The small forward had to swallow more than his share of defeats in the last four seasons before the long-range plan in Utah finally bore fruit.
Now, Hayward is ready to have his first truly impactful playoff experience at precisely the time when he’ll enter free agency this summer. All of this places a heavier burden on what happens from both a team and personal standpoint. Hayward has proven himself to be a fierce competitor, an All-Star and an all-around talent. At 27, he’s exactly the type of foundation-making piece the Jazz want to build around. At the same time, his former college coach, Brad Stevens, is sitting in Boston searching for another star that can make the Celtics rise just as LeBron James is hitting his denouement in Cleveland. Decisions, decisions. The Jazz are loaded with young players — Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum — who are just as green when it comes to the playoffs. It’s Hayward’s time to prove that he can deliver as the main man.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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