With all eight playoff spots already clinched in the Eastern Conference, just seeding is to be determined. Of course, the match-ups play a huge role in who wins each series, but here’s a look at a player from each playoff team that could play the role of unsung hero.
Miami Heat – Ray Allen
With the “Big Three” of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh drawing most of the attention, the spotlight has been off of Ray Allen this season. Allen is coming off the bench for Miami, but is usually on the court when the game ends. Ray is known as one of the best three-point shooters of all-time, and has proven why this season, even at this stage in his career. The veteran guard is averaging 10.8 points a game, and is shooting 42.5% from behing the three-point line. Most playoff games are close, and come down to the last four minutes of play. With that said, free throws become crucial. Ray Allen is a 89.4% shooter from the free-throw line for his career, one of the best of all-time there as well. The threat of the three-point shot when Allen is on the court creates space for the Heat’s superstars to attack the defense. Defenders don’t have the option of leaving Ray to help out on LeBron, Wade, or Bosh. If they do, more often than not, Allen will bury a three before you can blink. Another thing that the sharp-shooter brings to the table is his championship series. He won a title with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in his stint with the Boston Celtics. That experience can not be overlooked as the Heat look to repeat as NBA Champions.
New York Knicks – Raymond Felton
While Raymond Felton has been inconsistent at times this season with the Knicks, the team has succeeded when he has played well. The offense is often stagnant when he is not at his best. New York is viewed as the biggest threat to the Miami Heat, but it won’t be much of a series if Felton struggles. The Knicks are loaded with shooters, and are at their best when Felton is getting into the paint to create for others. On the season, he is averaging 14 points and 5.5 assists per game. Much of the Knicks’ offense is predicated on pick-and-roll, and Raymond Felton does the majority of the ball handling in those situations. His ability to get into the paint and get his own shot coupled with his ability to kick out to shooters or throw lobs to Tyson Chandler make Felton and the Knicks very dangerous offensively.
Indiana Pacers – Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert has always been a huge part of the Indiana Pacers’ identity. Frank Vogel’s team is the number one defense in the NBA, and Hibbert is the anchor. He is huge, standing at 7’2″, 280 pounds. His size and strength are a big time factor in the paint at both ends of the floor. Hibbert’s ability to be one of the best rim protectors in the game is his biggest asset to the Pacers. He averages 2.6 blocks per game and changes shots on a consistent basis. Teams know that when Hibbert is on the floor, they aren’t going to get the shot they wanted in the paint. His length, along with his mobility for his size, make it incredibly tough to shoot over. His strength makes him nearly impossible to finish through. Hibbert is also averaging 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game on the season. The former-Georgetown Hoya was a huge part in the Pacers’ success in their series with the Miami Heat a year ago. For Indiana to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Roy Hibbert will need to play at a high level. When he plays well, the rest of the team follows. Hibbert has made a huge improvement every year to his low-post offensive skills, and this year is no different. He does a good job of using his size and strength to get deep post position, and than has a solid hook shot over either shoulder.
Brooklyn Nets – Reggie Evans
When the Nets moved to Brooklyn and signed free agents Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace to join Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, I highly doubt they expected Reggie Evans to be such a big part of their success. Evans averages 11 rebounds in a little over 24 minutes per game this season. The reason this is so important is that Brook Lopez is one of the best offensive centers in the game, and actually leads all centers in points per game, but is far from the best rebounder. When Evans is on the court with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, and Brook Lopez, he doesn’t need plays ran for him offensively. He doesn’t need a ton of touches or shots, but he gives Brooklyn energy, rebounding, and much needed toughness. In his last two games against Philadelphia and Charlotte, he has averaged 15.5 points and 22 rebounds per game. Evans is playing his best basketball at the right time of the season, and has been a big reason why the Nets are currently holding down the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Chicago Bulls – Taj Gibson
Taj Gibson has been coming off the bench this season for the Bulls, giving Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah a breather. Gibson has been a huge factor off the bench this season, averaging 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in just 22.5 minutes per game. Taj is the type of player that just comes in and quietly produces, while being a huge spark plug for the rest of the team. His energy is always through the roof, and he is always active at both ends. Gibson never stops moving offensively, always looking for the soft spot in the defense or working to get into good offensive rebounding position. He is a great catch-and-finish guy around the rim, and is developing his mid-range jumper to add to his versatility. Taj is very mobile for a big man, and runs the floor extremely well. His ability to fill the lanes in transition and finish with authority make you hold your breath every time. Take the 2011 playoff series with the Miami Heat for example, when Gibson was on the biggest poster of the post-season, dunking over Dwyane Wade. Defensively, he is athletic enough to switch on ball screens and stay in front of guards pretty well for a guy his size. Like a clock, Gibson always rotates on the interior exactly when he is supposed to. It is clear that when Gibson is complimenting Boozer and Noah at a high level, the Bulls are a dangerous team.
Atlanta Hawks – Jeff Teague
Jeff Teague is one of the most improved point guards in the game from a year ago. The talent has never been a question, but it all came together this season for Teague. He averages 14.6 points and 7.1 assists per game, and has been a huge part of the Hawk’s success this season. When Teague plays well, it results in Josh Smith and Al Horford also playing well on most occasions. Jeff Teague also gives Atlanta a solid third scoring option. Most of all, he makes plays. With his quickness and improved vision, he has improved at creating for himself and his teammates. Teague can get to the rim almost at will now, and has also improved his jump shot over time. If Teague plays well, it sets the tone for the rest of the team, so it is no surprise that he is a huge key if the Hawks want to make a post-season run.
Boston Celtics – Avery Bradley
Celtics’ Head Coach, Doc Rivers, has insisted that Avery Bradley should get some consideration for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. While that award goes to a shot blocker more often than not, Rivers makes a good point. Bradley is one of the very best, if not the best, perimeter defender in the game today. He completely shut down Stephen Curry when he went on his historic run after scoring 54 points in Madison Square Garden. The difference that Bradley makes is simple. Doc Rivers can count on his lock-down defender to frustrate the opponents’ best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis, and not worry about helping on his man. Along with his elite defensive ability, Bradley is developing offensively as well. He is averaging 9.3 points per game for the Celtics, and is always moving without the ball. More often than not, Bradley makes the right play offensively as well. Whether it be setting a screen, or spacing the floor, or moving the ball, he doesn’t seem to make many mistakes. Bradley does the little things well and his effort is always there on the defensive side of the court. Both of those qualities go a long way for Boston.
Milwaukee Bucks – Ersan Ilyasova
Most would think that offensive-minded guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis would be the difference in a playoff series. We all know by now that playoff series are not won by simply scoring, and it’s a totally different game come May. With that said, most would then turn to Larry Sanders, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the Bucks. Not me. While the Bucks stand no chance against the Miami Heat, for them to even make the series competitive, Ersan Ilyasova needs to be a big factor. He averages 13 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. His strength is in his versatility offensively. With his ability to shoot the ball at a 43.5% clip from behind the three-point line at his size, Ilyasova is a tough match-up for anyone. Also, the sharp-shooter has posted big rebounding numbers at times this season. His play will be a big factor in how competitive their first round match-up is.
Topics: 2013 NBA Playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Ersan Ilyasova, Indiana Pacers, Jeff Teague, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Ray Allen, Raymond Felton, Reggie Evans, Roy Hibbert, Taj Gibson