The NBA is a star-driven league. If you look at all of the teams in the first round of the playoffs, virtually every team has been lead by an all-star or two (or four). In fact, in the original All-Star selections, the only player to be selected from a team not currently in the playoffs was Kristaps Porzingis (four players were injured before the game allowing Andre Drummond and Kemba Walker a spot). Of the 16 teams in the playoffs only the Spurs and Jazz did not roster an All-Star in 2018. It’s a given that you need your star players healthy and productive come playoff time, but what separates the winners from the losers in the postseason, is who gets those clutch performances from their best role-players. Here are the top five role players who must step their game up in order for their team to advance:
5. Lance Stephenson
Lance Stephenson is the only player left from the 2013-14 Pacers team that went to the Conference Finals.
Paul George is now replaced by Victor Oladipo, Roy Hibbert by Myles Turner, George Hill by Darren Collison, and David West by Thaddeus Young. But Lance Stephenson is still Lance Stephenson, and he was a big part of that run in 2013-14. Stephenson has the ability to contribute heavily on both sides of the floor. He can guard multiple positions on the floor, and is generally tasked with the toughest assignment in basketball. Stop LeBron. While he may not fully succeed there because no one really can, Stephenson can at the very least get under LeBron’s skin and force him to spend maximum energy when being guarded by him.
On the offensive end, Stephenson is able to take over ball-handling responsibilities in crunch-time. Lance has shown a knack throughout his career to be able to get to the rim, or get fouled when his team really needs a bucket. If he can step up in games where Victor Oladipo is being keyed into, or doesn’t quite have it, then the Pacers will have an ace in the hole.
4. Steven Adams
With Russell Westbrook and Paul George at the guard positions, the Thunder will have the advantage on most teams in the backcourt. Steven Adams needs to step up his game as the enforcer if the Thunder have aspirations of making it out of the first round or further. In a game where Russell Westbrook and Paul George shot a combined 13-42, Adams only put up 5 shots in 22 minutes in their Game 2 loss to the Jazz. Foul trouble kept him on the bench longer than Billy Donovan would like, but Adams needs to do a better job of staying on the floor as any big coming off the Thunder bench is a severe downgrade. If Adams can be more aggressive on offense, whether that means demanding the ball more on off-nights from his guards, or fighting for more offensive rebounds; the Thunder can be very dangerous in the postseason.
3. Jusuf Nurkic
When Jusuf Nurkic was traded late last year from the Nuggets to Portland, he fit right in alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. A year later, the Blazers are a 3 seed with real aspirations of making a run. Unfortunately they’ve started this series in the worst way possible with two losses at home, and Nurkic leaving game 2 with a leg injury. If Nurkic isn’t able to return to full-health by Game 3, it may be a done deal for the Blazers. If he does return though, Nurkic has to get more opportunities then the 7 shots he put up in game 1.
2. Klay Thompson
OK, so some people may argue that Klay Thompson isn’t a role player. You can certainly make that argument, but when the Warriors are at full health, he’s a solid third option. Time-wise, Klay has the ball in his hands the least amount of the big 4. His duties are simple, catch it, shoot it, and play hard on-ball defense. With Curry out at least another 3 weeks, it’s now more important than ever that Thompson plays his role exceptionally. Defenses already know what he’s going to do on offense, and with one less All-Star on the floor, it’s easier to focus on him. The Warriors have had no problems with the Spurs so far, and that’s a direct result of Thompson’s play. He’s 23-33 from the field this series, shooting 71.4% from beyond the arc.
1. Terry Rozier III
No Gordon Hayward, No Kyrie Irving, no Marcus Smart, and yet so far the Celtics lead the Bucks 2-0 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Before the playoffs began, you could’ve taken your pick at any Boston player for this spot, because really they’re all role players. Two games later, Terry Rozier has declared that this is HIS team. He’s the Celtics version of Nick Foles when Carson Wentz was lost for the season. The more I see him play, the more I believe he can carry this team to at least the Conference Finals. Rozier has shown he can play tough, gritty, Celtic basketball on both sides of the floor. Most importantly, he raises his game in clutch moments. If it weren’t for a miracle shot by Khris Middleton, Rozier would already have had a game-winner in the series. With the Celtics great supporting cast he doesn’t need to do it all by himself, but at this point they can’t afford anything less from him.
Photo Credit (Lance Stephenson): slate.com
Photo credit (Steven Adams): USATODAY.com
Photo Credit (Jusuf Nurkic): hoopshype.com
Photo Credit (Klay Thompson): warriorswire.com
Photo Credit (Terry Rozier): celticsblog.com