Sixteen teams dot the NBA’s playoff bracket and 15 of these outfits (sorry, Atlanta) have a legitimate chance of moving on to the conference semifinals. Here’s a look at who just might be the most important players in their respective series.
(8) ATLANTA VS. (1) BOSTON
Ray Allen, Celtics: Let’s be honest, this is a warm-up round for the Celtics, who downed the Hawks starters a few days ago with their second team on the court. Allen, who averaged about 30 minutes per game in March and April, needs to round back into superstar, 38-minutes per game form. Nap time is over.
Josh Smith, Hawks: Away from the glare of national TV cameras and in a home arena that is barely half full on some nights, Smith could get away with some downright petulant play and still come out smelling like a rose due to some nice stats in the box score and a Hawk win. Now, the pressure is on and the klieg lights are up. How will Smith respond?
(7) PHILADELPHIA VS. (2) DETROIT
Richard Hamilton, Pistons: Rip looks recovered from a hip injury that sidelined him for parts of this season, but he’ll working double-time against a surprising Sixer squad. Where teammate Tayshaun Prince is asked to play defense and contribute offensively when he can, Hamilton will have to chase around firebrand guards like Louis Williams and Willie Smith while contributing the usual 19 points per game.
Andre Iguodala, 76ers: If AI wants star money, here’s his chance to distinguish himself. Andre Miller is going to create shots for Iguodala’s teammates, but after a while, playoff basketball comes down to a single player creating good looks for himself and connecting. Does Iguodala have the footwork and dribbling ability to take over a quarter or two?
(6) TORONTO VS. (3) ORLANDO
T.J. Ford, Raptors: It’s pretty simple: Toronto often has Orlando’s number because Chris Bosh excels in the screen-and-roll game, nailing jumper after jumper while Dwight Howard tries to rush out and cover. We know Bosh’s jumper will be there. We know Raptor point man Jose Calderon’s screen-and-roll acumen will hold. Will Ford hit enough jumpers of his own to make him a threat and keep the Magic from ganging up on Bosh?
Rashard Lewis, Magic: This would be the case even if Lewis hadn’t signed an outrageous, franchise player-level deal with Orlando last summer. Lewis needs to create shots for himself, hit more than 40 percent from long range and try to disrupt Toronto’s spread offense with forays into the passing lanes.
(5) WASHINGTON VS. (4) CLEVELAND
DeShawn Stevenson, Wizards: No, not for his defensive prowess and not because all eyes should be glued on the ninth-year guard because of his comments regarding LeBron James’ supposed “overrated” status. James is going to be able to score despite Stevenson’s best efforts, so that end of things matters little.
What does matter is Stevenson’s offense, his ability to hit long-range shots and the spacing he could create should Cleveland’s exacting defense set its sights on the Gilbert Arenas/Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison triptych. After years as a Ron Mercer-like mid-range chucker, Stevenson nailed 158 three-pointers this season after hitting a combined 127 in eight years prior. If his touch (38 percent on the season, two treys per game) holds up, the Wizards might move on.
Wally Szczerbiak, Cavaliers: Much in the same way Stevenson needs to open things up from behind the arc for Washington, Szczerbiak needs to hit shots – any shots – to justify his presence on the floor and open things up for an offense that can go long stretches without an easy look. Even with the NBA’s leading scorer on the floor, Cleveland struggles mightily on offense, and Wally has shot 36 percent as a Cavalier this year after shooting 46 percent in Seattle.
(8) DENVER VS. (1) L.A. LAKERS
Derek Fisher, Lakers: Suffering from a torn tendon in his foot that would usually require two months on the shelf, will Fisher be able to keep up with Allen Iverson? And will that injury ever affect his shot (37.5 percent from long range in April)? So far, so good for D-Fish.
Kenyon Martin, Nuggets: We wouldn’t call the Laker interior “soft.” Los Angeles did make a top-six showing in defensive efficiency this year, but they do feature two players in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom that would prefer not to get dunked on, if you wouldn’t mind.
With Marcus Camby resigned to hitting flat-footed jumpers from the top of the key, Martin needs to follow up on his talk, live up to his contract and throw in a tip-dunk or 12. Playing consistent defense from the beginning of the game to the final buzzer wouldn’t hurt either.
(7) DALLAS VS. (2) NEW ORLEANS
Jason Terry, Mavericks: New Orleans can shut down teams and a big part of their defense comes in the form of Morris Peterson (and, when Mo-Pete heads to the bench, Chris Paul in a small backcourt), who loves to roam for steals and draw charges. If Terry can keep the Hornets honest with his shooting, New Orleans might be in trouble.
Tyson Chandler, Hornets: If Chandler allows the rather larger derrieres of Mavericks Erick Dampier and Brandon Bass to bump him out of the lane then the Hornets might have an early exit. If he’s able to rebound and get extra possessions for the Hornets after tapping out missed shots then the Hornets might have their first playoff series win in six years.
(6) SAN ANTONIO VS. (3) PHOENIX
Amare Stoudemire, Suns: He has to stay on the court. Has to. Can’t bump Manu Ginobili while trying to cover a screen and roll some 27 feet from the hoop. Can’t try and tip in a Phoenix miss over Fabricio Oberto and can’t pick up his second foul in the first quarter or his fourth in the third.
Tim Duncan, Spurs: OK, the time for biding your time is over. The time for 28 points and 14 rebounds is now. Otherwise, a championship-level team looking to defend its crown goes home in the first week of May.
(5) HOUSTON VS. (4) UTAH
Tracy McGrady, Rockets: The Houston defense, even against one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, will show up. T-Mac has to take a cue from LeBron James’ play last season and attempt to throw up 40 points every night while his defensive-minded teammates do the rest of the work. It’s the only way Houston can survive.
Deron Williams, Jazz: With Rafer Alston out for the first few games of this series, Bobby Jackson takes to the starting point guard slot. And Bobby likes to roam, he likes to go for rebounds and he wants to start the break. Take advantage, Deron, and look for your shot. Even John Stockton had to drop the occasional 25-point game.