Four Corners: The players we want to kick it into high gear for the playoffs

More than perhaps any other sport, basketball is a game in which one player can tilt the outcome of a game, a series, and even a season. We already know the names of the megawatt superstars whose nightly exploits tend to have the most significant impact on their teams’ chances of victory or defeat — Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, et al. But with less than 10 games remaining before the start of the 2017 playoffs, it’s worth considering some other, more down-ballot names whose capacity to get themselves in gear could make the difference between their squads bowing out early or making a thrilling run for glory.

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The topic for this week’s Four Corners roundtable: Which individual player do you most want to see crank it up heading into the postseason? Here are our picks. Let’s hear yours in the comments.

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3527/" data-ylk="slk:Tony Parker">Tony Parker</a>’s trying to catch up. (AP)
Tony Parker’s trying to catch up. (AP)

Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

It’s odd how overlooked Parker can be on the national stage, behind fellow beloved Spurs elder statesmen Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. On that triumvirate’s way to a fourth title together, Parker’s 2014 playoff numbers weren’t far off from his previous two championship campaigns (including his 2007 Finals MVP). But Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have dominated Parker on their way to eliminating the Spurs the last two years, and suddenly he’s San Antonio’s biggest obstacle on the path to a sixth ring, given Stephen Curry lays in wait as an assignment in the later rounds.

“It obviously helps if I play well,” Parker conceded to the San Antonio Express-News last week.

His production has steadily declined since 2012-13, when he was still a top-six MVP candidate. The 34-year-old has played the fewest minutes of his career this season, his scoring and assists are at their lowest since his rookie year, and his shooting accuracy (46 percent from the field) is well below his career average (49.3 percent). Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has played Parker even more sparingly as this season has worn on, due in part to some late-season back tightness, and the point guard’s efficiency has suffered because of it.

Yet, there are signs the six-time All-Star can still contribute on a contender. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than it’s ever been. San Antonio’s net rating with him on the court (plus-6.7) is the same as it was during the 2013-14 title campaign. And there have been stretches where he’s been solid, like the month of January, during which he averaged 12.8 points on 52.6 percent shooting and 5.2 assists in only 26 minutes per game.

So, if more is asked of him in the playoffs, can Parker meet the demand? Add his 16 NBA seasons, 213 career playoff games and extensive international experience playing for the French national team, including at the 2016 Summer Olympics, and Parker has played professionally for the equivalent of two decades. So, Pop has not only curbed Parker’s minutes, but asked him to take less punishment when he’s on the floor. Where once Parker averaged as many as 11.5 points per game in the paint, he’s down to a career-low 4.9 this season. Instead, he’s inflicting his damage in the mid-range, where his 46.6 shooting clip is at its highest since he was last an All-Star.

“I can’t focus on one-on-one matchups with [Russell] Westbrook and Curry because that’s not my job anymore,” he told the Express-News. “I just want to try and do whatever I can to be the best that I can in whatever Pop wants me to do now.

“It’s not my job anymore to try and be a scorer or try to be aggressive. I just have to take whatever it is for me. Sometimes I’ll take three, four shots. Sometimes I’ll take 10 shots. It depends on the games and it depends on Kawhi [Leonard] and [LaMarcus Aldridge], how they’re rolling.”

His job requires more aggression in the playoffs. This week has proven both that the Spurs can beat contenders without Parker doing much, as they showed in his two-point effort in a 29-point dismantling of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But they may struggle to it consistently, as evidenced by his scoreless 24 minutes in a loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Parker’s load is lightened by Patty Mills, who has also picked up some of Ginobili’s playmaking duties off the bench, but the playoffs are a different animal. The Spurs will need more from Parker to challenge the West’s best. — Ben Rohrbach

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3966/" data-ylk="slk:Monta Ellis">Monta Ellis</a> attacks. More of this, please. (AP)
Monta Ellis attacks. More of this, please. (AP)

Monta Ellis, Indiana Pacers

The Pacers will probably make the playoffs in 2017. That’s hardly a significant feat, considering the scads of Eastern clubs that have underachieved this season, but there should be a postseason run.

Ellis has had his moments as a playoff performer; he worked up to expectations with the Pacers last spring, and even averaged 26 points in a forgotten five-game first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks the year before. There is a chance, however slight, that Ellis could remind us this spring that he does indeed still play for the Indiana Pacers.

It isn’t as if you couldn’t have noticed this year, but you’d have had to try. Ellis is 31, alternately coming off the bench or starting for a Pacer team that probably won’t crack .500 this season, and averaging 8.9 points in 27 minutes per game while shooting 32 percent from long range and 45 percent from the floor. While his True Shooting percentage (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) is right in line with his career average, the point and assist totals are as low as they’ve been since his rookie season, in what he and the Pacers hoped would be one last bash before his play-in year in 2017-18 (more on that in a minute).

Ellis hasn’t been bad … or, at least, not typically as bad as he was on Wednesday, going 1-for-5 from the floor in a start against the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring just two points in 32 minutes in a loss against a bad defensive team. He has, however, been as inconsistent as the team that employs him. Hired to act as a Sixth Man of the Year award candidate due to his eight-figure salary, Ellis began the season as a starter, then moved to reserve status in December to brief acclaim, before working his way back into the starting lineup last week due to a series of strong-enough games following the All-Star break.

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The return, with the Pacers caught in yet another mini-slump, hasn’t moved the needle much. The demoted C.J. Miles had 15 points on 11 shots against the Grizz, while the Pacers have only beaten the 76ers and lost twice in three Monta starts. The Memphis Misstep was a schedule loss on the second half of a back-to-back, and the other, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, came on a blown call, but small sample sizes are the order of the day for many pro coaches, and Miles (or even Glenn Robinson III, upon re-evaluation of his left calf pull) could be back in the starting five for the home stretch.

Which isn’t exactly rough or unexpected (Ellis is undersized and, lest we forget, in his 30s). Nor is it unexpected that Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s hopes for a “faster” lineup featuring Ellis haven’t paid off thus far: Indiana has played at a far, far slower pace with him out there of late.

Meanwhile, Paul George is sniping again, and the Pacers couldn’t surprise with a win in Memphis some 21 hours after having their hearts broken by the referees and Minnesota’s moxie. It’s a No. 8 seed and a date with the defending champs from Cleveland, and little else by the way of revelation for a team nobody has a peg on.

Ellis was supposed to get in the way of a lot of this, acting as the decided anti-Pacer, putting his head down and either getting to the line or drawing the defense’s attention, even with bad shots and scuttled plays. Defenses can’t prepare for that sort of disruption, and Miles appears too damn solid and Robinson III often too placid to leave the pell-mell stylings of Ellis off to the side for too long. It would appear that the Pacers, forever mediocre, would welcome his sense of self, such as it is.

Understandably, at age 31, Ellis has dimmed a bit in response. He’s not under the same pressure that fellow combo guard Rodney Stuckey was this season, working throughout the year with the understanding that his (still affordable, even in Indiana) $7 million contract for 2017-18 would not be picked up, and that he would be shelved by the team before the season ended, healthy or otherwise.

Ellis, who features the same sort of unguaranteed, weirdo “player option” for 2018-19 that Stuckey has for next season, will be in the same boat for 2017-18 — now, with the presence of the returned Lance Stephenson alongside. Monta will hit 32 just before next season starts, and will hope against hope that he’ll do enough in the Pacers’ eyes for them to commit to paying a 33-year-old nearly $11.7 million in 2018-19.

He could start that process by tilting a few games in Indiana’s direction to end the season, or by making the postseason interesting for the club in April. Anything to remind us that Monta Ellis can still bring the nutty, in the months (March, during his rookie year; April, back in 2007) that made him famous, can only help his cause. — Kelly Dwyer

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It’s time for <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5012/" data-ylk="slk:Damian Lillard">Damian Lillard</a> to remind us all what time it is. (Getty Images)
It’s time for Damian Lillard to remind us all what time it is. (Getty Images)

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

It hasn’t been the best season for Lillard, whose previously unquestioned position as face of the Portland Trail Blazers has taken a hit. While his scoring average is still excellent and the team doesn’t work without him, he’s ceded many of his backcourt responsibilities to C.J. McCollum, and had new addition Jusuf Nurkic soak up much of the fans’ love. He’s still very good, but not quite the same Dame.

If it’s not fair to say that Lillard needs to get himself together for the playoffs, it’s not wrong to say he could stand to regain some of his aura. Lillard has put together a number of fantastic playoff moments in just 27 total games — his series-ending buzzer-beater agains the Houston Rockets in 2014 and his high-stakes shot-making in a losing effort against the Golden State Warriors last season are just the best two. Simply put, he’s one of the NBA’s most exciting players to watch under pressure, and seems to relish the chance to rise to the occasion.

So let’s hope he comes up big should the Blazers do as expected and lock up the West’s No. 8 seed. Giving up his lofty perch atop all others in the Portland hierarchy shouldn’t mean Lillard can’t take over when his team needs him most. — Eric Freeman

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Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

The Raps have been one of the league’s more quietly compelling stories over the last month, going 12-6 since the All-Star despite heading into battle without their lead guard thanks to the combination of the league’s third-stingiest post-All-Star defense and DeMar DeRozan’s persistent and remarkable midrange fireworks display. There have been some valleys mixed in along the way, including Wednesday’s late-fourth-quarter collapse against the underwhelming Charlotte Hornets, but generally speaking, things have gone as well as could be expected for a Toronto team that has lived and died on the play of its point guard over the past few years.

Still, for the Raptors to return to the Eastern Conference finals, and for their revamped, defensively gifted and tactically versatile squad to stand a legitimate chance of making it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, they need Lowry. More than that: they need Lowry to be able to approximate his best self, despite more than two months on the shelf after surgery to remove loose bodies in his right (shooting) wrist, in the season’s most important moments and on the sport’s grandest stage.

Right now, all Kyle Lowry can do is watch. The Raptors need that to change, and soon. (AP)
Right now, all Kyle Lowry can do is watch. The Raptors need that to change, and soon. (AP)

Toronto enters Thursday’s action a game behind the Washington Wizards in the race for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The volatility in the lower half of the bracket means it’s still too early to project first-round matchups — the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks have the same record, sitting just two games ahead of the Nos. 7 and 8 Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers — but virtually any path through the East will require the Raptors to face some really talented guards.

Taking down the Hawks means corralling the hiccup-quick and high-variance Dennis Schröder. Dealing with the Bucks means handling the size, strength and savvy of emergent Rookie of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon. (To say nothing of point-mythical-beast Giannis Antetokounmpo, though defending him is an all-hands-on-deck death sentence rather than one that falls specifically on the point guard.)

The Heat’s remarkable run from 19 games under .500 to the postseason has been fueled in part by a return to near-All-NBA-level play by Goran Dragic, who gave the Raptors fits during last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals. The Pacers, short-circuiting as they might be, still pose potential problems in the off-the-dribble work of Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis.

And that’s just Round 1 — from there, the Raptors would likely have to face some combination of Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall to get where they want to go.

Cory Joseph has been just what the doctor ordered in Lowry’s stead, and Dwane Casey has gotten flashes of dynamic play and defensive work from second-year man Delon Wright and rookie Fred VanVleet. But to successfully navigate the postseason gauntlet, Toronto needs a triggerman capable of both hectoring the other team’s top gun and making him work overtime on the other end, of taking the top off opposing defenses with playmaking and shooting to give DeRozan even more room to cook, and of activating reserve lineups that can hold down the fort (or maybe even extend leads) while the other starters rest.

General manager Masai Ujiri gambled at the trade deadline that adding veteran stoppers and shooters Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to the mix would give the Raptors the requisite snarl and spine to stand toe-to-toe with LeBron and company this time around. Thanks to those damned loose bodies, we haven’t yet gotten to see what that looks like. Lowry just returned to shooting, and there’s still no timetable for his return; here’s hoping he’s able to get all the way right in time for us to find out if Ujiri’s big bet can pay off. — Dan Devine

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