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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Updated: April 19, 5:43 PM ET
East playoffs: Key players to watch

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

If Miami reaching the Finals is a foregone conclusion, as many believe it is, then there has to be more to the Eastern Conference playoffs than just who wins and loses. For players like Paul George and Brandon Jennings, this postseason, no matter how long it lasts for them, means plenty.

Let's take a closer look at each series:


(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks

Player with most at stake: Brandon Jennings

It used to be that any playoff series involving LeBron James meant all the pressure was on James.

Well, for those of us who enjoy variety, that is thankfully past us. No more silly narratives about how well LeBron has to play or how critical it is that he wins (at least not for another month or so).

This series -- one that most expect to be a Heat triumph in five games or fewer -- means much more for Jennings, the mercurial point guard who has essentially been auditioning for a new job ever since Milwaukee declined to sign him to an extension last offseason.

His regular season has been underwhelming. His assists hit a career-high 6.5, but his scoring has dropped from 19.1 last season to 17.5 this season (likely due to a full season with Monta Ellis) and his shooting percentage is a miserable 39.9.

But that can all be significantly clouded if Jennings finishes with an impressive showing against the Heat, with more eyes on him than there have been all season.

In his four games against Miami this season, Jennings averaged 41.8 minutes, 23.8 points on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 5.8 assists and 2.5 steals. If he does that in a series against the Heat, it'll end up being enough to get the Mavericks, Hawks or Jazz to throw a boatload of cash his way via an offer sheet.

Most of the better players who would have been restricted free agents this offseason have already signed extensions (Steph Curry and James Harden, for starters), while most of the top unrestricted free agents are expected to re-sign with their current clubs (Dwight Howard and Chris Paul). That'll leave teams deciding between tossing money in the direction of established near-stars like Josh Smith or an aged Manu Ginobili and overpaying a younger Jennings, who presumably has room for improvement.

One big playoff series can make that an easier choice, even if his Bucks lose.

How the series will be decided: This could happen in any number of ways, because the Heat offer such variety.

Milwaukee did snatch a game off Miami in December, but all you have to know about how different the Heat are these days is this: Joel Anthony and Josh Harrellson (remember Jorts?) combined to play 25 minutes in that contest. These days, Chris Andersen is the Heat's go-to center, other than Chris Bosh, of course. The Heat are 39-3 in games Andersen has played. That's a sickening .929 winning percentage.

The game that best predicts how this series might play out is the Heat's 107-94 win in Milwaukee on March 15, when the Heat were in the midst of their 27-game win streak and clearly in playoff mode.

The Heat's Big Three combined for 76 points in that one. Look for more of that here.



(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics

Player with most at stake: Carmelo Anthony

This one's a no-brainer, right?

The scoring champ who still can't seem to shake the one-trick-pony label needs to lead the Knicks to their first playoff series victory since 2000 or Knicks fans will turn on him, the rest of the league will dismiss him as a championship-caliber leader, and the league will ban him from wearing headbands.

OK, it's quite possible none of those things will actually happen, but there is plenty of pressure on Melo to escape the first round.

Not since Kevin Garnett, the Minnesota version, has there been a legitimate superstar so regularly relegated to the first round. Only once in his nine postseasons has Anthony broken through, and that ended in the conference finals.

This has arguably been Melo's finest season. His late-season scoring explosion, which earned him the scoring title, came mostly within the confines of the Knicks offense. The result was not only his individual success but also an impressive 13-game win streak.

His teammates say the idea of Anthony being a ball stopper is a myth. Maybe one day it will be a thing of the past. This would seem to be a perfect opportunity to begin the rewrite of his reputation.

Beat the hated Celtics -- a team with a history of flummoxing one-man operations -- by showing off his all-around game and sharing the ball and suddenly Anthony won't be just a scorer. Make a deep playoff run and maybe everyone will notice there isn't much difference in style of play between Melo and Kevin Durant, who's also a scoring specialist but is branded completely differently.

Lose in the first round again, to a 7-seed this time, and it won't be pretty.

How the series will be decided: The Knicks have two decisive wins against the Celtics since March 26, so confidence won't be an issue in this one -- not that confidence is ever a problem on a team featuring Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Kenyon Martin.

But that's just a few weeks of evidence. The Celtics under Doc Rivers have multiple surprising playoff runs from which to draw. And a healthy Celtics team can still play the type of defense that will frustrate Anthony and Smith.

And that's the key for the Knicks. Don't deviate from the ball movement that has generated such success of late and at the start of the season. As volatile as they can be, if they can avoid caving into the frustration and constantly going one-on-one, playing right into the hands of the Celtics defense, the Knicks should win this one.

One factor that can't be avoided is the emotion that will be felt in Boston following the tragic bombings on Monday. TD Garden is already a near-impossible place for a road team to get a playoff win. Throw in some extra motivation that will bond the entire city and it becomes more difficult. The Knicks need to value their home-court advantage in this one.



(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks

Player with most at stake: Paul George

You could say Josh Smith, who's entering unrestricted free agency, has a lot riding on this series. But unlike Milwaukee's Jennings, Smith has more than enough playoff experience and nine years of NBA résumé by which he can be judged. Even a breakout performance in this series won't change that much about how he's viewed.

George, on the other hand, is this season's breakout player with superstar potential. He's 22, and he's exactly what the Pacers need to bust through their current ceiling.

Indiana, as constructed, is a defense-first team with David West as its true, established star. But if George can play like the true superstar that he is capable of being, instead of the budding superstar that's a year or two away and still defers to West and his more veteran teammates, then the Pacers are a real threat to win it all and not just a likable team that could threaten Miami.

George might win most improved player this season, and he's one of the few stars in the NBA who thinks defense first because his long frame and athleticism make it come naturally to him. His defense is what earned him even the slightest of looks from former Pacers coach Jim O'Brien.

But if the Pacers are going to be a real threat in the East, George has to be a bit selfish and force himself to break through. It's a lot of pressure to put on such a young player, but George understands what he's capable of. It's just a matter of believing the time is now for him to blossom.

How the series will be decided: The Pacers lost five of their last six in the regular season and allowed the Knicks to snatch the 2-seed. So they went from the biggest threat to the Heat to the biggest question mark among the top four East seeds.

But the Pacers can rediscover themselves rather quickly -- especially against a Hawks team that doesn't present any major matchup problems.

The Hawks' strength is Al Horford and Josh Smith in the frontcourt. Well, the Pacers match that with West and Roy Hibbert, both more natural scorers than their counterparts. While that might not look like a severe mismatch in Indiana's favor, the Pacers at least have a defensive identity. The Hawks, on the other hand, are wildly inconsistent and have no defined identity.

The teams split the season series 2-2, but the Pacers won the final two meetings and you can expect their nasty streak to kick in starting in Game 1.



(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls

Player with most at stake: Gerald Wallace

This one has been hard to watch. Wallace went from being one of the least desirable wingers to play against to being a head case who can't shake out of a funk.

While Deron Williams has rediscovered his game now that his ankle feels better and Brook Lopez has become one of the top players -- not just centers -- in the league, Wallace has completely fallen off.

The player who normally balances out the Nets lineup, Wallace has acknowledged that his confidence is shot. He has scored in double figures in just three of his past 26 games. That has left P.J. Carlesimo to shorten his minutes.

If Wallace returns to being the quality two-way player he can be, then Luol Deng will have trouble scoring and will have to actually work defensively. Lopez will be working against a legitimate candidate for defensive player of the year in Joakim Noah, so the Nets could use some scoring relief.

If nothing else, no one wants to see a player of Wallace's quality completely fall off a cliff. Nothing will help a player's confidence like a good playoff showing.

How the series will be decided: Well, that's entirely up to Derrick Rose, isn't it?

At this point, no one outside of the Bulls' locker room, and maybe even inside it, has any faith that Rose will return.

But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has said that if Rose decides he's ready to return, he'll be inserted into his familiar leading role immediately.

Given that he has been practicing with his team, there's a chance Rose could shock the basketball world and make the Bulls true contenders again. Already, this series would appear to be a grind-it-out defensive battle. Throw Rose into the equation and suddenly the Bulls have a creator to make scoring significantly easier.

Assuming Rose doesn't return, however, Williams is playing too well to be denied.

He averaged 19.8 points and 6.8 assists against the Bulls this season, but in April he put up 24.6 points and 8.4 assists in eight games. That's the Williams we used to know. And that's the Williams that could carry Brooklyn past the pesky, probably Rose-less Bulls.