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Thursday, April 18, 2013
West playoffs: Key players to watch

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

As much as the NBA playoffs provide a test of team fortitude, we tend to think of them in terms of individual accomplishments. Recent years alone have brought us Kevin Garnett's breakthrough, Kobe Bryant's coveted Shaq-free triumph, Dirk Nowitzki's redemption and, of course, LeBron James' potential realized.

Who are the key figures with the most to gain or lose in this year's playoffs? Let's take a look at the Western Conference opening matchups through the prism of these individuals.

(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets

Player with most at stake: James Harden

He has to be feeling a mixture of excitement and concern. It's his old team against … his team.

The one thing that's clear: He might be flourishing in Houston, but he is not yet as accustomed to his new role as he was during his stint as the sixth man in Oklahoma City. "Obviously I'm new at this," Harden said. "I might make some mistakes. Just continue to work at it."

A guy who's been to the NBA Finals, the Olympics and the All-Star Game in the past 11 months is new at this?

"New as a leader, as the head-honcho guy," Harden explained. "Having all the attention on you. It's new for me. I'm just going to keep working and try my best to do a good job of it."

That's a lot to add to an already complicated scenario of facing the locker room he shared for the first three years of his career. Harden also has to keep the Rockets' high-scoring offense going when they're forced into half-court sets and the shots don't come as easily. We know his primary mission: get to the free-throw line. His 792 free throw attempts were the most in the NBA and accounted for 38 percent of the Rockets' free throws.

How the series will be decided: Easy: The Thunder play defense, the Rockets don't. Maybe that's a little extreme. But while there's a scant 0.3 points separating the offensive averages of the second-ranked Rockets and third-ranked Thunder, the Thunder allow six points per game fewer than the Rockets.

The Rockets lack the rim protectors of the Thunder, who are led in that category by Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City averages a league-leading 7.6 blocked shots per game. The Rockets are 24th, with 4.4 per game.

Harden averaged 29 points against the Thunder during the regular season. But in a reminder of why the roster and especially the luxury tax system made him expendable to the Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook averaged close to 50 points combined against the Rockets.


(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Player with most at stake: Dwight Howard

Now that the Lakers have come out and said what they've been thinking all along -- Mike D'Antoni will be back to coach the team next season -- the stakes have doubled for Howard.

It's not that Howard won't have his choice of staying with the Lakers for the most possible money if he so desires, even if the Lakers get swept by the Spurs. It's a matter of how the fans will react to it. Will they see him as a suitable replacement for Kobe Bryant in the short and long term?

Will he be viewed as a true franchise player, something the Lakers franchise player himself, Magic Johnson, called into question as recently as Sunday? Remember the standards set by the Magic Man: He never played back-to-back seasons with the Lakers that didn't result in at least one trip to the NBA Finals.

This is one postseason that the Lakers get a pass on for stopping short of June. They don't have Bryant along for the ride, and teams don't climb out of the 7-hole to make championship runs. That doesn't mean Howard can mail in performances. He can't be shown up by 36-year-old Tim Duncan, who keeps posting throwbacks like a 28-point, 19-rebound game. Here's one last Shaquille O'Neal comparison for Howard to hear: Shaq's scoring average was higher in the playoffs than the regular season in every year Shaq played in L.A. So 17.1 points a game won't cut it for Howard.

How the series will be decided: The reason the Lakers are lucky to face the Spurs in the first round is San Antonio had the least-potent offense of the top three seeds in the Western Conference. Now, the Spurs are still the fourth-best offense in the West, but a difference of three points a game is critical to a Lakers team that won its typical game by a margin of 1.2 points. The Spurs also don't get as many points on the fast break as Denver or Oklahoma City, which is welcome news to a Lakers team that's next to last in the NBA in fast-break points allowed.

Another reason the Lakers would prefer the Spurs right about now: Tony Parker comes into the playoffs amid his worst month this season; he averaged 13.6 points and shot 40 percent in April.

The Lakers' size will force Gregg Popovich to stick with bigger lineups, which will slow the Spurs down and take away a bit of their scoring edge.

But the Spurs are a deeper team, and they're getting players back while the Lakers are still dealing with injuries. Manu Ginobili's right hamstring was good enough for him to play in the regular-season finale. As the series goes on and he gets better conditioned and the Spurs get used to playing with him again, they'll prove to be the better team.


(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

Player with most at stake: Ty Lawson

If the Denver Nuggets are going to prove George Karl right and the rest of the NBA wrong, Lawson has to act like a superstar. He needs to create shots for himself in crunch time, and find ways to score when the Nuggets aren't pushing in transition off a turnover.

Statistically, Lawson is an elite player in the closest of games. He ranked fourth in the NBA in scoring in the final five minutes of games that were within one point. His 46 points in those conditions were only three off the league leader, Kyrie Irving.

We also have the visual evidence; we've seen Lawson do it on multiple occasions, including this week against the Milwaukee Bucks. Lawson will use his speed to get all the way to the basket … or he'll use the threat of his speed to get defenders to back off him and concede a short jump shot.

During a "Five Good Minutes" segment on "Pardon the Interruption" this week, Karl posited that if stars can make a team great, why can't teams make a star? He's hoping that this lab experiment he has going can produce one in Lawson, who bears even more responsibility since Danilo Gallinari will miss the playoffs with a torn ACL. Part of being a star is handling that kind of additional pressure. Time to see if Lawson is up to it.

How the series will be decided: Sometimes stories are best told through numbers. Especially when those numbers make things as clear as a glacier lake.

The Warriors are the league's top 3-point shooting team, making 40.3 percent of their shots from behind the arc. The Nuggets are 26th in that category, shooting 34.3 percent

The Nuggets are the league leaders in points in the paint, averaging 58 per game. The Warriors are 26th in that category, averaging 38.3.

Over the course of a series, inside points are likely to come more consistently than outside points. That and the fact that it's the first playoff series for Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, not to mention the first time together for this Warriors team, gives Denver the edge.


(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Player with most at stake: Blake Griffin

It's time for him to do more than dunk, and time for him to play up to the All-Star status twice bestowed on him. If the Clippers are going to contend for championships, he's the only in-house candidate to give them the requisite second superstar to go along with Chris Paul.

Griffin has spent hours extending his shooting range and improving his free throws, but it doesn't always show up in games. There's a bridge he needs to make between practice work and real-world application. He also has to dedicate as much vigor on the defensive end that he uses to attack the rim. When Griffin contests shots, jumps screens and traps ball handlers on the sideline, the Clippers are a better team.

He now has the two rounds of playoff experience to draw from, and it sounds like he has a better understanding of what this level requires.

"It's about locking in and executing your game plan game to game," he said. "It really comes down to the small details, the guys that make the hustle plays, the small plays that allow you to win."

That's what the Clippers need from Griffin: more small plays than highlight plays.

How the series will be decided: The line of demarcation stat category to watch is the same as in last year's matchup, even if neither team is quite as elite. Last season, the Grizzlies forced the most opponent turnovers in the league, while the Clippers ranked second in protecting the ball. This season, the Grizzlies were sixth in turnovers forced, while the Clippers dropped to the middle of the pack in turnovers allowed.

If the Grizzlies aren't getting easy transition points off steals, how are they going to score? It was hard enough for them in last year's series, when they shot 43 percent, including 29 percent on 3-pointers, and produced only 72 points at home in Game 7. Rudy Gay led them in scoring in that series, and now he's a Toronto Raptor.

The Clippers, meanwhile, could miss two players who aren't known for their scoring: Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans. They were exactly the kind of tough guys a team needs to deal with the physical Grizzlies. Look for Ryan Hollins to play an important role. In a series that will feature a lot of shoving, Hollins is the only Clipper inclined to push someone to the ground.