The NBA Playoffs just commence yesterday to star of the postseason this year. Even though the NBA season is cut off because the pandemic, still the NBA is able to pull out the NBA Bubble in Orlando to continue the season. After its first day, the NBA Playoffs gave us four matches where the LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors came victorious in their Game 1 of Best-of-7 series matchups in the first round. Before the first round will go deep down as these competing teams search for their postseason roll this year, let’s try to find out how they can increase their chances to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. It is a good way to talk about players who needs to step up for their team so that they can find their success in this year’s NBA Playoffs.
1. KYLE KUZMA (Los Angeles Lakers, 1st Seed in West, vs. POR in 1st Round) – Best Players to Step up for each NBA Playoff Team
Even though the Los Angeles Lakers secured the top spot in the Western Conference to secure a homecourt advantage up to the Western Conference Finals, if there is any, they waited for at least two more days to know who is their opponent for the first round. After the play-in tournament of Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies, it is the Blazers who came out victorious last Sunday. For now, the Lakers are up against one of the best offensive teams in the Bubble and great closer in Damian Lillard. We knew that the Lakers are capable defensively as one of the best perimeter defense teams in the NBA, but how about notching up shots in the court.
The worst part here for the Lakers is when they dropped as the 30th team offensively during the seeding games. Their poor shooting guards didn’t help LeBron James struggles to score for those 8 games. I see that Kyle Kuzma must be the one to step it up for the Lakers as he is one of the pure scorers for this team. As he played extensive minutes, he can definitely provide shooting and shot-creating when put with the starters or play with the second unit. Inside the Bubble, Kuzma averaged 13.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 39% in the three-point range.
As free-agent acquisitions Dwight Howard and JR Smith are a call for the need to score for the bench unit, it is not the story during their seeding games. Howard, who had breakout season before the suspension of NBA games, didn’t continue his play in Florida as he only average 6.1 points, with only two double-digit scoring games. While for Smith, he only contributed 16 points in a span of 8 games. That is why Kuzma is very important to score and score off the bench. Along with Dion Waiters, they are the best relievers that the Lakers have when James and Anthony Davis is resting on the bench.
With their offensive firepower, Waiters and Kuzma can combine up to 40 points for the second unit of this Lakers team. But most importantly, Kuzma must play great when he is put on the floor during the crunch time to surround LeBron and AD with shooters. At least for some amount of games in their playoff run, Kuz must play with near All-Star level. He is capable of that when they faced the Denver Nuggets where he dropped 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists plus the game-winning three-pointer.
2. IVICA ZUBAC (LA Clippers, 2nd Seed in West, vs DAL in the 1st round) – Best Players to Step up for each NBA Playoff Team
Even though the LA Clippers faced a lot of adversity due to the media and rumors, they still had a great finish in their seeding games. With Montrezl Harrrel, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley being not constant in their rotation, they still step up to the challenge. We all know that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will lead this team offensively and defensively as the best wing duo in the NBA, but who will be their greatest help during this year’s Playoffs?
Their starting center Ivica Zubac will be the answer for that question, who currently averaging 10.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG, and 0.8 BPG in their seeding games. Unlike their role players Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris Sr. and Williams who are ball-reliant scorers, Zubac can score 15-20 points while playing off the ball that compliments Leonard and Paul George. However, he still needs to improve his presence inside by having constant double-double nights and shot-blocking in their playoff series. And with Harrell who played his first game in the Bubble last night, the Clippers need Zubac to play up to the dying minutes of their game.
If they play Morris or Joakim Noah, their lack of size and speed are punishable by potential bigs they might face like Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, and Anthony Davis. Yet, Harrell is still not a great defensive player so Zubac must improve his shooting and speed so Coach Doc Rivers will consider him as their closing center for the Playoffs. In this way, Zubac can prove his value to the team by not just being a complementary piece for their superstars, but also a capable stopper for this championship caliber team.
3. PAUL MILLSAP (Denver Nuggets, 3rd Seed in West, vs. UTA in the 1st round) – Best Players to Step up for each NBA Playoff Team
Despite the injuries they faced during the NBA Restart, the Denver Nuggets still hold on to their 3rd spot up to the playoff games. Even playing with 8-man rotation in some games, they are able to rely on their All-Star Nikola Jokic who is tremendous in their seeding games. Now, looking for a deeper run, who might be their X-Factor to help them win multiple playoff series this year?
The only thing in my mind for this very young and full of potential Nuggets team is their one and only veteran and former All-Star Paul Millsap. Even with limited averages of 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 43% field-goal shooting, Millsap is able to play great while Jokic is playing his natural game. However, as Will Barton and Gary Harris still out for them, Denver needs him to step up as another scoring option for them. In his seeding games, Millsap never scored above 18 points but with Playoffs is now back, he needs to play like his old self during his run in Atlanta.
Millsap also needs to shoot more outside the three-point line as Jokic will attract the defence inside the paint and needs shooters for kick-outs. In the Bubble, he achieved a 43% three-point shooting but only have 2 three-point attempt each game in the Bubble. Most importantly, his poise as a veteran and playoff leadership is vital as he is surrounded by great young players. His leadership will be the key for them to reach much further in the Playoffs. It would still be a tough thing for Millsap to do since he is currently regressing in terms of his numbers. And despite the talent they have, they are relatively inexperienced as a team since this is their only second playoff appear since the Coach Mike Malone era in Denver.
4. ROBERT COVINGTON (Houston Rockets, 4th seed in West, vs. OKC in the 1st Round) – Best Players to Step up for each NBA Playoff Team
Starting off the 6th seed in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets moved two more places up because of their great record in the seeding games and Utah Jazz’s struggle. Their backcourt duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook is a perfect fit for the team as they racked up outrageous outnumbers in the offensive end. While their small-ball lineup is also capable to limit teams from executing their offense plays during the seeding games. But who will be the most important players for them as one of the dark horse teams to win it all this season?
Last February, they became part of the league’s biggest trade this season as they acquire forward Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberworlves. Due to that gamble, it will be Covington who might increase their chances for a deeper playoff run. With humble averages of 9.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG, and shooting 33% in the field, you might overlook his value for Houston. Without his great defensive prowess, the Rockets might not hold themselves defensively. In their first round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Covington must stay as their reliable agile wing and inside defender for the rest of the series. OKC’s guard heavy offense during pick and rolls or dribble penetration can be neutralized with Covington’s combination defensive skills.
However, the Rockets needs him to knock down more three-point baskets in comparison to his numbers in their seeding games. From the past few weeks, Covington only knocked down 1.7 three-pointers per game and shooting 24.4% in the three-point field. With the volume of shots they take using Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, he must at least connect 3-4 three-pointers each night during the Playoffs. When the Rockets exit the postseason in the first round, it may look like the Rockets lose the gamble of trading away their youngest asset Clint Capela.
5. STEVEN ADAMS (Oklahoma City Thunder, 5th seed, vs. HOU in the 1st Round) – Best Players to Step up for each NBA Playoff Team
The Oklahoma City Thunder can be the most shocking surprises of this year’s NBA Season. Projected to be a lottery team in this year’s draft and totally miss the Playoffs with 1% chance of making it, they proved not only the doubters wrong, but also everyone. With an aging Chris Paul and a bunch of young players in their roster, they climbed up to the 6th seed before the NBA Season is cut short. With their outstanding team-based play in the NBA seeding games, they are able to move up to the 5th seed to face the Houston Rockets. But the question is, can they beat the deadly small-ball lineup of Houston, which is one of the best offenses in the NBA Bubble?
The obvious answer to that question is their long-time bigman Steven Adams since he will be the tallest player every time he is in the basketball floor. They also have their defensive-minded wings like Luguentz Dort, Hamadou Diallo, and Andre Roberson, but I don’t think they have much value since it is proven that you cannot slow down the backcourt of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. It must be important for Adams on how can he benefit from the small lineup of the Rockets, and how can be victimized by that. Even the Rockets currently have one of the best team sets with their small-ball position less lineup, they are still punishable in the offensive and defensive end of the basketball floor. So there is no denying that common NBA fans are not fan of that since they take away the use of centers and critics also question their efficiency in scoring and also their effort in defense.
For not being known as an agile center, Adams might get caught slacking in the paint then there will be PJ Tucker or Robert Covington shooting three-pointers way beyond the three-point line. Only for their opening series, Adams must put effort on chasing three-point shooters. But he can benefit from that small-ball lineup by taking everything inside the point. Using Chris Paul’s talent in playing the pick-and-roll, he always must roll to the basket and keep the ball up to avoid the active hands of Houston’s defenders. Using his frame, he must chase for offensive rebounds all the time since no one can beat him down there because of his sheer streangth and size.
Most importantly, even though he is only 26 years old, Adams is a very experienced player especially in the Playoffs. He also used to dig deeper in their Playoff series so that experience along with CP3’s leadership will be the key for this revamped Thunder team. And that's the best players to step for some playoff teams in the Western Conference.