The NBA playoffs are where superstars can add to — or subtract from — their legacies. They may come up clutch, or absolutely choke under the spotlight. The same goes for coaches. But there are always subplots around certain youngsters, role players, and unknowns who can make a name for themselves. This postseason, we’ve pinpointed a player from the lower-seeded team in every series that will be the X factor.
Rudy Gobert is no longer considered a star or worthy of the five-year, $205 million contract the Utah Jazz gave him. Why? He’s a malcontent who displayed immaturity during the COVID-19 outbreak. He was played off the court last season by the Dallas Mavericks. He punched his Timberwolves teammate Kyle Anderson. And Minnesota had to give up an insane package to land him.
Gobert is an unlikeable dude. Not because his game is a throwback to a time long gone, no. It’s because his smugness even turns off his teammates — just ask Donovan Mitchell. But Gobert has a chance to redeem himself against the Denver Nuggets. He was the key reason Minnesota blew the doors off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Play-In Tournament. His size, wingspan, and defensive chops pose the biggest threat to slowing down reigning MVP Nikola Jokić. But Gobert must stay aggressive on offense, using his improved handle and elite roll capabilities to make the Joker work on defense. If he can wear down the sluggish Serbian on both sides of the ball, the Timberwolves have a slim chance to stretch the series to seven.
It hasn’t been a perfect reunion for D’Angelo Russell and the Lakers. In February, Los Angeles brought back the point guard it originally drafted No. 2 overall in the 2015 Draft. Statistically, he’s maintained the averages with the Timberwolves before the trade, with 17.4 points per game, 6.1 assists per game, 2.9 rebounds per game, and improved shooting splits (48/41/75). But he has had moments where he’s disappeared both offensively and defensively.
He’s gotten out of the three-point shooting slump that plagued him in Minny, but he had the worst game of his second Lakers stint in the first Play-In tournament game last week. He managed just two points on 1-of-9 shooting. But it’s safe to say that won’t continue, especially against Ja Morant, who is not a strong defender. But the Grizzlies, as a whole, are elite defensively. It will be crucial for Russell to be the Laker’s third-best player, a la Kyle Kuzma in L.A.’s 2020 championship run.
Andrew Wiggins is back after a nearly two-month hiatus, as he attended to a family matter. The forward missed Golden State’s last 24 games but is good to go for Game 1 of the Warriors series against the Sacramento Kings. Having participated in several practices and scrimmages recently, Wiggins seems content with his current state. Just a year ago, he was the second-best player in Golden State’s run to an NBA championship and the fourth for the Warriors’ dynasty core. Wiggins also provided the best stretch of defense Luka Dončić has ever seen in the Western Conference Finals.
Wiggins’ absence was felt this season, as the Warriors were one of the worst road teams in the league. Adding Wiggins back to the fold gives the Warriors, the No. 6 seed, a real chance to upset the Sacramento Kings. After that, anything is possible with a team that knows what it takes to win it all. Wiggins will give the Warriors two-way play. He can rattle rookie Keegan Murray, a key cog in Sacramento’s offense and starting wing, while adding 20 ppg as the third option behind the Splash Brothers.
Surprised to see him here? You shouldn’t be. Westbrook’s presence will be more critical than ever with Paul George out. Head coach Ty Lue will depend on Russ to increase his scoring load and run the offense, as Leonard is at his most dominant off-ball. Limiting turnovers and not being a turnstile on defense is key to Westbrook’s impact. He’s shown to be a much better fit with this L.A. team, and Lue has trusted him to finish games.
After joining the Clippers, the guard has averaged 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.1 steals per game, helping lead the team to an 11-10 record in 21 games. Even more impressively, he’s shot 49 percent from the field and 36 percent from three — both of which would be career highs over an 82-game season. Westbrook has turned down any speculation of residual beef between he and former teammate Kevin Durant, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a compelling matchup between the former teammates.
Let’s be honest, Kyle Lowry is washed. All the miles have caught up to the 37-year-old point guard this year, having lost his impeccable touch after a sign and trade that sent him from Toronto to South Beach. Overall, he’s been absolutely awful — save for a throwback performance in the Play-In, where he scored 33 points against the Atlanta Hawks and hit six of his nine shots from deep.
That will be key for the Heat to open up the lane for Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo to get single coverage on drives to the basket. Miami’s offense is slow, predictable, and uninspiring. But if Lowry can reclaim a little of the magic he had during his prime years in Toronto, the Heat can add a much-needed dynamic to their offense. The Bucks are one of the best defensive teams in the league, and if Lowry is a non-factor, Milwaukee’s best perimeter defender Jrue Holiday can put the clamps on Herro. If Lowry can keep Holiday honest, the Heat can maybe steal a game or two instead of being swept.
Not many outside of Atlanta knew much about Onyeka Okongwu’s game. But the 22-year-old raised his stock with career highs in points per game (10), rebounds per game (7.2), free throw shooting percent (.781), minutes (23.1), and starts (18 games). His game is maturing and he’s found a niche within the Hawks’ rotation. Okongwu lacks the size and length of Clint Capela, but his strength and touch around the rim, especially as an offensive rebounder — 2.7 per game — give the Hawks a more modern big to include in pick-and-roll sets with Trae Young and Dejounte Murray.
Of the top four teams in the East, the Celtics are the smallest upfront. The Hawks’ size and depth at center will be a huge advantage. Okongwu’s scoring was crucial in the Hawks’ first Play-In game against the Miami Heat, where he hit all three of his shots. The different looks Okongwu and Capela give the Hawks could help tilt the series in their favor, limiting the Celtics’ two stars — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — from attacking the basket.
Including Dorian Finney-Smith as part of the trade package for Kyrie Irving isn’t the sole reason the Dallas Mavericks fell from fourth to 11th place in the West — but it certainly played a part in the decline. DFS was not just the heart and soul of the team’s on-the-court vibes, but also the team’s best defender. Since he arrived in Brooklyn, his stats have plummeted after losing the helio-centric force of Luka Dončić as his orchestrator. But one thing that hasn’t slipped is his defense.
And the Nets will need everything he’s got to contain James Harden in their first-round series versus the 76ers. Harden has lost a step over the last two years from the MVP form of his Houston Rockets days. But he is still an elite facilitator, and Finney-Smith will be tasked with slowing him down as Joel Embiid’s second option. Finney-Smith will be especially crucial in pick-and-roll situations, where Embiid and Harden are at their most lethal.
As a finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year award, Immanuel Quickley has become a household name this season. But he’s more than just a spark plug off the bench for the Knicks. He’s New York’s third-best player and best perimeter defender. He has come up huge in big moments this season, as head coach Tom Thibodeau and lead assistant Johnnie Bryant have molded him into a three-level scorer and elite on-ball defender.
Quickley’s plug-and-play game makes him a seamless fit with the bench or starters. He averaged 21.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in 18 games as a starter, filling in for Jalen Brunson. He will be tasked with guarding both Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell and gives the Knicks their best chance at slowing down either. If he can be the Knicks’ third 20 ppg scorer in the first round, the Knicks could end this series in as short as five games.