The 2019 NBA Playoffs are mere days away, and they’re bound to be one of the most entertaining in recent memory. For the first time since 2006, LeBron James will not be part of the action, and his absence in the Eastern Conference ensures that a new team will rise up and represent it in June. For the first time in years, the East’s crown is up for grabs and multiple teams are worthy of it.
The West, tightly contested as ever, features familiar faces such as the Golden State Warriors, seeking a third straight title, and the San Antonio Spurs, who clinched their 22nd consecutive ticket to the postseason. The Denver Nuggets, who last appeared in the playoffs in 2013, shocked the world and stand to make their way back in as the second seed. Needless to say, the yearly bloodbath we call the Western Conference bracket is once again setting up to be spectacular.
In many cases, the entire series have been decided by the performance of a particular player. The whole momentum can shift thanks to these players, and they’re pretty often some of the unlikeliest of heroes. Here are the players who can tip the scales for their team in the upcoming playoffs.
6. Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez is not your run of the mill center. This season, he’s set the record for most three-pointers made and attempted by a seven-footer, with 186 and 504, respectively. His game has translated extremely well to the new era of basketball and that is why he’s so valuable to the Milwaukee Bucks. Likely Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer’s grand scheme of spreading the floor around Giannis Antetokounmpo in order to give him a working room in the lane has resulted in the NBA’s best record for a team that won only 15 games a mere four seasons ago.
Most centers are uncomfortable having to guard so far out in the perimeter, and Lopez exploits that weakness to perfection. A seven-foot-tall long-range bomber is one of the deadliest weapons imaginable in the game of basketball, and by making good use of this one, the Bucks significantly increase their chances of bringing a championship to Milwaukee for the first time since 1971.
5. Chris Paul
Paul’s career has been marked by a string of disappointing playoff exits, and when he finally broke through to the Western Conference Finals for the first time last season, his success was short-lived, as he missed games 6 and 7 with a hamstring injury and his Houston Rockets were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors, sundering their possible, even likely chances at a championship.
Potential back-to-back MVP James Harden has been on a tear all season, setting records left and right, but when the intensity of the playoffs rolls around and defenses become more demanding, Paul needs to be there, healthy and leading, if the Rockets have any hopes of repairing their broken Finals aspirations. The veteran PG is one of the best floor generals ever and a proven playoff performer. He’s hungry for a rematch with Golden State, and whether Houston gets it or not, and whether they come out on top if they do get it, depends largely on him.
4. Bojan Bogdanovic
Following Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury in January, the Indiana Pacers have managed to remain competitive and keep themselves in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round. That is thanks in no small part to Croatian sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been averaging 21.2 PPG on 50% shooting from the field and 42% from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.
The Pacers were never a one-man show, which is why they’ve managed to stay afloat, but history has proven in order to succeed in the playoffs you need a player that can take over the game and be the clear go-to guy. If the All-Star worthy numbers are any indication, Bogdanovic will have to be that man for Indiana as they’re set to face a Celtics team whose talent clearly outweighs theirs.
3. Gordon Hayward
The Boston Celtics are 6-0 this season when Hayward scores at least 20 points. That stat right there tells you all you need to know about his importance to the team’s success. Even if they’ve underperformed and battled chemistry issues all season, they’re clearly at their best when Hayward is at his best. Over the last seven games, the former All-Star is averaging 16.4 PPG on 60% shooting from the field, clear improvements over his averages of 11.4 and 46% for the season, respectively. The Celtics are 5-2 in those games and they secured the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
A well-rounded Pacers team awaits them in the first round, and if they advance, they’ll clash with the stampeding Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semis. All-Star level Hayward might be just what they need in order to emerge victorious.
2. Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam’s breakout season has earned him Most Improved Player candidacy, but more importantly, it’s helped the Toronto Raptors retain relevancy and contender status after going through some major changes last summer. When Kawhi Leonard sits out games as an injury precaution, Siakam often finds himself to be the team’s leading scorer while playing elite defense on the other end.
Even when they share the court, there have been nights where the Cameroonian forward has outplayed his superstar teammate. If the Raptors are to represent the East in the Finals this year, their road would likely take them through the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks, two very tough matchups. Siakam’s defensive versatility and ability to take pressure off Leonard and Kyle Lowry on offense could be the defining factors in their run.
1. Jamal Murray
The Denver Nuggets’ resurgence this season has taken the league by surprise, and although All-Star center Nikola Jokic gets a lot of the credit (rightfully so), the contributions of Jamal Murray are overlooked. The streaky Canadian guard is second on the team in scoring, averaging 18.2 PPG. His 48 points against the Celtics in November are the most by a Nugget since Carmelo Anthony dropped 50 in February of 2011, and what’s more, Denver is 11-1 this season when he scores 25 points or more.
Many speculate that lack of postseason experience will be the Nuggets’ undoing in the playoffs, but if Murray can find his groove and have big scoring nights supplemented by Jokic’s superior playmaking ability consistently, this young, unproven team may end up proving a lot over the next month.