NBA Playoffs: Five potential difference makers
Looking ahead to the 2021 NBA Playoffs, it’s easy to get fixated by the biggest names. They are the players who will take the game-winning shots and make history.
While the All-NBA caliber guys will perhaps decide the title, they are also the players who should be easy to project. There are players supplementing them who are greater unknowns. These players can often change the trajectory and increase the ceiling of a potential title contender.
5 Players to watch in the 2021 Playoffs
Here are five players which could make a real difference in the 2021 NBA playoffs…
The surface level numbers don’t give much to get excited about with Deandre Ayton. Don’t let that fool you. His importance to Phoenix only grows the closer the playoffs get.
Ayton has defended admirably against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid in recent weeks. He has become an elite defensive player, and the Suns need him to maintain those standards (and keep out of foul trouble) in the postseason. The West is stacked with big men who will pose challenging matchups for Ayton from Anthony Davis to Nikola Jokic, from Kristaps Porzingis to Rudy Gobert.
Phoenix needs big, consistent minutes from Ayton. Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky are going to be vulnerable at the five against many potential West opponents.
Kemba Walker is still under 41% from the field for the season and at just over 18 points per game. The eye test suggests a breakthrough from Walker recently, however, and there’s been an uptick in efficiency (over 47% from the field) and scoring (over 20 per game) across his last eight outings.
It’s taken a while, but the Celtics can start to believe in Walker getting back to his best. He’s looking sharper. He’s able to create his own shot easier. Defenders are finding it harder to stay in front of him.
Boston is a dark horse in the Eastern Conference if the former Hornet can get fully healthy for the playoffs. Without him, their ceiling is a second-round team.
Defending big wings is still a question mark for the Utah Jazz. Bojan Bogdanovic is the weakest defensive link in their starting five, and he’s going to be picked on by whichever star wings they face.
Royce O’Neale will take the primary assignment, but Bogdanovic’s standards on the defensive end will be important. Utah could be asking a lot of him against Michael Porter Jr, Kawhi Leonard or Brandon Ingram.
Bogdanovic is a good offensive player, and an important piece for the Jazz. With no alpha star, Quin Snyder needs all of his players on top of their games. Bogdanovic has the weaknesses which could be exposed in postseason basketball.
Of lineups to play 300 or more minutes together, only five five-man groups have a better net rating than Donte DiVincenzo alongside Milwaukee’s big three and Brook Lopez.
DiVincenzo has moved into the starting lineup this year, and largely been impressive. He’s just under 38% from three.
Like any young player, however, there are inconsistencies. Some nights he looks like Eric Bledsoe in the postseason on the offensive end. The defense is solid, but DiVincenzo needs to be a reliable offensive player to be a lock for Mike Budenholzer’s closing lineups.
If he can prove himself as a playoff performer, it will make Budenholzer’s life a lot easier.
Traded for and handed a whopping contract in the offseason, it’s been an up and down year for Luke Kennard. Ty Lue has not played him some nights and used him as a key piece on others.
As such, it’s unclear what his role will be in the postseason. Rajon Rondo is going to get considerable minutes at the one, and Kennard was brought in for his shooting and ball-handling. How many spare minutes are there for him?
Kennard is shooting 46% from three. Questions about the defense remain.
Lue’s use of Kennard is unclear, unlike the others on this list, and it’s hard to tell how much of an impact he will have. With that shooting and a bit of playmaking, though, he could be a real boost for the Clips off the bench.