NBA stretch run X-factors: Five players that could swing the championship picture

The 2022 NBA Finals depended in part on Kevon Looney’s timely offensive rebounding. The 2021 NBA Finals was decided largely in those miserable moments when the Phoenix Suns were forced to use one of their backup centers. The 2020 Lakers won’t win a championship unless Markieff Morris and Rajon Rondo are 3-point shooters. The 2019 Toronto Raptors would have lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals if Fred VanVliet hadn’t scored a ridiculous 14-of-17 from deep in the last three games of the series.

It’s commonly said that the NBA is a league of stars, and that’s pretty much true. Teams don’t make it to the final rounds of the postseason without stars, but once you’ve reached the inner circle, championships often come down to one key role player surprisingly doing well. For every Stephen Curry who leads his team to a championship, there is Kevon Looney who catches his misses and gives him another chance.

These players are more relevant than ever in the NBA. The price of acquiring stars has become so obscenely high that most of the teams that currently have them have had to sacrifice much of their depth to get them. Golden State and Milwaukee have largely managed to retain the supporting roster that helped them win their championships, but many of this season’s favorites have been less fortunate. Some of our contenders are now incredibly dependent on a small group of role players to act as their Looney or VanVleet this spring.

So who are these players? Here are the five biggest X factors of the 2022 championship.

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Deandre Ayton


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William Faulkner believed that “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Whether it’s a conflict in his heart or in his head, there’s a pretty clear conflict going on in Phoenix between the player DeAndre Ayton wants to be and who he should be trying to be.

When the Suns reached the NBA Finals in 2021, 53 percent of Ayton’s field goals were within three feet of the rim. This season, that figure has dropped to 33.7 percent, with the difference being made by a plethora of hooks, floats and jumpers that Phoenix can no longer tolerate. He averages a record 3.1 free throw attempts per game… which is less than teammate Chris Paul, who is a foot shorter than him, more than a decade older than him and shoots nearly three fewer shots. for the game. Ayton is one of the most physically gifted seven-footers in basketball. There is no good reason for him to play offensively like a tall shooting guard.

The Suns largely endured these inner misadventures out of necessity. Ayton wanted to leave in the summer. Phoenix did not want to give away such a talented player for nothing. The Suns matched the maximum offer table Indiana gave Ayton, determined to figure out their future later. Well, later it arrived, and it brought Kevin Durant with it.

The Phoenix already had a terrible shot profile. 3rd in the average attempts ranking and 27th in the restricted area creates a mathematical flaw that is hardly unresolvable (especially with Durant), but leaves little room for freelancing. Durant can throw jumpers from a medium distance. Paul has to throw jumpers from a medium distance. Devin Booker has to throw mid-range jumpers. They do it because they do it better than anyone in NBA history. Ayton is not.

He shouldn’t be. What he really needs is to catch the ball, because as long as Ayton avoids contact and settles for any hit that isn’t a layup or a dunk, the opposing defense will switch every ball screen that Monty Williams designed to free him. perimeter scorers. The Suns scored 1,415 points for possession, ending the game with Ayton as a rollman in 2021. In this season? They fell to 1.225. This is fine. This is not the elite figure that Ayton achieved at the peak of his career.

There is no more excuse. Ayton got his maximum contract. He plays for the favorite of the championship. His job is to enjoy all the dunks, free throws and free throws that his smaller teammates create for him. We already saw a template for this back in 2021. It is now Ayton’s responsibility to recreate it in 2023.

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Terence Mann

LAC • SG • #14

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There was a time in the recent past when Russell Westbrook really made sense for the Clippers. For most of the first three months of the season, they did not put pressure on the ring and rarely played at pace. They averaged just 42.2 paint points per game before bringing Terence Mann into the starting lineup. That figure jumped to 46.8 with Mann as the starter. It’s still below average, but there’s a pretty big difference between “bad” and “worst in the league” when it comes to the Clippers. There is so much shooting and individual creativity in them that even a little rim pressure changes the entire geometry of the floor.

Since Mann’s permanent start on Jan. 6, the Clippers have amassed 119.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s better than any offense in the NBA all season, and the divisions featuring Mann, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are posting championship-caliber offensive numbers. From January 6, the compositions with the participation of this trio …

  • Scores 128.4 points per 100 possessions.
  • Outperformed their rivals by 7.8 points per 100 possessions.
  • 52.4% field goals and 42.6% three-pointers.

The five-man starting line-up of Mann, Leonard, George, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac lead the opposition by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. More importantly, the Clippers are 7-3 with those five players starting. It’s the perfect combination, symbolizing what makes the Clippers special. This team is not a Ferrari. This is Bentley. They need to play slow, methodical basketball with enough pace and pressure under the basket to create an edge on their shots. That’s what made Westbrook’s appearance so strange. The Clippers are trying to power their luxury sedan with a jet engine.

Westbrook offers the pace, passing and pressure that the Clippers once needed. It just doesn’t give any more. He is one of the worst shooters in NBA history. He is one of the NBA players prone to turnover, and that’s not counting the increasingly frequent missed layups that turn into fast breaks for the other team. Westbrook could change the geometry of the court when he had the ball. When does he not? The opposing teams just get together slap ’em center on him and defend the Clippers five on four. The Lakers had two years to fix this weakness and couldn’t come up with a better response than “just get him off the court.”

The Clippers can come to that conclusion too. They’ll need it if they plan to play the five-out style that made them so dangerous during their rare picks during the Leonard-George era. Both Leonard and George themselves reportedly competed for Westbrook. Mann is the best player. He offers most of what Westbrook does without the downsides and, unlike Westbrook, he has experience with the best players on this team.

You don’t sign Westbrook without making substantial promises about his role and minutes. Leonard and…


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