Well, we sure made the most of the shortened season. The pros went from out of shape to scraping for playoff contention as soon as the second half of the year kicked off. Now the spring classic's about to tip-off and we're ready to get to the "real" season. A field full of competitors thirsty for a chip creates plenty of opportunities for athletes to step up. Question is who'll be an instrumental force towards pushing his teams one step closer to the Larry O'Brien tropy?
It'd be too easy to say "Hey Kobe/NorBel/Durant better take over or else their team will lose, right guys?" So we took it up a notch and asked TSS's resident basketball nerds to sort out supporting players pivotal towards their respective clubs' championship hopes. So today we'll have TSS's one-man LBJ defense force in J. Tinsley, "Cleveland over everything" AJ, Jason H. the hopeless Knicks fanatic and S. Cadet the forever disgruntled Nets fan chime in on their X-factors for the 2012 playoffs. Get ready to argue with The Crew, you wannabe Stephen A.'s and Chris Broussards of the Internets.
1. Paul George -- The Pacers emergence from the bottom of the east to one of the conference’s best teams isn’t a fluke. Credit PG's game, which is approaching R-rated, as a considerable factor to Indiana's success. Consider him Rudy Gay's little brother since their likenesses and play styles aren't far from one another. Indiana plays much better when he’s shooting from deep with confidence and driving to the hoop. The squad Bird built can’t afford for him to fade when opponents get set in the half court. - S. Cadet
2. Rudy Gay -- When you got a last name like Rudy’s it’s easy to assume you’ll have a rough childhood. That probably explains why the freshly-tapered Grizzlie has lately taken out his frustration at box scores. Zach Randolph hasn’t quite been the same since his return from injury and Marc Gasol's steadily improving after lately playing hobbled. Rudy will have to keep shouldering the load if the Grizz want to go the long haul. - S. Cadet
3. Jeff Teague -- The Teaguester came into the season with a ton of promise but had his share of peaks and valleys throughout. It’s almost too much to expect Teague to finally get the right mix between being the scorer he wants to be and the facilitator he should’ve been. However, given his performance against Derrick Rose last post season, who’s to say he can’t step up? - S. Cadet
4. Danny Green -- Green’s been one of Popovich’s secret weapons as of late. The UNC project worked his way from the opposite side of the rotation to his starting job at the 2 on a legitimate contender. Plus he's had his fair share of big games throughout the campaign via sound perimeter defense and sharp shooting with great production in April. His first major minutes in a playoff series may put him in an unsettling position but he should ride his positive wave into the playoffs. Besides, an efficient Green with Manu Ginobili fresh off the bench spells trouble for all challengers. - S. Cadet
5. Ty Lawson -- With all due respect to Raymond Felton, Lawson is the best UNC player in the league and the best Tar Heel prospect since Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. Thanks to jump shot under constant improvement, basketball’s fastest player is one of the NBA’s toughest covers: lack of height be damned. If Denver wants to shock people they will have to follow their floor general’s lead. - AJ
6. Jrue Holiday -- Philadelphia’s top scorer is sixth man Lou Williams, who drops 15 points per. Their success stems from their incredible depth and, if they want to recapture some of their early-season momentum, 21-year-old Holiday is going to have to step up as a distributor. His combination of talent and size make him an ideal NBA point guard; now would be a great time for him to start to realize some of his unreal potential. - AJ
7. Delonte West -- The Mavericks know what to expect from their veteran-heavy nucleus; Dirk, Kidd and Jason Terry probably won’t play above or below their career averages. Guard Delonte West, one of the NBA’s most enigmatic personalities, will prove to be Dallas’s biggest X-factor. When he’s on, Delonte is one of the league’s best two-way players capable of locking down his opponent, carving out a path to the basket and hitting outside shots. - AJ
8. DeAndre Jordan -- High-scoring wings put fans in seats but it takes more than a LeBron or a Kobe to win titles. Big men are a necessity. Even if his offense is limited to put-backs and alley-oops, DeAndre Jordan is an ideal defensive center: athletic enough to control the lanes and strong enough to play one-on-one. He’s a couple inches shorter than Tyson Chandler but Jordan brings the same kind of impact. - AJ
9. Ramon Sessions -- The good news is L.A.’s not expecting their recently acquired point guard to morph into the second coming of Magic Johnson. That said, the arrival of Sessions has had the Lakers looking like a new team at times with fluid ball activity - when it doesn’t get trapped in the clutches of Swamp Kobe - and an overall better team. And now with Metta World No Justice No Peace out for at least seven games, Razor Ramon’s role just got even more important. - J. Tinsley
10. Tyson Chandler -- Dirk played lights out in the Finals last June. Yet Tyson Chandler’s ability to cut off the paint was the x-factor in Dallas partying with Lil Wayne at Club Liv in the wee hours of the morning. Tyson’s impact could prove even larger this year with him manning the trenches on the defensive end and providing a spark when needed offensively. Most importantly, he honestly believes New York can make a serious title run. Coming from possibly the Defensive Player of the Year, that may be all the Knicks really need to keep their late season momentum going. - J. Tinsley
11. Gordon Hayward -- That big bully Delonte West allegedly called young Gordon a “pussy white-boy” when they met for tea the other day. We’re sure that’s Delonte’s herpes talking because Hayward’s been ballin’ like a champ. His comfort in shooting from the perimeter and playing the passing lanes has proved naysayers wrong about his supposed limited upside in the pros. The Utah Jazz have gelled, they're a harder out than they’re given credit for and, if Gordon’s keeps his streak going, they can catch a squad slippin’. - S. Cadet
12. Norris Cole -- I'm calling Norris Cole the 2012 version of Sam Cassell. Just like "the alien," Cole's speed and clutch shooting is critical to ensure Miami's chances. The tandem of Cole and Mario Chalmers making open shots is crucial as the Heat's big two & a half looked flat at season's end. We know Miami's transition play is deadly and coming off the bench, Cole can maintain the momentum as the back up floor general. Contributions from Shane Battier, Mike Miller and company are obvious but Cole's production will be their unlikely lifeline. If Cole shines, just like he did on the first game of the season, he'll be exactly like Cassell winning a ring in his rookie season. - Jason H.
13. James Harden -- The likely Sixth Man of the Year’s offensive output is as full as his beard and his defensive ability steadily increased. Then that little incident with Mr. “Say Queensbridge” transpired. He should have enough time to recover from his concussion. Let's just hope the time off doesn't make him cool off too much. - S. Cadet
14. Carlos Boozer -- The boy can rebound, score on the low block and hits J’s from the extended foul line. Yet consistency, focus and lacking interior defense has plagued him since he moved to Chicago. Then again he never was never much a stopper to begin with. No reasonable person expects him to become Karl Malone overnight. Just pray your boy Boozer goes out and plays smart with some extra tenacity. Chicago can’t afford another postseason run of nonchalance from the prodigal 4. - S. Cadet
15. Glen Davis -- It’s kind of hard to take Orlando seriously after Dwight went down for the rest for the season. It’s even harder to place much of the Magic’s slim playoff hopes on a grown man nicknamed “Big Baby.” However, on a team short on options this year, the Magic don’t have much choice but to rely on the big guy to get things done. He’s played the best basketball of his career since Howard got shut down but Glen will never fill Dwight’s shoes on the defensive end. Shoot, maybe Davis’s big-boned frame can alter a string of inside shots just enough? - S. Cadet
16. Avery Bradley - I’m not sure who gave Doc Rivers the suggestion, but moving Kevin Garnett to the 5 and making Bradley the shooting guard (while bringing Ray Allen off the bench) was one of the smartest coaching decisions in recent memory. And as much respect for Doc as I have, I hate that he did it. Boston’s legitimately scary and Avery’s emergence is a big reason why. He’s comfortable in his role knowing the team believes in him and he’s a hound on the defensive end - basically the two biggest facets of Boston’s team-oriented style. - J. Tinsley