The four teams in the NBA Conference Finals are chock full of superstars. From Kobe Bryant to Tim Duncan, from Boston's Big Three to Detroit's Big Four, the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics and Pistons each have great talent that even basketball novices can identify. Each year, however, it is the role players--the fourth, fifth or sixth options--who radically change the fortunes of a team. Who will be this year's Robert Horry of Rockets fame, or Daniel Gibson from last year's playoffs? Why is that player so critical to the successes (and failures) of his team?
Let's take a look at the likely candidate from each of the four remaining teams.
Boston Celtics - Rajon Rondo
Celtics' guard Rajon Rondo enters the conference Finals knowing he will be a scapegoat should Boston fall short of championship glory. Having averaged 10.6 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.2 rebounds during the regular season, Rondo has increased his production during the postseason, up to 11.1 points and 6.6 assists. While Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have received all the acclaim, Rondo has become a whipping boy for Boston's road woes during the playoffs. For the Celtics to have a chance at returning to glory this season, Rondo needs to maximize his role for the team.
If Rondo thinks the Cavaliers played him in such a way that he has to make shots, he will be in a whole other world against the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons' entire defensive scheme will be to force Rondo to become a jump shooter. Both the Hawks and Cavaliers attempted to do this, and Rondo's shooting percentage is down five percentage points during the playoffs. The Pistons, a better-executing defensive team than either Atlanta or Cleveland, will likely do the same. During these playoffs (14 games), Rondo has taken 11 three-pointers (making four of those attempts). During the entire regular season, Rondo attempted just 19 three-pointers in 77 games (making five of those attempts). For Boston to break out of the offensive malaise they have encountered in these playoffs, Rondo will need to prove he can at least hit an occasional jump shot, while still being aggressive getting to the rim both in transition and off of ball screens. As talented as the Big Three are, they need Rondo to have a strong series to make the difference. If he does not show the ability to hit a shot, the Pistons will deny Ray Allen any easy looks, match-up aggressively with KG, and tilt the floor to defend Paul Pierce.
Defensively, Rondo will be matched up with Chauncey Billups, at least at the outset of games. Expect to see Rondo shadow Billups for most of the 94 feet up and down the floor, attempting to prevent any easy looks or opportunities. With active hands, provided Rondo can stay out of foul trouble he possesses the size, length, and stamina to be a meaningful defender on Billups. Because Billups uses his body better than any other point guard in the league, Rondo must be prepared to play post defense as well. Provided his hamstring has healed, Billups will challenge Rondo's defensive prowess throughout the series. If Rondo can keep Billups in check, prevent him from returning to "Mr. Big Shot" form of a few years ago and create offensive opportunities from defensive stops, he would really go a long way to helping the Celtics win a berth in the NBA Finals.
Detroit Pistons - Jason Maxiell
Due at least in part to the injury to Antonio McDyess, Piston forward Jason Maxiell has played more during the current Detroit playoff run. His minutes have increased by four per game (21.6 to 25.6) and he has started in six games, as compared to just seven games during the entire regular season. During the playoffs, he is averaging 5.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, down slightly from his season averages. Depending on McDyess' status and level of availability, Maxiell will need to return to his regular-season level of production if the Pistons are to continue in these playoffs.
Looking at the matchups, Maxiell will, perhaps more than anyone else on the Pistons' squad, need to be prepared mentally as a defender. With Rasheed Wallace likely locked up with Garnett, Richard Hamilton chasing Allen around screens, and Tayshaun Prince matching wits with Pierce, it will be on Billups and Maxiell (and McDyess, when he is in) to be primary help defenders, preventing easy opportunities for the Celtics. Maxiell's court awareness of when to help off of Celtics' center Kendrick Perkins will be critical, as he needs to at once be a defensive sparkplug and a rugged rebounder.
On the offensive side, Maxiell needs to be the high-energy opportunist he was against the Magic. With his quickness and athleticism, he can play above the rim in a way that Perkins is unable to, and since KG will be concerned more with Wallace than anything else, Maxiell has a chance to provide second chance and garbage points for his team in great quantities and at opportune times, as Anderson Varejao did for the Cavaliers in the last series. Ultimately, the front four for each team in this series may get all the headlines, but it is the contributions of a player like Maxiell that may determine the outcome.
Los Angeles Lakers - Jordan Farmar
Coming off a mostly hellish Western Conference semifinal, Jordan Farmar has more to prove than nearly any role player not named Rajon Rondo. Consistently abused by Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams, Farmar turned into a shell of himself, unwilling to push the ball offensively as he had during the regular season while seeing his numbers take a nosedive. During the playoffs, Farmar is averaging an unholy 3.5 points on 26.5% shooting, with only 1.4 assists, down from his regular season numbers of 9.1 points on 46.1% shooting with 2.7 assists.
Farmar can breathe a sigh of relief now that he will not have to guard a physical, strong-bodied guard like Williams. Instead, he gets to guard a player more akin to his own style in Tony Parker. While Farmar is not at all at the level of a player like Parker, his quick feet and defensive pressure will allow him to stay in front of Parker most of the time. Because of the Lakers' overall length and athleticism, they have an ability to match-up with the Spurs at most positions. However, small and quick point guards (like Parker) have given Los Angeles problems all season. Likely fearful of early foul trouble for Kobe Bryant, expect the Lakers to stay with Farmar Derek Fisher guarding Parker until late in games. During the majority of the game, the Lakers will try to turn Parker into a jump shooter, limit his chances in the lane, and keep him in front of their defenders. Much of this responsibility will fall to Farmar. How well he does will go a long way to determining the Lakers' fate.
Early-attack opportunities are one of the prime ways the Lakers have proven to be one of the more efficient teams on the offensive end this season. Farmar is a big reason for that, as he is willing and able to push the ball into the frontcourt when he is on the floor. However, because of his struggles against the Jazz, the Lakers were not the same team in transition that they had been, and this was evident in Los Angeles' losses to Utah in the semifinals. By increasing the speed at which they attack, the Lakers can put the Spurs on the defensive and consistently force Parker to work at both ends of the court. Farmar is a shot-maker, and his ability to push up into the Triangle offense and make shots off of double teams will be critical. Farmar returning to at least regular-season form is a prerequisite for the Lakers' chances to advance.
San Antonio Spurs - Kurt Thomas
The Lakers present tremendous match-up issues for each and every team they play against. The Spurs' first scouting report question will not be "who will guard Kobe?" as the answer to that question is Bruce Bowen. No, their first priority will be to identify who will defend Pau Gasol. Will that task fall to Tim Duncan? Or will it be Kurt Thomas? San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich will then have to ask another question--who will defend Lamar Odom? The answer to one of these questions reveals the kind of role that Thomas will need to embrace during this series.
The major strength of the Lakers is their versatility in the frontcourt. Each of their frontcourt rotation players can play at least two and in some cases three positions on the floor, and in the Triangle, they do. The Spurs do not have such versatility: they play two centers on the floor at the same time (Tim Duncan is a power forward in name only), and neither is particularly adept at lateral movement. Transition defense is also not a strength for either. The Lakers' personnel dictate that defensively, a team needs a player to match up with both Gasol and Odom. This puts Thomas in a unique position, as he will need to guard whoever they do not put Duncan on. His defensive rebounding will be a major factor in this series as well, as the Lakers' length and athleticism make them a real threat on the offensive glass.
Kurt Thomas has not been known, especially in recent years, for his offense (just 4.4 points per game this postseason). However, he will need to take advantage of the chances he gets against the Lakers, particularly as his ability to hit the 15-foot jump shot will keep defenses honest on Duncan. In addition, Thomas has become a very strong high-low player, operating from the elbow and setting up Duncan for easy baskets in the power area. As a screener, Thomas will look to free up Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, and then either pop for the open jump shot or roll to the basket for a potential offensive rebounding opportunity. If Thomas can hit open shots and use his strength and physicality pounding on the offensive glass, he will test the theory that the Lakers are a soft, finesse team. By doing so successfully, he puts tremendous pressure on the Lakers to cover all bases instead of focusing exclusively on Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker.
Tonight's first game will give us an early look into how the coaches in that series elect to utilize their role players in this conference final round. No one disputes the roles that the stars will play in any of these games. However, in basketball, it is not just three-on-three for 25 minutes, but five-on-five for 48. Others will have their chance… will they maximize their opportunities?
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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