The NBA Play-In Tournament is almost upon us and the regular season is coming to a close. For some teams, they have clinched their playoff berths and are simply locking up themselves in a favorable position. On the other hand, teams outside of the top six seeds are doing their best to snag a place in the Play-In Tourney to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Surprisingly, there are a couple of great teams outside of the top six, which goes to show the league’s intense competition. In fact, legitimate title contenders such as the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, and the defending champs Los Angeles Lakers will probably be forced to clinch their postseason spot through the Play-In.
With teams scrapping for wins in the last stretch of the NBA regular season, it is not only important to improve your record and gain much needed momentum for the playoffs, but also keeping injuries at bay especially for the team’s stars. Because of this, it is essential for some players to step up their games in order to reduce the load on the stars and to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive. For this piece, let’s take a look at five players that need to step up during this crucial stretch.
The Charlotte Hornets looked like one of the Eastern Conference contenders during the middle of the regular season, especially with the tremendous rookie season of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward finding his pre-injury form. Unfortunately, the Hornets faced adversity in the crucial stretch with Hayward and Devonte Graham suffering injuries, and also Miles Bridges sitting out due to COVID-19 protocols. Although the Hornets are benefitting from a returning Ball from a broken wrist injury, the team certainly has a problem at the center position. Because of this, Bismack Biyombo needs to step up if he wants his team to make it to the postseason.
Head Coach James Borrego didn’t hold back in terms of his lack of options for his team’s frontline.
After their loss to the Celtics, Borrego said “We’ve got to rebound the ball better. We’ve struggled – I’m going back three years now – from that position. All three guys have got to rebound at a higher level.”
Biyombo is currently averaging 5.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per outing this season. He isn’t going to be replacing the numbers that Hayward produces. However, the team needs him to become the defensive demon in the paint, which he showcased in Toronto. Back in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, the 6’8 big man grabbed a franchise record 26 rebounds for the Raptors. Biyombo hasn’t gotten close to those numbers ever since, but with a depleted lineup it is certainly a great chance for him to showcase his wares and to help his team get past the NBA Play-in Tourney.
Although the Dallas Mavericks have a decent chance of locking up the sixth seed in the playoffs, there is still a slight chance they have to go through the Play-In if they lose their remaining games. Before the season started, the Mavericks traded away shooter Seth Curry for Josh Richardson with the hopes of the latter to provide perimeter defense and outside shooting to compliment their stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Unfortunately, Richardson has played subpar for the Mavs.
This year, he is only averaging 12.3 points on 32.6% shooting from rainbow country which are dips compared to his previous season in Philadelphia. Although Doncic is showing MVP form and KP has been a reliable second option, the regression of Richardson will affect the Mavs negatively once they’re deep in the postseason.
With the NBA Playoffs in the Western Conference stacked with elite guards such as Damien Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, and Chris Paul, it is essential for a perimeter defender to slow them down. Richardson currently has a defensive rating of 114.0 this season, which is below average. Furthermore, scorers outside of Doncic and KP are a must if the team wants to match the firepower of their opposing rivals in the West. For the Mavs to be a legitimate contender, Richardson needs to fill the 3-and-D role better in this crucial stretch.
The Golden State Warriors will go only as far as Curry takes them. With Klay Thompson out, there is no question that finding their old glory days will be a tough climb this year. Because of this, the responsibility of being the second option should lie on the shoulders of Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins is actually having a spectacular season this year by averaging 18.6 points per game including a 38-point outburst in their victory over Phoenix. He also has been a reliable wing defender. However, the Warriors need Wiggins to continue to play at high levels more often if they want to make a splash in the postseason.
Although the Canadian forward is having a good season, he still needs to become more assertive to score, while being efficient at that. Of course, this means taking less midrange iso- jumpers and taking the ball to the rim more instead. If Wiggins can elevate his game to elite levels on a consistent basis, there is no team in the West that would want to mess with the Warriors in the NBA Playoffs.
The Boston Celtics have had a rollercoaster season with COVID-19 and injuries affecting majority of their roster. However, losing Jaylen Brown, who’s having the best season of his career, to a season-ending wrist injury is the biggest blow. As a result, it is all the more important for All-Star guard Kemba Walker to step-up as the second option.
While playing behind Tatum and Brown, Walker isn’t having the best season so far. Furthermore, it didn’t help that he was dealing with knee issues throughout the season. The four time All-Star is averaging a respectable 19.3 points, but we all know this isn’t the elite scoring guard we know.
The Celtics are currently in the seventh seed of the Eastern Conference, and it is likely that they will have to participate in the NBA Play-In to punch a ticket to the postseason. With a massive hole left by Brown, Walker needs to find his All-Star form in time for the Play-In. Although Tatum is having a scoring spree, Walker’s contributions will be key to the Celtics’ playoff run this year.
With injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, no one expected the Lakers to participate in the Play-In Tournament after taking the championship last season. Currently positioned at the seventh seed, the Lakers will have to win their remaining games while hoping the Blazers and Mavericks lose theirs in order to automatically enter the postseason. But clearly, that is next to impossible with the Mavs and Blazers owning the tie-breaker. Because of this, Andre Drummond needs to play at an All-Star level more consistently to solidify the Lakers’ title defense.
Drummond was picked up by the Lakers in the buyout market earlier this year, with the hopes of stabilizing the team during the absence of James and AD. Although he has at times showed his dominance in the paint, Drummond has also had terrible offensive performances and efficiency problems. It is worth nothing that the Lakers are only 8-11 when Drummond plays which is far from what they expected.
If the Lakers want to go deep in the NBA Playoffs, Drummond needs to adjust to the Lakers’ system now. Furthermore, with LBJ making his second return, Drummond needs to learn how to play off of both AD and James as the team’s third option.