Even more impressive than the fact that eight of 10 former Gators in the NBA will be playing in the NBA playoffs is the fact that each of those eight players are key contributors, if not cornerstones, to their respective teams.
While The Sun’s Kevin Brockway highlighted each player that will be in action starting today, I’ll go into each first-round matchup and what role each Gator can play to help their respective teams.
DAVID LEE: The All-Star forward/center always plays a pivotal role for sixth-seeded Golden State as the team’s second-leading scorer (18.5 ppg) and leading rebounder (11.2 rpg). However, he’ll play an even bigger role against third-seeded Denver due to the health concerns of the Nuggets’ leading rebounder, Kenneth Faried.
The Mile High City’s “Manimal” has been out for a week since spraining his left knee against Portland last Sunday and is listed as day-to-day. Faried’s energy on the glass is a big catalyst for the Nuggets’ transition game.
Faried didn’t sound optimistic that he’d play the series opener.
“I’m not saying I’m not. I’m not saying I am. The plan is just to come in and be with my teammates. And even if I’m not playing, I’m going to be on the bench cheering for them,” Faried said. “…I’m not in too much of a rush to get back. I want to be 100 percent.”
Whether Faried is absent or less than 100 percent, Lee and 7-foot center Andrew Bogut will need to exploit the Warriors’ size advantage in order to slow the Nuggets down. This series could be a track meet as both teams average more than 100 points a game and surrender more than 100 points a game. However, Lee could help Golden State pull off an upset over a Denver team that is considered a legit contender to come out of the Western Conference.
It would be extra helpful for the Warriors to take down the potentially short-handed Nuggets in Game 1 or 2 and steal homecourt advantage as Denver comes into the playoffs with an NBA-best 38-3 home record.
Game 1 is Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
COREY BREWER: One of the biggest obstacles to Lee slowing the Nuggets down will be this fast-break fox.
Denver’s transition specialist has only gotten better, and earned more minutes, as the season has wore on. Brewer has made a habit of taking off as soon as his team secures a defensive rebound and getting behind the defense for easy lay-ups and dunks.
Some have labeled Brewer as a “cherry-picker” by doing this, but that’s false and it undermines Brewer’s high basketball IQ and instincts. He’s not sitting at the opposite end under the basket waiting for the long pass. That’s cherry-picking. Brewer is starting at the same point as all other players, but he’s getting his hips pointed in the opposite direction and sprinting the split second he feels confident his team has, or is about to get, possession of the ball. He never leaves his team at a disadvantage defensively by going prematurely.
When he’s not doing that, Brewer’s spotting up for 3-pointers although he has been up and down from beyond the arc, shooting 29.6 percent for the season.
Brewer, who’s been considered for the Sixth Man of the Year award, is now a starter since Danilo Gallinari was lost for the season with a torn ACL a month ago. He enters the playoffs averaging a little more than 15 points a game in the month of April. On the defensive end, Brewer will be matched up with smooth-shooting Harrison Barnes, but he could also periodically get the call to defend one of the Warriors’ backcourt studs, Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry.
Brewer has also proven himself in crunch time for the Nuggets this season. With all that said, he could be a major factor for this dangerous Denver squad this postseason.
JOAKIM NOAH: Due to his injured right foot, the Bulls’ All-Star center is in jeopardy of missing the opener on Saturday against the Nets and possibly more. Coach Tom Thibodeau has listed him as day-to-day with the plantar fasciitis that has caused him to miss 15 games since the start of February.
The bad news continued for the Bulls on Saturday as Thibodeau said that star point guard Derrick Rose is “most likely out” for the postseason, seemingly ending the NBA’s 2011 MVP from making a return from his torn ACL.
However, Chicago has a lot of heart and don’t be surprised if the rest of the Bulls’ talented roster tries to beat the Nets and make it to the second round in order to buy their injured stars some time. If Noah can play enough minutes, the team will feed off of his energy as always, play great defense and take Brooklyn to the wire on more than one occasion.
Nonetheless, Chicago will be taking on an inspired Nets team that will have homecourt advantage in its first season in Brooklyn. They’ll also be facing Brook Lopez, a solid offensive center who averages 19.4 points per game. The Bulls are good enough to challenge the Nets without Rose, but with no Noah, no way.
Game 1 is Saturday at 8 p.m.
AL HORFORD: The Hawks’ forward/center has a tall task in his series against the Pacers, and that’s 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert.
In a way, this is a chance for Horford — not regarded as a center upon entering the NBA — to prove that he can match up against the taller players at the position that made people doubt whether the 6-foot-10 Horford could do it. Hibbert has had a good season, averaging 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game (fourth in the NBA).
However, Horford has had the best year of his six-year NBA career, averaging 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, both career-highs for him. And while he may be at a height disadvantage, he certainly has an athletic advantage over Hibbert.
Horford will need to win the battle in the paint and more specifically, grab offensive rebounds, because the Pacers’ defense — second-best in the NBA while only allowing 90.7 points per game — will be active. So Horford will need to find sharpshooters Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stephenson and emerging rookie John Jenkins to knock down open shots on the perimeter also.
Game 1 is Sunday at 1 p.m.
CHANDLER PARSONS: While shooting guard James Harden will be getting most of the attention from the media in this series as he faces his old team, Parsons can only hope Harden gets that same kind of attention on the floor. If so, Parsons will get opportunities to slash or spot up for 3-pointers, where he’s shooting a team-high 38.5 percent.
The Rockets’ small forward did his best to prevent Houston from falling to the No. 8 seed in the West. His line-drive 3-pointer at the end of regulation forced overtime in the season-finale against the Lakers, but the Rockets went on to lose and thus, they’ll play the Thunder.
Parsons will get the second-worst defensive assignment in the league after having to guard LeBron James, and that’s to guard Kevin Durant. Him and Harden will likely switch on the Durantula throughout the series as Harden is more than familiar with Durant.
Still, the Thunder have to prove that they’re a better team than they were last year with Harden, and many people have their doubts with that. If Harden — the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer with 25.9 points a game — plays like a man possessed, Parsons will benefit greatly, and Houston could put a scare in Oklahoma City.
Game 1 is Sunday at 9:30 p.m.
UDONIS HASLEM: Although the Heat forward hasn’t played a big role in the Heat’s NBA-best 66-16 record, it’s playoff time, and Haslem is sure to have some big efforts as he usually does around this time of year. All you have to do is recall two performances last year in the second-round series against the Pacers and two more against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
It wasn’t even clear if Haslem would be healthy enough to play Game 1 against the 8th-seeded Bucks, but he returned to the starting lineup for the team’s season-finale on Wednesday against the Magic after missing the team’s previous four games with an ankle injury. Haslem played 23 minutes in that game, scoring four points on 2 of 4 shooting, with three rebounds.
Despite his lack of production this season, finishing with career-lows in points (3.9 ppg) and rebounds (5.4 rpg), Haslem finish with 59 starts, his most since 2008-09. Haslem, who’s played his entire 10-year career in Miami and owns two championship rings with the Heat, will come up big at some point. Bank on it.
Game 1 is Sunday at 7 p.m.
MIKE MILLER: The biggest game of Miller’s career is still fresh in everyone’s mind. That’s because the last image everyone saw during the Heat’s championship run last season was a hobbled Miller raining 3s on the Thunder.
Miller scored 23 points in that Game 5, knocking down 7-of-8 3-pointers in 23 minutes off the bench. His seven made 3s became an NBA Finals record.
Miller still has the capability to do that. He’s finally healthy after missing time due to sinus and ear infections during a long stretch from the beginning of February to early March. He only played in one game in February and didn’t score a single point from Jan. 27 until March 24. But in the last 10 games, Miller has averaged 12.1 points per game and has started 10 times. In those 10 games, Miller is shooting 53 percent from beyond the arc. This season, he’s made 41.7 percent of his 3-pointers, just above his 40.6 percent career 3-point average.
Miller, lurking from long range, is to be accounted for along with Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Rashard Lewis and the bevy of 3-point shooters that a driving LeBron James will have at his disposal.
MATT BONNER: Bonner, who finished second in this year’s 3-point shootout, draws “uh oh’s” from commentators when left open from deep. That’s because the 6-foot-10 Spurs forward shot 44.2 percent from 3-point range this season off the bench, the second-highest percentage of his nine-year NBA career.
With San Antonio coming into its series with the Los Angeles Lakers a little banged up, Bonner could get more playing time. He could see plenty of open looks, too since the slow-to-rotate Lakers do a terrible job defensively against teams with great ball movement like the Spurs.
Game 1 is Sunday at 3:30 p.m.