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Monday, April 16, 2001
Updated: April 20, 4:25 PM ET
Role Call

By By Chris Palmer

Hakeem's two rings? Wouldn't have them without clutch play from Sam Cassell and Robert Horry. Jordan's six rings? Might be four, if you take away key threes from John Paxson and Steve Kerr. In other words, you can't expect your top guns to always carry the load. Occasionally, big contributions come from unsung sources. Here are five guys who'll have to do what they do best for their teams to have any hope of making an impact this postseason. Remember this: Every role matters.

Alvin Williams, Toronto
When the Raptors traded away veteran Mark Jackson on Feb. 22, critics thought Toronto was left pointless. Yet Williams has filled the point guard role solidly, helping lead a team that was two games above .500 before the trade to a record approaching last year's unprecedented mark of 45-37. Where Jackson ran the offense methodically, Williams' style is turbocharged -- a better fit for Vince Carter's game. He's particularly good at getting VC the ball where he likes it: at the elbow, above the rim on backscreens. The 6'5" Williams, who works out with Allen Iverson during the summer, also gives the Raptors something Jackson never could: solid defense against either guard position. Through April 11, Williams owned the league's sixth-best assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6:1), which means the Raptors seem to be pointed in the right direction.

Derek Fisher, L.A. Lakers
Phil Jackson has never been a fan of small guards. So what does he do when the 6'1" Fisher returns to the lineup after missing the season's first 62 games due to a foot injury? He plays him more than 35 minutes per. Fisher has responded with career highs in scoring (11.7 ppg), rebounds, assists and steals. His main impact has been as the defensive conscience of a team that has slipped in FG% allowed, from first last season (.416) to 13th this season (.438). He's solid cutting off penetration of the quicker point guards (at which Ron Harper and Tyronn Lue struggled), and he's been so good on defense that Jackson's now experimenting with traps and two-man double downs -- knowing D-Fish will push his teammates to execute. "All that he's made of, we were lacking," says Brian Shaw. The Zen Master has to agree.

Kurt Thomas, New York
Kurt Thomas didn't want the job -- not at the expense of one of his best friends. But when Larry Johnson briefly left the struggling Knicks with an aching back on March 6, Thomas averaged 12.3 points and 9.4 rebounds in helping New York win six of eight games. LJ still starts, when healthy. But Thomas is getting the bulk of the power forward minutes, earning respect as the team's quiet enforcer. Shocked by Thomas' contributions? You shouldn't be, considering he led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1995 while at TCU. On offense, he's shown improvement on his midrange jumper, and on D his energy frees up Marcus Camby on the boards. LJ's reduction of minutes translates into Thomas playing a bigger role this postseason -- whether he likes it or not.

Doug Christie, Sacramento
They don't run any plays for him. (Okay, they'll occasionally let him post a small guard.) Still, Christie may have done more to change the Kings' fortunes than any other player. His impact has been on D, where Christie's as adept playing the passing lanes as he is battling the post. His 2.29 steals per game ranks third in the league, and his play has been contagious. With the Kings improving from 27th in points allowed (102 ppg last season) to 15th (95.6), and the defense triggering more fast breaks, they've gone from pretender to contender. "He's been responsible for our defensive intensity this year," says Chris Webber. With playoff responsibilities ranging anywhere from Kobe to Kidd, Christie should be plenty busy this postseason -- meaning he won't have time to worry about getting his shots.

Derek Anderson, San Antonio
AI called. So did Nick the Quick and dozens of other guys who saw highlights of his tomahawk jam on Shawn Bradley. But eye-popping feats aren't why the Spurs are feeling Anderson: They love his adjustment to the team-first approach, his buying into the inside/outside philosophy, and his seamless integration into an already tight group. "He's figured out everything quickly," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Signing for less than market value as a free agent last summer, DA is the Spurs' best scoring guard since '89 (when David Robinson arrived and began dominating the offense). The more he hits his feathery J, the less defenses sag, giving the Spurs even more inside dominance -- and an excellent shot at duplicating their '99 title run. Common sight after wins: Anderson and Tim Duncan in a happy embrace. Kobe and Shaq they ain't.

This article appears in the April 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.