The X-Men, from AI2 to Zo
Every team has someone they can't live without, whether you know him or not.
You know the main men of the playoffs. Let's proceed, then, to the X-Men.
Let's proceed to the identities of the proverbial, not-so-obvious X-factors for each of the 16 playoff qualifiers.
Mark Blount, Boston Celtics
After signing a new contract worth $40-plus million over the summer, Blount barely registered. He averaged a measly 9.4 points and 4.8 rebounds to quickly scuttle the notion that he and Raef LaFrentz would form one of the East's more productive frontcourt tandems. Coach Doc Rivers wound up slicing Blount's minutes after the reacquisition of Antoine Walker, but Blount could redeem himself -- and make Boston a lot more dangerous -- by showing an actual playoff pulse.
Kirk Hinrich, Chicago Bulls
Lots of Bulls fans believe, for all the attention hoarded by sixth man extraordinaire Ben Gordon and the Eddy Curry-Tyson Chandler tag team, that Hinrich is actually Chicago's most important player. It'll be tough to dispute that in the Washington series, when Hinrich confronts Gilbert Arenas. If Hinrich can match the 20.7 points and 5.0 assists he averaged against the Wiz in the regular season, he might be able to neutralize one of Washington's expected edges.
Erick Dampier, Dallas Mavericks
No one in the playoffs has played more regular-season games (554) without a postseason appearance than Dampier. And no Maverick (after Dirk Nowitzki) is more critical to Dallas' hopes for a long playoff run than the moody center. His numbers (8.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg) certainly don't overwhelm you, but Dampier's mere presence down low is the backbone of Dallas' vaunted new defense. Yet his effectiveness is uncertain, with Damp still recovering from a six-week-old knee injury.
The Whole Swing Rotation, Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets, at their best, ride Carmelo Anthony and the big men (Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Nene) who protect him. Just be advised that new coach George Karl is also quite fond of the role-player variety he has at the two and three. This mixture of grit (Greg Buckner and Eduardo Najera), veteran know-how (Bryon Russell) and offensive help (DerMarr Johnson and Wesley Person) enables Karl to get creative with his lineup combinations.
Tayshaun Prince, Detroit Pistons
You have heard much -- and you'll probably continue to hear -- about the supposed decline of the defending champs' bench compared to last spring's. We say Antonio McDyess, Carlos Arroyo and anyone one else Larry Brown trots out will do fine. Yet even if they don't, Prince's improvement offensively and his standard defensive sparkle makes the best starting five in the East even better than it was a year ago.
Bob Sura, Houston Rockets
The numbers are irrefutable. The Rockets stumbled to a 6-11 start when back problems made Sura unavailable early in the season and they began to launch their recovery when he returned. Jeff Van Gundy doesn't have a pure point guard in his regular rotation, but Sura spearheads the effective quartet -- which also features Mike James, David Wesley and Jon Barry -- that has opened up the floor for Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
Dale Davis, Indiana Pacers
There's a reason Jermaine O'Neal is rarely heard complaining about the ongoing absence of the suspended Ron Artest and the injured Jamaal Tinsley. Reason being: O'Neal is too busy raving about Davis, whose late-season return to the Pacers has Indy giddy -- O'Neal and Reggie Miller especially. JO mentioned Davis about five times in a recent conversation with us, speaking excitedly about playing with the rugged vet and insisting Davis can still make a difference at 36.
Earl Watson, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies want to be as physical as possible with Steve Nash. To have any degree of success against the Suns' MVP candidate, Memphis needs a strong showing from Earl Watson. No one should be terribly surprised if Grizz coach Mike Fratello opts to rely more on the speed, defense and toughness Watson can provide at crunch time as opposed to the flair of Jason Williams -- especially after Fratello and J-Thrill clashed late in the season.
Alonzo Mourning, Miami Heat
When Zo rejoined the Heat in March, Stan Van Gundy downplayed the idea that Mourning would be partnering Shaquille O'Neal on a regular basis. Shaq, conversely, insisted repeatedly (from the start) that lining up alongside Zo was inevitable. Udonis Haslem is the latest weak-side forward to flourish at Shaq's side, but we side with Shaq on this one. It's difficult to see the Heat beating Detroit in the conference finals without getting something from a Shaq-Zo combo.
Richard Jefferson, New Jersey Nets
Another dangerous dunker on the wing ... or mere decoy? That's the question facing Jefferson after a three-month absence following wrist surgery. If he finds instant chemistry as swingman option No. 2 alongside Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, New Jersey can make Miami work harder than it wants to in Round 1. If Lawrence Frank's premonitions are correct -- the Nets' coach has been trying in vain to downplay expectations on RJ after such a long absence -- it'll be a short series.
Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers
You could probably make a case for the new guy here, except that Chris Webber has a much bigger profile than we're looking for in an X-Men discussion. Not that Iguodala is small-time. The rookie ranks as the best perimeter defender on the Sixers' roster ... as well as one of the foremost dunkers in the league. Question is, how will A.I. Junior fare chasing Rip Hamilton? Philly really doesn't have a better option to put on Detroit's perpetual motion machine.
All five starters, Phoenix Suns
Jim Jackson is a playoff-tested veteran and Steven Hunter has shown more flashes of NBA competence in his brief Phoenix stints than he ever did in Orlando. But let's be honest. No team in the league, not even Detroit, needs its starters more than Phoenix. If anything happens to anyone in the first five -- a fear that obviously applies to Steve Nash most of all -- the Suns aren't the Suns any more.
Pete Youngman, Sacramento Kings
Haven't heard of Youngman? He's the Kings' athletic trainer, and he's a busy guy these days. Bobby Jackson is back from Christmas-time wrist surgery, but he'll have to be monitored closely. Ditto for Brad Miller (leg) and Peja Stojakovic (groin), both questionable to be ready for the start of the Seattle series. Chances are Peja plays, but Youngman's room will be bustling more than usual ... and this, remember, is a team accustomed to starting the playoffs at less than full strength.
Glenn Robinson, San Antonio Spurs
Perhaps we get a bit too smitten with guys who can make shots, but the belief here is that the Spurs are going to use Big Dog plenty, even though he's new and still getting in shape ... and not your prototypical Popovich player. A good midrange shooter is always a handy weapon to neutralize a shot-blocker, be it Marcus Camby in Round 1 or a certain Shaq in the Finals. With Devin Brown's health in question, Big Dog becomes San Antonio's first scorer off the bench.
Reggie Evans-Danny Fortson-Jerome James, Seattle SuperSonics
Ray Allen sat down with your faithful correspondent for Tuesday's "NBA Nation" on ESPN2 and wouldn't allow us to focus on one of the Sonics' big men. Ray says you have to treat them as an ensemble of X-Men ... though he readily acknowledged that consistency (especially with Fortson and James) is the question mark. "When they bring what they can bring to the table," Allen insists, "we're impossible to stop."
Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards
Why not? It would be sweet timing for the much-maligned Brown to have an impact against the Bulls, after a season in which both of his Chicago counterparts from the much-maligned draft class of 2001 had successful seasons. With his draft-mate Eddy Curry out for the playoffs, leaving the defense-first Tyson Chandler, another draft-mate, down low, Washington shouldn't be as vulnerable inside as expected. It'll be easier to make that claim if Kwame isn't fazed by his first taste of the playoffs.