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#pounditThursday, January 26, 2023

5 most important role players in first round of NBA playoffs

Malcolm Brogdon

The first round of the NBA playoffs has arrived, after a season packed with surprises and intrigue. Following last offseason, nearly all of the viewing public thought a Cavs-Warriors rematch was inevitable. Now with more than a thousand games played, that is clearly not the case.

MVP candidates are dominating the majority of media coverage, but in a seven game series, the lesser names on the roster can often play a major role. No team reaches the deep rounds of the playoffs without being able to rely on a group of reliable role players who know what is needed of them and how to execute in the clutch.

With all eight series kicking off this weekend, a crop of role players will find their way to the spotlight, swinging some of the most highly-contested series.

Here’s a look at five of the most important role players for the first round of the playoffs.

1. Doug McDermott, Oklahoma City Thunder

So much focus, by fans, media, and opponents, will be on Russell Westbrook. He’s earned that right by averaging a triple-double for the season — the first player to do so since Oscar Robertson. Clearly Westbrook will dominate the Rockets’ defensive gameplan.

But for the Thunder to collect four wins against Houston, Oklahoma City will need to find a way to either score with the high-flying Rockets or figure out how to defend James Harden and the Houston attack.

The Thunder have defensive pieces to slow the Rockets, but stopping a team with so many shooters and weapons is easier said than done.

For the Thunder to win an offensive shootout instead, someone other than Russell Westbrook will need to make shots. The rest of the Thunder roster has plenty of valuable role players or great athletic defenders, but only Doug McDermott can force Houston to divert some of their defensive strategy his way. That’s exactly why Oklahoma City traded for the former Creighton star.

Having a deadeye like McDermott on the wing allows more room for Westbrook to execute in the pick-and-roll. For the Thunder to steal a game on the road, they’ll need McDermott to pitch in a 20-point effort. He’s only had one 20-point game since being acquired by the Thunder and is averaging 6.6 points on 45.2 percent shooting for OKC. He’ll have to step up with some big shots this postseason.

2. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

No rookie played a bigger role for a playoff team than Brodgon, which is why many voters will have the Bucks guard atop their Rookie of the Year ballot, ahead of both Philadelphia first year players, 31-game superstar Joel Embiid or late-blooming Dario Saric.

After four years in Tony Bennett’s system at the University of Virginia, Brogdon entered the league ready to play and is already 24 years old. This season, he shot over 40 percent from outside the arc, dished 5.8 assists per 36 minutes, and played fierce defense against multiple positions.

In the first round of the playoffs, he’ll be a key contributor when the Raptors have the ball, often guarding both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. His ability to keep those two Toronto playmakers outside the paint can throw a major wrench in the Raptors’ offensive plans.

It’s rare for a rookie to be a big cog in the playoff picture, though Brogdon is as ready as any rookie in recent memory. The second-round pick is averaging 10.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game this season.

3. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have become a trendy upset pick, facing the overachieving Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. For that to happen, the Bulls need someone other than Jimmy Butler to consistently score. This past summer, as Chicago built its team, a firestorm of questions developed about the amount of shooting the Bulls would feature.

With Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade — both ball-dominant players without jump shooting capabilities, flanking All-Star Jimmy Butler, the Bulls found trouble with floor spacing. At the trade deadline, the team dealt its best shooter, Doug McDermott, to Oklahoma City.

Of the complementary players left on the Chicago roster, Nikola Mirotic brings the Bulls the best chance of a hot shooting night. The 6-foot-10 forward can, at the very least, force bigger defenders to chase him out to the three-point line. Mirotic has shot 39 percent on wide open threes (with 6 or more feet from the closest defender) and a red hot 46 percent on threes from the corner this season. Overall, he’s averaging 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 41.3 percent.

For the Bulls to actually pull off the upset, they’ll need Mirotic to catch fire.

4. Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute, Los Angeles Clippers

Amazingly, throughout the entirety of the Chris Paul era in Los Angeles, one hole has consistently existed on the Clippers roster. Despite chatter about how Paul fits with bigs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and shooters Jamal Crawford and JJ Redick, the Clippers have never featured a talented swingman capable of providing scoring punch and defending the NBA’s best small forwards.

The Clippers are again faced with a small forward capable of giving them fits, with Gordon Hayward and the Jazz in round one.

Journeyman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has started 76 games for the Clippers this season, capably guarding a variety of opponents. He’s truly a role player, whose performance barely shows in the box score. Mbah a Moute only scores 6.2 points per game, adding two rebounds and less than one assist.

Those numbers are clearly nothing special, but without Mbah a Moute’s defense, the Clippers will again face an early exit. Gordon Hayward doesn’t receive a ton of attention while playing for a small market like Utah, yet if he can outplay the Clippers’ wily veteran, he’ll be a household name as the Jazz move on.

5. Bojan Bogdanovic, Washington Wizards

The Wizards acquired Bogdanovic at the trade deadline with the playoffs in mind. During the grind of playoff basketball, secondary scoring can be crucial, especially off the bench in the second unit.

Bogdanovic has been filling it up for the Brooklyn Nets (and the Croatian national team) for years now. The 6-foot-8 shooter has continued to be a scoring option in Washington, posting 20 points per 36 minutes and stroking 39 percent of his outside shots.

It doesn’t take much for Bogdanovic to get going. Even coming off the bench, his .38 points per touch this season ranks in the top 20 in the league (among players who have played in 50 plus games). Even when John Wall or Bradley Beal is on the bench, the Wizards can continue to make the Hawks worry about a scoring run, led by Bogdanovic.

Bogdanovic has given a once weak bench in Washington some serious punch and depth.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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