8 players who need to step it up in the NBA playoffs
Three of the four NBA conference semifinal series are set to go at least six games, and it’s made for very exciting viewing for fans. It also means the stakes are high, and there’s little margin for error for players in each series. That’s especially true for key players, some of whom were huge parts of their organization’s regular season success but aren’t quite replicating it during this round of the playoffs.
Here is one player from each team still standing who needs to step it up if he wants to give his side the best possible chance of advancing.
Eric Bledsoe, Bucks
The Bucks are humming along just fine against the Boston Celtics, but some added firepower from Bledsoe could really seal their opponent’s fate. Bledsoe was a nice auxiliary option for Milwaukee during the regular season, and while not a great shooter, he shot a decent 33 percent in the regular season from three-point range. In the Eastern Conference semifinals, he’s gone just 4-of-16 — good for a .211 mark. His points per game have dropped as well, and the Celtics would probably struggle to overcome a steady game from him if the rest of Milwaukee’s weapons are firing, too.
Clint Capela, Rockets
As the Rockets lean on the Chris Paul-James Harden axis, the Golden State Warriors just haven’t let Capela get into the series. After averaging an impressive 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds per game during the regular season, Capela has been bottled up down low against Golden State, averaging only 9.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game during the series. A lot of this is due to the fact that he simply isn’t getting as many shots as he did during the regular season. Harden will continue to carry the primary load, but a boost from Capela would be huge for Houston.
Stephen Curry, Warriors
It’s no secret that Curry is battling some physical limitations right now, but we’re simply not used to seeing him shoot this poorly for this long, hurt or not. The stats, by Curry’s lofty standards, are poor: only 21.5 points per game against Houston, a field goal percentage below 40 percent overall, and just 26.1 percent from three-point range. He had some disastrous high-percentage misses when the series shifted to Houston, and his struggles are a big reason why the Warriors now find themselves in some real trouble.
Gary Harris, Nuggets
Harris had an injury-plagued season that saw a lot of his numbers regress, but his long-range shooting in particular has taken a huge hit in the Western Conference semifinals. A career 36.5 percent shooter from three-point range, Harris has gone just 3-for-18 against Portland — a miserable 16.7 percent shooting rate. Harris has done a great job on the defensive end and Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have really picked up the slack for him, so it’s not as if he’s been useless or a detriment. If he could shoot a bit better, though, Denver would become that much tougher to beat.
Kyrie Irving, Celtics
Irving’s struggles aren’t for lack of effort. He’s taking more shots than any other Celtics player, and if you ask him, he should be taking more. The problem is he isn’t consistently hitting them. Irving is shooting just 37.3 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point land against Milwaukee, and he has hit 40 percent of his shots from that distance in recent seasons. It’s a huge dip, too big to ignore, and a big reason Boston is in a 3-1 hole. If Irving’s shots don’t start falling, it’s unlikely that the Celtics will be able to climb out of it, and he’s certainly not going to stop shooting.
Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
After all the heavy lifting Lillard did to carry Portland past Oklahoma City in the first round, it feels almost unfair to demand more from him. Though he remains Portland’s leading scorer against Denver, his three-point shot has abandoned him somewhat. The career 37 percent shooter from three has made only 11 of his 44 attempts against Denver — a miserable 25 percent rate. While some of this is due to good perimeter defense, he also missed some good looks as Portland tried to storm back in Game 4. Lillard only needs one huge game to turn the complexion of his series around, but it has to happen very quickly with Portland on the brink of elimination.
Kyle Lowry, Raptors
It’s no coincidence that the Raptors posted a blowout win in Game 5 against the Sixers, which happened to be Lowry’s best game of the series. The point guard has twice been held to a single-digit point total by Philadelphia. While Toronto won one of those games anyway, they’re probably not going to make a habit of doing that when Lowry is typically a more prolific scorer. Kawhi Leonard has carried Toronto, and Pascal Siakam is outscoring Lowry as well. While the Raptors can win that way, they’re much harder to beat when Lowry is at his best. He needs to string together some consistency, and if he does, Toronto should finish off the series.
Ben Simmons, 76ers
Simmons’ jump shot has always been a problem, and it has remained one against the Raptors. After hitting seven of his eight shots in Game 1, he’s under 50 percent since, going 16-of-34 in his last three games. In Game 5, he shot the ball just five times and was a total non-factor. He was also poor in Game 4, posting a -16 mark in just over 38 minutes. Simmons has to be more influential, especially with Joel Embiid struggling with his health. He’s getting worse and worse as the series goes on.