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#pounditWednesday, September 23, 2020

Four players who could swing the NBA playoffs

Paul George

The NBA playoffs have the uncanny ability to render a player’s body of work throughout the season meaningless, as players are often solely evaluated on their performances from when the stakes are at their highest. Certain players have the ability to bounce back from underwhelming regular seasons and silence their doubters in the postseason.

These are the players primed with the ability to overcome slow starts to their seasons and potentially alter this year’s championship race.

Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

Paul George has discovered that one of the hardest feats for an NBA player to accomplish is delivering consecutive great individual seasons. After finishing third in MVP voting just a season ago, George’s first season in Los Angeles has been marked with injuries and inconsistent play. Pairing a healthy George with Kawhi Leonard equips the Clippers with two of the most versatile wing players in the NBA. But they will need the healthy and engaged version of George to take down the Lakers in a potential all-LA Western Conference Finals.

Battling injuries and establishing an offensive hierarchy on the new-look Clippers has left George understandably prone to longer stretches of passivity on the offensive end compared to a season ago. However, the most substantial difference in George’s past two campaigns is the noticeable decrease in game-altering stretches during which George elevated from hot shooting to an all-out inferno of buckets. This clip comes from one of George’s most iconic performances with the Thunder, in which he poured in 25 of his 47 points in the fourth quarter of the Thunder’s comeback win against the Nets.

From Stephen Curry-esque pull-up threes in transition to thunderous alley-oop finishes, this stretch by George highlights how unguardable he was at times last season. It’s only fitting that George delivered the 3-point dagger to win the game, as the ball was often entrusted in his hands during the final moments of close games. George’s status as the Thunder’s closer was evident by his fifth-place finish in clutch scoring last year. While George’s raw numbers have taken a noticeable step back with the Clippers, he’s also playing close to eight fewer minutes per game. His per-36 minutes average of 25.9 this year reveals only a marginal regression from the 27.4 points per 36 minutes he averaged a season ago.

Paul George has shown flashes of greatness during his time in Los Angeles, but Kawhi Leonard wasn’t interested in just flashes when he urged the Clippers to make a deal for George. Of all the players that can swing their teams’ fortunes in Orlando, PG-13 will be the determining factor in the Clippers’ pursuit of their first NBA title.

Al Horford

Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers

The role Al Horford was meant to fill with the Philadelphia 76ers was not clearly defined when he signed with the team last summer as they had one of the NBA’s best centers in Joel Embiid already on their roster. However, considering the four-year $109 million investment the club made in Horford, lofty expectations were set. Not even one year into his 76ers tenure, those expectations have been drastically altered.

The 76ers quickly found that playing Embiid, Horford, and Ben Simmons was not a lineup that would prosper in a league that has placed an uncharted level of importance on perimeter shooting and spacing. This realization led to head coach Brett Brown experimenting with bringing Horford off the bench before the hiatus. Injuries to Ben Simmons and Embiid put a temporary pause on Horford’s stint as the sixth man; however, Brown will likely continue to deploy Horford off the bench when the season resumes. For Horford, the key to having a tangible effect on this year’s postseason will be maximizing his time on the court at the center position.

Of all the five-man lineups that have played over 90 minutes together for the 76ers this season, the top two units in terms of net rating both feature Horford at center. Playing Horford at center allows Philadelphia to capitalize on his savvy low-post game as the offense can run through him due to his innate passing ability. Horford’s ability to create easy looks for his teammates will be vital for the 76ers’ offense in the playoffs when Simmons and Embiid rest. For Philadelphia to avoid another postseason disappointment, Horford must function as the team’s bridge between their starting unit and bench players.

Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics

Gordon Hayward has had a very productive season for the Celtics, but his placement on this list stems from the fact that his best may still be yet to come. Last season served as Hayward’s rehab year, as he played himself back into NBA condition after the brutal injury he suffered during 2017 in his first game with the Celtics. Hayward has increased his points, rebounds, and assists averages from last year, and his 50.2 percent field goal shooting represents a new career-high.

Hayward’s newfound decisiveness and increased efficiency can be attributed to two key areas: improvements on shots at the rim and effectiveness from long range. This season Hayward is converting on 69 percent of his looks at the rim and plays like the one below display the shiftiness and explosion he’s regained from a season ago.

After a full season of playing himself back into NBA shape, Hayward looks noticeably less fatigued and has regained the spring on his jump shot. This season he raised his 3-point percentage to 39.2 percent, up from the 33.3 percent he shot a season ago. As Hayward continues to look more like his former self, the Celtics should continue to trust him with more offensive opportunities. One of the deeper teams in the Eastern Conference, if Gordon Hayward can provide the Celtics with consistent offense and veteran leadership, Boston will be Milwaukee’s most dangerous adversary for the Eastern Conference crown.

Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

When the Utah Jazz traded for Mike Conley last summer, it appeared to be the rare NBA trade that would benefit both teams. The Grizzlies would be allowed to rebuild around budding star Ja Morant, while the Jazz finally captured the elite point guard they’ve been searching for since Deron Williams’ departure from Salt Lake City. But as history has proved time and time again, things seldom go according to plan in the NBA.

Conley has looked like a shell of his former self all season long, unable to break down his defenders and free himself up for easy looks at the rim. Conley is attempting just 2.0 shots at the rim per game this season, down from 3.5 attempts a season ago. And while his efficiency in converting around the rim has maintained about on par with his career percentages, the inability to get to the rim is usually one of the first signs of regression for smaller guards. What’s so problematic about Conley’s season is that even without his customary burst to the hoop, the Jazz know Conley still possesses the necessary tools to be a far more productive player than he’s shown.

The Jazz will be without Bojan Bogdanović and the nightly 20.2 points per game he contributes when the season resumes. This will afford Conley the perfect opportunity to assume a more significant role within their offense. The Jazz traded for Conley with one goal in mind: to help alleviate some of the pressure that has been thrust on Donovan Mitchell’s shoulders come playoff time. While he has struggled during his time in Utah so far, Conley’s performance this postseason will dictate how much noise the Jazz can make.

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