The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
The NBA’s play-in tournament kicks off Tuesday and every team will need stars and role players to come up big. Here’s the secret weapon each team will count on.
Golden State Warriors’ secret weapon: Jordan Poole
The most obvious path for the Golden State Warriors to advance through the NBA’s play-in tournament is Steph Curry just going supernova and scorching all challengers. He locked up the NBA’s scoring title and has been arguably more productive, in more difficult circumstances than in either of his MVP seasons. But it would be nice if he could get a little scoring help and Jordan Poole could be just the guy to provide it.
Poole’s season as a whole has been fairly unimpressive, but he’s finished strong. He averaged 17.8 points per game in May, shooting 49.0 percent from the field, 35.8 percent on 3-pointers and 87.2 percent from the free-throw line. He is definitely not Klay Thompson but he hit a decent 37.8 percent of his spot-up 3-pointers this season. Poole should definitely not be taking pull-up jumpers in any circumstance but he has been more effective attacking closeouts and leveraging obvious opportunities to attack — in May, he’s shooting 73.7 percent on an average of 6.1 drives per game, drawing a foul on a whopping 13 percent of his drives. He can put any pressure on the defense it will just make things so much easier for Curry.
Los Angeles Lakers’ secret weapon: Alex Caruso
There aren’t a lot of “secret” weapons on the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s Anthony Davis, a hopefully healthy LeBron James and then a pinch of Dennis Schroder. But they’re going to have their hands full with Steph Curry. Schroder was torched by Curry during the regular season and he may also be asked to create more on offense if LeBron isn’t 100 percent and Caruso is the perfect defender to throw at Curry and spend the game chasing him through screens and over screens, on and off the ball.
Caruso’s track record defending Curry isn’t statistically impressive (no one’s is) but he’s been one of the league’s peskiest and most persistent defenders and while his offense is important to L.A. they don’t lose much by letting him focus his considerable energy at that end of the floor.
Memphis Grizzlies’ secret weapon: Kyle Anderson
Anderson may be the least exciting player on this entire roster but he may be the most important. In nine games since the beginning of May, he’s averaging 14.4 points, 4.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game, shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 45.9 percent on 3-pointers. He’ll likely be seeing a lot of Keldon Johnson and Rudy Gay and he can both occupy their attention as an off-ball threat, opening space for Ja Morant, or make things happen as a secondary creator. His facility as a ball-handler while playing the 4 can also let the Grizzlies create some wrinkles and potentially force switches to get better individual matchups for their other ball-handlers. And, as a bonus, every shot Anderson takes is a shot that Dillon Brooks doesn’t.
San Antonio Spurs’ secret weapon: Whoever can make a shot besides DeMar DeRozan
To say the Spurs’ offense is struggling would be an understatement. Since May 1, they’ve managed just 109.4 points per 100 possessions, down about a point from their full-season average and a mark that would rank just 25th across the entire season. Over that span, they’ve made just 68-of-222 (30.6 percent) open and wide-open 3-pointers. So even when their offense is creating space, no one has been able to take advantage. At this point, it doesn’t matter who it is. But someone besides DeRozan has to make some open 3s or this will be over in a hurry.
Boston Celtics’ secret weapon: Marcus Smart
Smart is currently banged up, like pretty much everyone on this Celtics’ roster but you know he’ll bring energy and intensity to an elimination game. His defense will be extremely important — he spent more time on Westbrook than Beal in regular-season matchups but he’ll likely have opportunities to try and slow down both. The Celtics will also really need him to be productive on offense, with Tatum less than 100 percent on Jaylen Brown out for the season. Smart’s 3-point percentage is way down from his career-high two years ago but he did average a career-best 6.2 assists per 36 minutes this year and the Celtics will need to make Beal and Westbrook work on defense.
Washington Wizards’ secret weapon: Davis Bertans
The Wizards kicked off an eight-game winning streak with a win over the Utah Jazz on Apr. 12 and from there, finished the season on a 15-5 run. Westbrook and Beal obviously powered this drive to the playoffs but they got some help, particularly from Davis Bertans. His shooting percentages were down quite a bit this season but he hit 39.4 percent of nearly eight 3-point attempts per game over the Wizards’ final 20 games. His shooting opens space for Beal and Westbrook and defense focused on slowing them down could put him in line for a big night in these single-game elimination scenarios.
Indiana Pacers’ secret weapon: T.J. McConnell
As the Pacers have struggled for positive momentum all season long, the one constant has been T.J. McConnell. He averaged 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game off the bench and shot better than 50 percent from the field, even though his scoring generates very little gravity. But his defense and energy are what the Pacers will need most, especially against a Hornets’ team with multiple ball-handlers. McConnell can work on Terry Rozier or Devonte’ Graham and according to the NBA’s new CourtOptix stats, no put more pressure on opposing ball-handlers this season. Having him set the tone at the point of attack will be essential if the Pacers hope to extend their season.
Charlotte Hornets’ secret weapon: Miles Bridges
He feasts off the opportunities other players create for him but Bridges has an opportunity to really leverage his quickness and athleticism against the Pacers’ two-big alignment. When the Hornets go small, Bridges can punish Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner by pulling them to the perimeter and attacking off the dribble or cutting to open space. Charlotte’s ball-handlers need to play well for them to win but if that happens, chances are it’s because Bridges was helping create chaos for them.
If you’re looking for some stat-based analysis of the NBA play-in tournament, Max Mortensen broke down every matchup for Nylon Calculus.
Nobody enjoys players endlessly arguing with officials. But in the case of Nikola Jokic, the numbers say he’s been wronged enough that he probably deserves a little sympathy.
Our own Gerald Bourgeut made his picks for MVP, Rookie of the Year and every other major regular-season award. If you’re into All-NBA and All-Defense teams, he’s got those covered too.