Moore: The 25 Most Important Players in the NBA Conference Finals

Moore: The 25 Most Important Players in the NBA Conference Finals article feature image

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2).

  • The NBA Conference Finals tip off tonight with Game 1 of Blazers vs. Warriors.
  • Matt Moore ranks the top-25 most important players remaining among the final four teams of the NBA Playoffs.

The Conference Finals are here, and here’s a look at the 25 most important players in Bucks-Raptors and Blazers-Warriors. Note: This is not about the best players but the most important for how they will impact these series.

1. Kawhi Leonard

He’s going to have to do everything he did against the Sixers — only better. He has to carry the offense against a better defense. He has to help at least on times on the MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he has to make constant rotations to shooters. Oh, and he needs to rebound. Oh, and probably pass better because the Bucks may blitz him.

There will be games and long stretches where the Raptors offense just goes away, and in those moments he has to do everything. But he also has to manage it so that the rest of the team doesn’t disengage. It’s a tough road.

In the regular season, when Giannis was on the court, the Bucks were -10.8 in Net Rating with Kawhi on the floor and a +70.5 in the 21 minutes where Leonard sat. Leonard has to be everything.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Raptors are going to sell out on trying to get him to commit offensive fouls, and for the most part Antetokounmpo has managed to avoid that. If Leonard is on him, Giannis has to watch his handle, which can get loose, and manage to draw fouls on him. If Giannis wins the minutes where Leonard is on him, the Raptors are doomed. If Leonard wins, the Raptors are going to be in position to win.

The Raptors will also switch Marc Gasol on him, and Giannis has destroyed those matchups vs. bigger defenders this year, but he has to keep it up. The big key is that Toronto will likely do what the Celtics did towards the end of their series vs. Milwaukee: sending waves at the perimeter to try and stop Giannis. If he just relentlessly attacks the rim and draws fouls, that gets the Raptors bench in early and it’s over.

Defensively, he has to manage his foul trouble and help on Leonard without sending him to the line.

What’s amazing is that this is an upside selection. The Bucks can win this series if Giannis has a bad series; that’s how good their bench is and how bad Toronto’s is. However, if he has a big series, the Raptors are most likely doomed.

3. Steph Curry

Curry will always be high on a list like this, as he’s the single most impactful player on the floor in the NBA. The Warriors can still win this series in short order if Curry has a quiet series — Klay Thompson has big Games 1 and 2, Kevin Durant returns in Game 3 and that’s it. But if Curry goes supernova the way only he can, that’s game over for the Blazers.

Damian Lillard was the best player in the first round. But if Curry’s the best player in this series, the avalanche of fire that is the Warriors offense can eclipse him no matter what he does.

Curry is also important defensively. With Durant out, the Warriors defense is more susceptible on the perimeter. Curry has to have a good series without fouling so he can stay on the floor.

4. Marc Gasol

Al Horford was set to be a huge part of the Celtics’ chances vs. the Bucks, but he just couldn’t make enough of an impact with how the Celtics imploded. But the key here is that Gasol is now in the situation Brook Lopez was in. Gasol will have to help to the ball-handler and then recover to Lopez in space. Lopez misses here, but the look is clean:

The Raptors didn’t play the Bucks with Gasol this year, but when Gasol was with Memphis, the Bucks had a 123 Offensive Rating and a +21 Net Rating this season with Lopez on the floor when Gasol was on. Gasol has to manage Lopez’s ability to space the floor, help down and manage those switches vs. Giannis. Oh, and he has to do what he hates and shoot. There’s a lot on Gasol in this series.

5. Damian Lillard

He has to have a series for the ages. He has to be better than he was in the OKC series, and he has to hope that the Warriors don’t blitz him the way the Nuggets did. He has to hit shots from the logo, halfcourt, from the tunnel, from outside the arena.

The Warriors are also going to attack Lillard defensively, running him off screens constantly. He has to maintain space chasing a Splash Brother when he already seemed tired last round. The Blazers beat the Nuggets in seven games despite Lillard struggling (he still got numbers, because, Dame) because C.J. McCollum went supernova vs. lesser defenders and Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard made plays.

They need more vs. the Warriors.

6. C.J. McCollum

Same kind of deal. Even if Lillard is going, they need McCollum to have the kind of series he did last round. He’s got to get to his spots vs. taller, longer defenders than he faced last round, find the open roll man (which he struggled with at times last round) and, like Lillard, chase a good shooter constantly.

The other guys will have more trouble vs. Golden State, and the Warriors’ other guys will do better than Denver. The Blazers’ two guys have to be on fire at all times for them to have even a chance.

7. Kyle Lowry

“Kyle Lowry needs to have a big series, Vol. 200”

Lowry makes so many smart plays that help the Raptors. He made one of the biggest plays of the season late vs. the Sixers on the steal. He also scored 20 or more points once — in a Game 2 loss, where he scored exactly 20.

Lowry’s facing a tough series of matchups. Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Malcolm Brogdon are all great defensively. And Lowry has to manage Bledsoe’s athleticism, Hill’s shooting and Brogdon’s savvy. He’s going to have to hit some shots — some contested, low-percentage shots. Kawhi can’t do it on his own like he did vs. the Sixers.

8. Draymond Green

Without Kevin Durant, the Warriors need more from Green. The Blazers will leave Green open from deep and dare him to shoot. He doesn’t have to; he can drive on the Blazers’ subpar bigs and finish with the lob or kick to the corner in a way Paul Millsap couldn’t.

Defensively he is the key; he has to manage rotations to contest Enes Kanter on his quick easy drop-off buckets, handle Zach Collins’ length and athleticism and keep the energy high. Without Durant, the Warriors’ ceiling is higher but their floor is lower. If Green brings anything less than 100%, the Blazers, if they’re hitting shots, can keep it close.

9. Pascal Siakam

With Gasol having to cover to the perimeter on Lopez, Siakam will be depended on to protect the paint. That’s tough with it being Giannis going downhill, but at least Siakam has the athleticism to contest.

Siakam was injured for most of the Sixers series, and he needs to give them big minutes and production. His corner 3s will be huge with how the Bucks will help down in pick-and-rolls and with Gasol at least pretending to stretch the floor.

When Siakam goes inside, he has to finish over Lopez, who is a terrific interior defender. The Bucks are No. 2 in the playoffs in points in the paint allowed per 100 possessions after being No. 1 in the regular season. Siakam has to find smart cuts and finish big time.

He’ll also have his turn on Giannis, which, again, is about making him work and not fouling.

10. Kevin Durant

How is Durant this low? Well, he’s going to miss at least the first two games. If the Warriors go 3-0 without him, there’s no reason to bring him back before a potential Game 6. He’s still this high because once he returns, if the series isn’t over, it’s over then. Durant is the best player in the world, but his team doesn’t need him, especially not vs. the Blazers.

You can’t be important if you’re not necessary.

11. Brook Lopez

Connected to Gasol, above.

The Bucks running roughshod over the Celtics despite Lopez being a negative in that series was a testament to just how much they smacked the Celtics, but that’ll be more difficult vs. the Raptors. They need to win those minutes with Lopez on the floor and need him to hit shots. Under the radar, Lopez is 12-of-43 for 28% from deep in the playoffs.

Now, on the one hand, he’s due. On the other, if he continues to struggle, the Bucks are then in a grind-it-out, tough-shot-making contest with Kawhi Leonard, and that’s not a fun place to be.

Defensively, he has to protect the rim as well. The Raptors are only eighth among playoff teams in points in the paint, but the Bucks can’t give anything easy to the Raptors. If Lopez shuts down the drives with his verticality and forces Gasol to take catch-and-shoot 3s he never wants to take, the Bucks have gotten a big edge.

There will also be some switches, and that’s the biggest area where Lopez just has to basically try his best without fouling.

12. Andre Iguodala

Guess who gets C.J. McCollum?

Iguodala, in what may be his last season, has been absolutely incredible. Hitting 3s, making huge defensive plays — just vintage 2016 Iguodala stuff. If he can contain McCollum 1-on-1, the Blazers are toast. If he consistently hits mid-rangers and 3s, the Blazers are toast.

Iguodala’s the lifeblood of the smallball lineups, and they need him more than ever with Durant out.

13. Danny Green

The Bucks are starting Nikola Mirotic, which means one of Khris Middleton or Mirotic will be on him. Green needs to run them ragged through screens to wear them out and knock down shots. Making shots is a big deal for the Raptors because, well, quite frankly, they’ve sucked at it in the playoffs.

Green is also the best transition defender of all time (yeah, I said it), and the Bucks live in transition. If he interferes with Giannis’ dribble, takes charges, makes those kinds of plays — those are huge momentum shifts for the Raptors.

14. Zach Collins

What a time to be alive. The youngster was huge vs. Denver once Terry Stotts realized that Enes Kanter was a massive liability and Collins’ ability to spread the floor just enough while helping protect the rim was big vs. a Denver team that wouldn’t shoot. Now, the Warriors will shoot, so that’s an issue, but if he manages to irritate Green while making help-side plays, that’ll help.

The big key is –and this is a theme in this column, you’ll note — not fouling. If he’s in high pick-and-roll contain on Curry, he can’t get caught by pump fakes or little bumps. Let Curry go and trust the weakside, because every minute that Collins is on the bench is more minutes for Kanter and Meyers Leonard, and they are absolutely losing those in this series.

Collins absolutely should start and absolutely will not, making the Warriors 1Q ML a good value.

15. Khris Middleton

If he has a big series, it cancels out at least 3/4 of what Leonard is bringing and the Bucks can overwhelm them offensively. If he has a bad series, this thing’s in the mud where the Raptors want it. He was phenomenal vs. Boston. This is what they pay him for — and he’s in a contract year.

Big shot time, Khris.

16. Eric Bledsoe

Bledsoe is a series-turner. If he puts the clamps on Lowry not only on-ball but with ball denial, the Raptors offense is going to clog up and be deep in the shot clock every possession. If he’s slipping past Lowry and getting into the paint, that means Giannis is likely free with the help side coming and shooters are open. If he’s punishing switches, like he can with his athleticism, that’s a back-breaker.

Bledsoe got through his Boston struggles and was big time in Game 5. This is a better matchup for him, even if Green is guarding him, and his athleticism and size, particularly in the trunk area, can be a big help. Don’t be shocked if he’s grabbing big offensive rebounds, either.

17. Rodney Hood

Hood was the counter the Blazers needed for Denver hiding Jamal Murray on Moe Harkless. Hood punished Denver with isolations and post-ups for short-range jumpers, busting their coverage of leaving Harkless open. He’s playing in Game 1 with a knee injury, and his playoff history is questionable at best. But if he can do the same to Steph Curry one on one that he did to Jamal Murray, he could get Curry in foul trouble and really get Golden State in trouble.

18. Al-Farouq Aminu

He’s got to make corner 3s, period. He just has to with how Golden State will guard him.

Defensively, he was in a nightmare situation vs. Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. There’s no one on Golden State who can punish him 1-on-1 like that, but he has to be smart about how he helps and be ready to block Kevon Looney on the lob attempts. His athleticism matters.

19. Moe Harkless

He has to punish Steph Curry with Rodney Hood out. (Hood slots in somewhere around 15 if he gets back in this series from his knee injury.) The rebounding edge should be better for Portland in this series, and Harkless needs to contribute with Curry guarding him. But he’s also got to keep his head up and be ready to contest Curry in transition, while not letting Andre Iguodala cut backdoor.

20. Malcolm Brogdon

Coming off the injury, anything he can give is gravy. But if he leads the bench units, the Bucks are going to crush the Raptors in the late first and early second quarters. His ability to space the floor in three-guard lineups could combat the Raptors’ big-ball, and he’s a guy who finds ways to contribute beyond the box score.

21. George Hill

Hill was spectacular in that Boston series, and just like with Brogdon he’ll have a lot of chances vs. the second units. In particular, if the Raptors switch, he should be able to get Serge Ibaka in foul trouble to take away one rim protector.

If he spaces the floor, watch out and bet the over live.

22. Kevon Looney

Looney is great for the Warriors because he has one job offensively: dunk the lob. That’s it. And he’s great at it. Defensively, he should help put pressure on Lillard on traps and manage Kanter’s impact with superior athleticism. Denver could have really used Looney on its second unit last round.

23. Nikola Mirotic

Yes, a starter is this low. But Mirotic was rough vs. Boston, and this projects as a series where he could struggle. I don’t expect him to see the floor as much, but if he has big minutes, that helps. If he has really bad minutes, that’s big for Toronto, because it’ll likely be bench units in the second half oftentimes.

24. Seth Curry

Did you know he’s playing his brother? Anyway, he can’t do much but hit shots, but the Blazers need a lot of shots.

25. DJ Wilson

Mike Budenholzer clearly doesn’t trust him, but if things get dicey, he needs to let Wilson out of the doghouse. He’s a versatile forward who can help things especially vs. that big lineup of Ibaka-Siakam-Gasol. You’d rather have Wilson than Mirotic in those lineups.