Writer’s Note: To begin the postseason, we’ll focus this column on those still hooping on the hardwood.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics
I’ve admitted it in this space once before and I feel the need to come clean again: I was wrong about Mr. Rozier.
In a playoff climate where the Celtics are being forced to operate without Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart—let alone Gordon Hayward—Rozier has been thrust into the spotlight and has really answered the call. In addition to being a major credit to Rozier’s work ethic and the time he’s put into the process, it’s also a nod to the player development system Brad Stevens and Co. have put in place in Boston. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a player come through the system just in time to step into the spotlight, and Rozier’s showing vs. Milwaukee is very likely to be the difference between his team going home or moving on.
Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
“Playoff P” made an emphatic statement with a thunderous playoff debut (36 points, eight triples) for OKC, and I’m not at all worried about his hip injury impacting his performance going forward. It’s very obvious how much the Thunder will be relying on George’s offense to help fuel the force behind Russell Westbrook—especially with a bench that’s as thin as value brand toilet paper—and if we’re setting the over-under on PG-13’s field goal attempts at 17, which was his average from the regular season, I’d comfortably set the dial on over.
George has a lot to show everyone watching with his free agency looming, and it’s still too early to say which direction the wind is blowing the free agent sails.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Even those with a constant critique of Horford were silenced following his dazzling Game 1. In addition to tackling the unenviable task of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo—and doing a good job—Horford was spectacular on the opposite end of the floor, finishing Boston’s overtime win with 24 points, 12 boards, four assists, two steals and three blocks on just 5-of-8 shooting. And by scoring 24 on just eight field goal attempts, Horford had the ultimate Kobe Bryant game.
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
After posting career-high regular season numbers virtually across the board, nobody should be surprised by Middleton’s Game 1 takeover. Despite the Bucks loss, Milwaukee has to feel really encouraged by how “Money Middleton” stuffed the stat sheet with his 31 points, eight boards, six assists, two steals, and a block on 12-of-20 shooting, including 5-of-7 from distance. The good news: There’s reason to believe that Middleton can come up big on a game-by-game basis. The not as good news: It’s going to have to be about more than just Middleton and Giannis in order for the Bucks to upset Boston.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
For the second straight week, I have to include Whiteside in this section. The big fella’s Miami exodus started long before the Heat’s opening round series vs. Philadelphia.
While I do think that the big man should be relied upon more once Joel Embiid (orbital fracture) is cleared to return—which could be as soon as Game 3—it’s clear that Whiteside’s long-term future in sunny South Beach appears murky at best. It won’t be surprising when we hear Whiteside’s name floated prominently on the trade market, and there are going to be a couple of factors behind that.
The first is Whiteside’s contract. Owed north of $52 million from 2018-20, moving Whiteside would provide the Heat with the additional financial flexibility that the franchise could really utilize. The second is fit. Erik Spoelstra has really come to lean on Kelly Olynyk to play an important role, and the Heat’s penchant for positionless basketball is incongruent with Whiteside’s skillset.
Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
The month of April hasn’t been Porter’s time to shine.
Across his last six games—including a mediocre 9/5/1/1/1 line in his 2018 postseason debut vs. Toronto—Porter has averaged just 13.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 1.7 3-pointers. I know Porter has been banged up and didn’t enter the series opener with a clean bill of health, but a $106M contract means it’s time to put excuses aside. Bottom line: There is no chance the Wizards are going to stun the Raptors with Porter being a non-factor on offense.
Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets
While a step back was to be expected with Chris Paul’s arrival, those who spent a mid-round pick (Yahoo ADP 68.0) on the veteran ahead of Gary Harris (Yahoo ADP 94.5) likely didn’t get as far as they wanted to this year.
Now that we’re in the playoffs, the Rockets are going to lean that much harder on Paul and James Harden to carry the offensive load, meaning Ariza’s value is going to come at the opposite end of the court. But if Ariza isn’t going to be a difference-maker in key categories—he’s averaging just 1.5 steals on 3-of-22 from distance over his last four games—it’s going to be awfully difficult to rely on him in any postseason fantasy setting.