4 Looming Playoff X-Factors
Which players can make or break their teams' postseason runs?
Josh Okogie, Phoenix Suns
Assuming KD can return from injury for the playoffs, the Suns have four locked-in starters and closers: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Deandre Ayton.
The fifth spot has cycled through Okogie, Torrey Craig, and Ish Wainwright, depending on who is making their threes on the night. But for the Suns to fulfill their championship aspirations, Okogie must seize the reins.
Okogie is a 6’4”, 215-pound cannonball, racing out in transition, defending the other team’s best player, and attacking the offensive glass. Typically viewed as a 3-and-D guy, Okogie is more confident off the bounce than most players of that archetype, perhaps to a fault. He gets into the paint at a high rate but only finishes 53% of his attempts at the rim, an anemic figure. His eyes are sometimes larger than his skill…though it can lead to some fantastic highlights, as well:
That aggression also helps unlock his underrated passing. Okogie loves himself an underhanded pass, a fun little quirk:
What keeps Okogie on the floor, however, is his perimeter defense. Okogie is quick and mean, and he likes to live dangerously by going for the block on three-point shots. Most defenders are trained not to truly contest three-pointers for fear of fouling the shooter. Okogie has earned the green light to go after them, and it’s led to some stunning sequences. This block-and-slam is one of the season’s greatest plays:
And this swat was a game-clincher:
The Suns are thin at the wing after trading Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson away for Kevin Durant. But if Okogie can continue delivering the goods, their absences won’t be felt at all.
Joe Ingles, Milwaukee Bucks
Jingles is a very different player from the others on this list.
The 35-year-old trash-talkin’ Australian signed with the Bucks in the offseason after tearing his ACL last year. The Bucks took a massive chance, giving all of their offseason spending power to an old player recovering from a massive knee injury, but it appears to be paying off just as we inch toward the finish line.
In his last 10 games, Ingles is averaging 10/4/4 while shooting a blistering 56% from three (triples make up 80% of his field goal efforts). These are not last-resort shots, either. Ingles, with his awkward elbow-out firing mechanism, is more than happy to dot one in your eye:
Ingles is too old and stiff to be much of a defender anymore, but he’s one of the best marksmen and secondary ballhandlers in the game. He’s equally as comfortable bombing from deep as he is running a pick-and-roll with Brook Lopez, his favorite dance partner. Without the agility or ballhandling to break down defenders in isolation, Ingles relies upon his surprising size (6’9”) and feel to drop collector’s edition dimes:
Here, Magician Paolo Banchero correctly fills the lane at the start of the pick-and-roll to prevent an easy pocket pass to Brook Lopez. Ingles smells uncertainty in the rookie, however, who was forced to leave Jae Crowder in the corner. Ingles decisively fakes a cross-court sling to Jae before softly laying the rock into Lopez’s arms for an easy layup, faking Orlando’s likely Rookie of the Year winner out of his headband.
90% of ballhandlers make that bounce pocket pass to Giannis and let him do the work. It’s open, and that’s the correct play. But Ingles senses something. He instead waits for a beat, then another, until Giannis is in perfect alley-ooping position. This is a very high-level read, and it’s even more impressive given that it was in Ingles’ first game back from his ACL return!
Jrue Holiday has had a masterful season for Milwaukee but is also prone to occasional bouts of erratic decision-making. Ingles provides a calming ballhandling presence when needed but can still shoot the lights out when the ball starts in Holiday or Giannis’ hands, making him the perfect complement to the Bucks’ core.
Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers
Okoro, like Okogie above, is the forgotten fifth starter on a Cavs team with four All-Star-ish caliber players. Also like Okogie, he’ll need to reach his ceiling as a defensive disruptor with enough offensive juice to make sagging defenses pay for Cleveland to win a couple of rounds.
“Ice” is a beefy 6’5” tasked with guarding the other team’s best primary ballhandler, something he relishes. He uses strength and length to deny even the quickest ballhandlers easy driving lanes:
Okoro’s defense has never been a question, however. Limited on-ball playmaking means that his effectiveness as a player has lived or died with the three-ball, and historically, there’s been a lot of time spent in the emergency room. Defenses know: Okoro has attempted 167 triples this season. An astonishing 166 are classified as “open” or “wide-open” by the NBA’s tracking software.
Early in the season, Okoro had some bad, bad misses. However, the team needed his finishing abilities in transition and his stout defense, and coach J.B. Bickerstaff decided the best way to instill confidence in the youngster was to remove the doubt surrounding his role. As a result, Okoro moved into the starting lineup as the calendar flipped to 2023, a vote of confidence the 22-year-old desperately needed. Since then, Okoro has nailed 37% of his triples. Not great, considering he gets some of the most open looks any NBA player will ever see… but good enough.
If he can maintain that level of shooting into the playoffs, Okoro’s point-of-attack stoutness will be a massive boost to the Cavs’ playoff chances. And if he can’t? We might see this fun Cavs season come to an early end.
Kyle Anderson, Minnesota Timberwolves
You may be surprised that Jaden McDaniels isn’t my choice here. After Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and Rudy Gobert, there isn’t much media attention given to the rest of Minnesota’s roster. Most of the remaining spotlight is taken up by McDaniels, the spidery stopper who has turned heads with his outrageously good defensive play and improving offense (McDaniels has been on a roll of late, averaging 16 points on 53/44/82 percent shooting splits in his last ten games).
But Kyle Anderson may be even more critical to Minnesota’s playoff hopes as the connective tissue linking together all of Minny’s disparate parts.
Anderson is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. Need playmaking? Anderson has had four games this season with 11+ assists. Need a board? Anderson is in the 80th percentile for forwards in defensive rebounding rate. Need spacing? Anderson is averaging a by-far career-best 42% from three (albeit on just 1.4 attempts per game, so maybe he won’t be much help there after all). Need defense? Anderson’s averaging 2.0 combined blocks and steals per game, and he’s in the 97th percentile in Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus, the highest mark on the team.
Like Ingles, Anderson utilizes his intellect and size to make production happen (the man is called “Slow-Mo” for his controlled pace…but it could equally refer to how he sees the game). It’s not always in the highlight reels, but Anderson makes winning play after winning play:
The elephant in the room is that most of Anderson’s production has occurred in Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence. Anderson’s reticence from deep made for an awkward fit at the start of the year, and KAT’s return from a 51-game injury absence is tonight. It’s clear as the Minnesota summer sky that Anderson is a major driver of Minnesota’s winning ways. Figuring out how to keep Kyle on the floor with KAT during the playoffs is an essential problem Finch must solve in the regular season’s 10 remaining games.