By Darren Feeney / KFMB Interactive
The drama of the NBA playoffs transforms average players into heroes, superstars into legends, and most importantly, players with limited but unique skill sets into X-factors.
It's the behind-the-scenes, blue-collar, and tin-hat efforts that translate into team success in the playoffs—the kind of production that does not necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
Each year and in every playoff series there is an X-factor.
Certain players step up and serve as a catalyst, equipped with talent and tools necessary to win multiple seven-game series. In the NBA, there is a difference between basketball and "playoff" basketball.
It's that time again—when basketball takes over the national sports scene again after taking an undercard to the opening weeks of Major League Baseball. It's that time again when players make plays.
Here's a look inside the first round matchups, and which players hold the keys to their team's success.
Who will be this year's ultimate X-factor?
(1) Cleveland Caveliers vs (8) Chicago Bulls
It's been a "touchy" subject in Chicago, to say the least. How many minutes should Joakim Noah play?
Just don't ask coach Vinny Del Negro and GM John Paxson that question in the same room.
The disputed minutes of the gangly and gifted Noah, who missed 17 out of the final 35 games with plantar fasciitis, will certainly need to be high if the Bulls can tread water. The 25-30 minutes desired by Paxson was raised by Del Negro in the final three games of the regular season en route to securing the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
It is tough to argue with the results: 41.0 minutes, 16.0 points, 16.0 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, and a 3-0 Bulls record.
The question becomes: Will Noah have enough in the tank to take on the Cleveland front court?
Apart from Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron James has an entirely different landscape surrounding him. Shaquille O'Neal, who has been resting since Feb. 25 with a torn ligament in his thumb, provides an obvious low-post presence. Combine the emergence of J.J. Hickson with the acquisition of Antawn Jamison, and the Cavaliers have a much more versatile and authoritative post.
Can the Chicago Bulls "shock the world" like they almost did last year, pushing the Boston Celtics to a seven-game series?
Let's just hope LeBron James has some new moves for Noah if they can't.
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Miami Heat
If there was ever a stage set more for Beasley to burst on to the scene, will someone please show me? The 21-year-old former second overall pick has shown flashes of greatness in what has been his most productive season as a pro.
In just his second season, Beasley saw his numbers increase slightly in virtually every category from his rookie year, averaging 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game.
Two years removed from an NBA championship, the Boston Celtics are out to prove they're not too old and can rekindle the winning formula. The Big Three (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce) think they still have some left in the tank and have one of the best young floor generals in the game, Rajon Rondo, leading their charge.
No team comes into the playoffs hotter than the Heat, winners in 12 out of their last 13 games to close the regular season.
Can Beasley serve as Dwayne Wade's sidekick to get the Heat past the first round? Batman did always have his Robin.
(3) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Milwaukee Bucks
When each NBA season starts John Salmons, doesn't know where he will finish the season. He just goes out there and gets it done. The eight-year journeyman has averaged the quietest 19.9 points per game in the league since coming to Milwaukee from Chicago on Feb. 19.
If three regular season previews between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks are any indication, Salmons against Joe Johnson is going to be quite a match up to see.
Neither Salmons(32, 32, and 28) or Johnson (24, 27, and 31) had any problem lighting up the scoreboard in those previous meetings.
John versus Joe; easy enough.
The Bucks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2005-2006 and will face off against the Atlanta Hawks, a veteran crew coming off their best season in the history of a franchise that has been on the cusp of the Eastern Conference title.
The Andrew Bogut injury could not have come at a worse time and the Bucks will have their hands full with the depth of Atlanta. A starting five of Bibby, Johnson, Smith, Williams, and Horford to go along with new addition Jamal Crawford coming off the bench?
Not only does John Salmons finds himself with his fifth team, he finds himself in the biggest spot in his career.
(2) Orlando Magic vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats
Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats are making their first playoff trip in franchise history. While they won't be able to run No. 23 out there for the last-second shot, the Bobcats do have a lot going for them.
They have a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown, an All-Star in Gerald Wallace, and a unit that led the NBA in defensive efficiency.
Nonetheless, the difference-maker in this series will be Stephen Jackson. Jackson brings playoff experience and unyielding confidence to the Bobcats. He won a title with San Antonio in 2003 and helped lead Golden State to a first-round upset of Dallas in 2007.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Oklahoma City Thunder
If the Lakers had their choice, I bet the would rather have drawn a different team in a first-round match up. The journey to win 16 games and repeat an NBA championship is hard enough. It will be even more difficult having to start that quest against one of the most talented, healthy, and youthful teams.
The Lakers have been playing uninspired basketball and will be checked early by the Thunder with heaps of talent, athleticism, and team chemistry.
They also have the youngest scoring champion ever, Kevin Durant (30.1 ppg) at 21 years of age.
But the X-factor could be the Thunder's freakishly athletic 6'10" forward Serge Ibaka. He tries to swat everything that comes his way (1.3 blocks per game), and is about all the Thunder has to show in the front court.
Sure, the Thunder will go as far as Durant and second-year sensation Russell Westbrook will take them. But the inside presence of Ibaka, the Republic of the Congo native called "Air Congo", will need to be felt.
In order to get out of the first round, Charlotte will have to dethrone the reigning Eastern Conference champs. Namely, they face they daunting task of limiting Dwight Howard, all 6'11", 265 pounds of him. The Bobcats will start veteran Theo Ratliff, who turns 37 on Saturday, at center and plan to throw Tyson Chandler, Nazr Mohammed, and DeSagana Diop at Superman.
While Jackson can't do it all on his own, he will have to be a man that can wear many hats in this series.
(4) Denver Nuggets vs. (5) Utah Jazz
It has been an six-month race in the Western Conference and only a mere two games separated the No. 2 through No. 5 seeds. After being as high as second out West, the Utah Jazz find themselves with a challenging first round match up against the Denver Nuggets.
Plagued with injuries, the Jazz have stumbled into the fifth seed. Deron Williams is playing with a sore left wrist and admits he needs "a whole new left side" of his body. Carlos Boozer is optimistic he'll play with a strained muscle in his rib cage after missing the final game of the season.
Andrei Kirilenko is out for two weeks after aggravating his strained left calf during a workout Thursday. An MRI showed a third strain in his calf, which has kept Kirilenko out most of the last month.
This clears the way for Paul Milsap to prove he's worth a four-year, $36 million contract.
The very active Denver front court of Kenyon Martin, Chris Anderson, and Nene Hilario are healthy, leaving Milsap, Okur, and a hopeful Boozer with their hands full.
With the likely departure of Boozer to free agency, there is no better opportunity for Milsap to show the Jazz management they spent their dollars wisely.
(3) Phoenix Suns vs. (6) Portland Trailblazers
No Brandon Roy, no problem? Think again.
The three-time All-star guard guard will miss one or two weeks following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Roy initially stated that he would try to play through the injury when doctors told him he could not hurt it further, but now that is clearly no longer the case.
Eying a second-round return, if Roy is to even think about suiting up again this season, Miller will have to play some of the best basketball of his 11-year career.
No need to worry for Miller—he just has arguably the best point guard in the league waiting for him in Phoenix, Steve Nash.
In a season where the Blazers have been plagued by injuries, Portland is sure glad they made the offseason acquisition of Miller. It is now his time to shine.
(2) Dallas Mavericks vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs)
The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs might just have the NBA's best current rivalry. The two Texas teams share not only proximity but also a history of success with the league's two best records in the 2000s. That has resulted in a number of playoff meetings with plenty on the line. This is the fifth time in the last 10 years the two teams have faced each other, and second in as many postseasons.
Ginobili is healthy again and up to his old tricks. Last season, Manu sat out the playoffs with a balky right ankle, and the Mavericks cruised to a 4-1 series win over the Spurs.
In the latest chapter of the Texas Showdown, San Antonio will need the old Manu to stand up if the Spurs can defeat Dallas, a team that has made the most strides in bettering their team. The midseason deal that brought in Caron Butler, Brendon Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson has worked out nicely so far. Now is the time the Mavericks look to reap the benefits.
Tim Duncan and a healthy Tony Parker are back in the playoffs. Add in the emergence of George Hill and the Spurs are set to make a run at it.
Yet, as we've seen in the past, as Manu goes—so do the Spurs.