The stage is set for the first-ever expanded Play-In Tournament!
The matchups are as follows:
- 7-8 Game: No. 7 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards
- 9-10 Game: No. 9 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 10 Charlotte Hornets
- 7-8 Game: No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Golden State Warriors
- 9-10 Game: No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 10 San Antonio Spurs
You know who the stars are on each of these teams, but who are the under-the-radar X-factors that will have to make an impact in order for their team to qualify for the playoffs? Let's take a look...
Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament X-factors
Evan Fournier, Boston Celtics
When the Celtics traded for Fournier at the trade deadline, the move was seen to be for some added depth and another wing scorer/playmaker to accompany what the team already had with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.
Fournier's time in Boston got off to a brutal start, coming down with the coronavirus just four games into his tenure. He was very open about how much he was impacted by the virus but has since begun to look like the player the Celtics sought out to get.
Over the last seven games, Fournier has averaged 19.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game while shooting a blistering 54.6 percent from the field and 56.9 percent from 3-point land, becoming an everyday starter for his injury-riddled team.
With Brown now out for the remainder of the season after receiving surgery on his wrist, even more responsibility falls on Fournier's shoulders to step up and maximize this team's playoff potential.
Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards
We all know what Russell Westbrook has been doing as of late and Bradley Beal is a walking 30-point problem.
But aside from those two players, who is going to step up for the Wizards if they want to make a playoff push?
The answer has to be the No. 9 overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, Hachimura.
Hachimura has been as solid as can be for the Wizards this season and despite popping in and out of the lineup to manage a lingering knee injury, he is coming into his own as the team's third go-to option.
Averaging 13.8 points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 32.8 percent from 3-point land, Hachimura has been another threat that teams have to worry about outside of their dynamic duo.
Even with Beal back in the lineup, pressure still falls on Hachimura to give his team's star tandem all the help they can get in trying to claim one of the two playoff spots available.
Oshae Brissett, Indiana Pacers
Just days after Brissett signed a 10-day contract with the Pacers, starting centre Myles Turner went down with a toe injury that would sideline him indefinitely. Brissett made the most of that opportunity to fill a void, showing so much promise that Indiana would sign him to a three-year deal.
The very first game after signing that three-year deal, the Canadian forward had the best game of his young career, exploding for 23 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and one assist, and he hasn't looked back since.
Brissett has solidified a place in the Pacers' rotation, providing quality minutes, averaging 13.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from 3-point land since that career night.
He closed the regular season on an even stronger note, dropping 31 points and 10 rebounds against his former team, the Toronto Raptors.
He has become an everyday starter for a Pacers team looking to right the ship and get back into the playoffs, playing a massive role after spending the majority of the 2020-21 season dominating the G League.
Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
Bridges is enjoying the best season of his young career, playing a crucial role in the Hornets' success over the last month or so.
Prior to missing six consecutive games due to the league's health and safety protocols, Bridges was amidst the best stretch of his career, averaging 19.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists and nearly a block and a steal per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 45.3 (!) percent from 3-point range over the month of April.
In his first game back from his absence, Bridges picked up right where he left off, going for 30 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 12-for-21 from the field with five 3-pointers to nearly carry Charlotte to a seed-clinching overtime win over the New York Knicks.
With star forward Gordon Hayward expected to miss the Play-In Tournament with an ankle injury that has sidelined him for over a month, the Hornets will need Bridges to maintain this level of play to qualify for the playoffs.
Western Conference Play-In Tournament X-factors
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
With the Lakers inching back to full strength as the postseason comes around, Kuzma's role will take a step back compared to the load he was managing while LeBron James and Anthony Davis were out. But with that being said, it's even more important that the 25-year-old forward flourishes as an emergency scoring option, giving James and Davis all the support they can get to make another deep playoff run.
Kuzma's stat lines were sporadic over the past month but he did put forth some encouraging performances like a near-triple-double effort of 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists to go with a game-winner against the Houston Rockets. He also enjoyed big outings like a 30-point game against the Sacramento Kings and four other games of 20-plus points since the start of April.
Kuzma had 13 games this season of 20-plus points and also notched 13 double-doubles. The Lakers could certainly use his energy and scoring output to get out of the Play-In Tournament and into one of the two available playoff spots
Juan Toscano-Anderson, Golden State Warriors
Don't let Toscano-Anderson's season-long averages fool you, his impact goes well beyond the stats you see in a box score. Learning under Draymond Green, the best in the business on those terms, Toscano-Anderson has become one of the most important players on this Warriors team.
As a versatile and lengthy defender, JTA is willing to take on any assignment whether it be guards, forwards or centres. His energy and effort throughout the entire season has recently rewarded him with his two-way contract being converted into a two-year deal - his first full-time NBA contract.
He has taken on a much larger role as of late, doing a little bit of everything, averaging 7.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks over Golden State's last 13 games.
Beyond Stephen Curry scoring outbursts and much-needed high-level play from Green and Andrew Wiggins, it's vital that Toscano-Anderson leaves his fingerprints on the Warriors' Play-In game(s).
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
Brooks has really found his shooting touch as of late and the Grizzlies need him to keep it up.
Since the start of April, Brooks' 18.9 points per game leads Memphis and he's doing so on 45.0 percent shooting from the field and 38.8 percent shooting from 3-point range. He has five games of 20-plus points since the start of May and he has truly emerged as the Grizzlies' go-to scoring option when star point guard Ja Morant is looking to facilitate.
Memphis is 17-8 in the 25 games that Brooks has scored 20 or more points, giving you a barometer of how important his offensive output is to the team. On top of that, he's their premier perimeter defender and will likely draw any opposing team's top-scoring guard.
That was evident in holding Warriors star guard Curry to just 11 points shooting 4-for-11 from the field in the final game of the regular season with the No. 8 seed on the line. The score was tied at 91 when Brooks fouled out of the contest in the fourth quarter and Golden State took advantage of his absence, closing the game on a 21-10 run to defeat the Grizzlies, further showing his importance.
The Canadian wing has a big opportunity ahead of him to keep up the good work and make a name for himself on the Play-In stage.
Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs
With starting guard Derrick White expected to be out for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury, the Spurs will look to 22-year-old Walker to replace that scoring jolt.
Walker was doing a fine job of just that averaging 13.3 points while shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point range during the month of May, but he struggled in San Antonio's final two games of the season.
He combined for just nine points - one contest with zero points - shooting 4-for-17 from the field and 1-for-10 from 3 in those last two games and the Spurs will need him to get back on track if they're going to compete with the Grizzlies.
Walker has been San Antonio's third-leading scorer behind DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray during the home stretch and his offensive output could determine if the Spurs get a chance at starting a new playoff streak.
Walker scored in double figures in 34 of the 60 games he appeared in this season.
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