Predicting the Biggest X-Factors of the 2014 NBA Playoffs

Joshua J Vannuccini@@jjvannucciniSenior Analyst IIIMarch 31, 2014

Predicting the Biggest X-Factors of the 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    The NBA playoffs are fast approaching, but there's still a multitude of things that could affect what happens.

    The Western Conference's lower seeding is still up for grabs, while the Eastern Conference is just about set. It's hardly set in stone though, as the New York Knicks could make a late push for the final seed.

    Yet for teams that are primed for the postseason, as with any team, there remains some kinks to work out before a playoff run. 

    While it's far too difficult to pinpoint every single one, we can hone in on the factors that could potentially influence the entire playoff race. Whether it's the play of a certain individual or an overall team concept that needs attention, these are the biggest X-factors for the 2014 NBA playoffs.

The Defense of the Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls are one of the few teams in the NBA that can succeed relying solely on defense.

    Well, that isn't entirely true, as they still need to score to keep up. Only thing is, Chicago isn't great on offense but does a terrific job of dragging teams down. If the Bulls can't score, you can bet they will leave it all on the floor to make sure the opposing team can't either.

    Chicago currently ranks second in opponent points per game and opponent field-goal percentage, as well as second in team defensive rating. The Bulls then rank dead last in points per game, and ahead of just the lowly Philadelphia 76ers in team offensive rating.

    All statistics aside, Chicago's defense will be a major X-factor in the playoffs. Teams, such as the Brooklyn Nets, per Sheridan Hoops' Michael Scotto, don't want to see the Bulls in the postseason.

    Per the report, an Eastern Conference executive said the Nets "don't want to see Chicago." They went on to note, "It’s hard to go small against them because they’ll punish you. Physically, the Bulls will take a massive toll on them compared to any other team."

    Chicago's defense is outdone by few, save for maybe the Indiana Pacers, and it'll be a catalyst (and a major X-factor) in seeing the team advance through the postseason. The Bulls aren't expected to reach much further than the second round, but their defense could see them make a push.

The Houston Rockets and Jeremy Lin

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    The Houston Rockets suffered a huge setback in recent days, as point guard Patrick Beverley went down with a torn meniscus. 

    Per a report from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Beverley could be "lost for the rest of the season" but will get a second opinion. 

    It's still unclear exactly how or if Beverley can return, but the Rockets will need Jeremy Lin to step up. He doesn't bring the same defensive intensity his teammate does, but Houston will need to make do.

    Lin is averaging 12.4 points and 4.2 assists this season, mostly as a reserve for he's started just 26 of 62 games. 

    While he hasn't really been much of a factor throughout the season, Lin will be just that for the Rockets going forward. Without Beverley, Houston will need him at the point guard spot to score, distribute and defend adequately against some of the league's best.

    The Western Conference boasts the likes of Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and the list goes on. Whichever team(s) the Rockets face in the playoffs, Lin will have his number called in every game.

    Again, James Harden or Dwight Howard are the players to ultimately lead this Houston team. But in terms of role players, Lin's play will be the x-factor, and swing just how successful the Rockets can be.

    Keep track of Patrick Beverley's injury status with Joseph Zucker, here.

     

The Los Angeles Clippers' Three-Point Shooting

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are more renowned for their fast pace and athleticism, but the team's three-point shooting will be a huge X-factor.

    The Clips aren't a dominant team from the outside, tied for No. 11 in three-point field goals made per game. It really opens up the floor for driving lanes, in addition to keeping defenders honest when Blake Griffin goes one-on-one down low without being double-teamed.

    In wins this season, Los Angeles converts 37.9 percent from long range. Yet in losses, the Clippers see that percentage drop to a disastrous 28.4 percent. 

    L.A. ranks eighth in terms of pace played, with 98.2 possessions per 48 minutes. Highlights are abound when the Clippers suit up, but they'll be in short supply if they can't hit their three-point shots in the postseason.

    It'll be an overall team X-factor, but it will truly be a turning point for how and if L.A. can progress through each round of the playoffs.

    It should be easy work though, with one of the best distributing point guards in the league in Chris Paul.

Serge Ibaka and the Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder will have a multitude of factors affecting their postseason run, but Serge Ibaka may be the biggest.

    The health and decision-making of Russell Westbrook is the biggest contender to replace Ibaka's importance for the Thunder, but having a balanced attack on the court gets the edge.

    Ibaka has played well all season, putting up career-high averages of 15.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He showed similar promise last season, but struggled in the playoffs.

    That may have had more to do with Westbrook being injured, but Ibaka scored 12.8 points on just 43.7 percent shooting. The season prior, with Oklahoma City's Big Three ready to roll, he averaged 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds.

    For the Thunder to truly contend, Ibaka becomes the biggest X-factor for them. If he's scoring and is active on the glass offensively, opposing defenses struggle to contain Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

    When Ibaka disappears, teams can pack the paint and D-up on the perimeter, as seen in the 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. 

    He's still improving every season, so it's feasible Ibaka's struggles the past few postseasons could be blamed on inexperience. At least, OKC should hope so, because Ibaka will need to step up once the playoffs hit. 

Paul George and the Indiana Pacers' Offense

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    Just like the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers are flat out suffocating defensively. But it'll be on the offensive end that will be the X-factor for the Pacers.

    Indiana ranks No. 22 in offensive rating at 101.3, but tops the league at No. 1 in defensive rating. The Pacers have few players that can create offensively, aside from Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

    Head coach Frank Vogel has done a terrific job ensuring his team plays well offensively, despite their shortcomings in terms of personnel. It's all defense for this team, much like the Bulls, and that's where Indiana looks to win games.

    George has averaged 21.7 points per game on 42.6 percent this season, while his team scores just 97.0 points per game. For the month of March, the Pacers have ranked dead last with 89.9 points on 42.5 percent while allowing 91.7 points on 41.7 percent shooting.

    Indiana will shut down opponents time and time again with the team's destructive defensive identity, but will stumble if the offense fails. It's been a major reason why the Pacers have struggled as of late, and now risk losing the No. 1 seed of the Eastern Conference to the Miami Heat.

    It's undoubtedly an X-factor for them, as it'll influence just how successful they can be. 

Dwyane Wade's Health

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    If Dwyane Wade is healthy for the Miami Heat's three-peat run, it's pretty much over for the rest of the league.

    The Heat have had their defensive issues lately, but they've been notorious for playing lackadaisical basketball leading up to the playoffs. LeBron James has had his fair share of injuries as well, but it's been nowhere near that of Wade.

    From his knees to his recent hamstring strain, Wade has played just 51 games this season. Miami has gone 14-7 without him in the lineup, but the shooting guard has averaged 19.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 56.4 percent in wins.

    Wade has still played well in losses, with 18.7 points on 50.2 percent shooting for Miami. While it doesn't just show how integral Wade is, his offensive rating drops from 111.8 in wins to 99.2 in losses. 

    With his health in tow, Wade would take the biggest X-factor crown, as it would almost cement the Heat's chances for a third straight title. He's been injured the past few postseasons, but managed to pull it together to see his team succeed.

    If Wade can remain healthy for this title run, Miami will be a much stronger team to contend with. Few teams can boast three All-Star players like Wade, James and Chris Bosh, and few can keep up when all three are clicking.

    But for that to happen, Wade must relinquish all injuries and gear up for the playoffs. It's still an x-factor, as it remains to be confirmed, but if it does: #threepeat.