These four players will play big roles in determining whether their teams will make deep runs or exit early
1 MAURICE HARKLESS TRAIL BLAZERS
Versatility is what wins in the playoffs, and with Portland shorthanded up front—center Jusuf Nurkić broke his left leg in March—coach Terry Stotts will have to lean more on his wings. That means leaning on the 6'9" Harkless, who can guard several positions, slash to the rim and provide the kind of balance the Blazers need. Harkless has been more aggressive on offense and more athletic on D of late. Since the All-Star break Portland has a 119.8 offensive rating and a 103.8 defensive rating with Harkless on the floor—numbers that top the NBA over the course of a season.
2 PASCAL SIAKAM RAPTORS
Siakam's emergence was one of the biggest surprises of the season. Now we find out exactly how dangerous he can be on the biggest stage. In theory, the 25-year-old Siakam (16.9 points per game on 54.9% shooting) provides a perfect secondary scoring option for Kawhi Leonard. He's also a 6'9" do-everything forward on defense, allowing coach Nick Nurse to either blitz teams with a small lineup (when Siakam plays the five) or smother teams with a big lineup (when he plays the four, or even the three). Siakam has postseason experience but has never been one of the top three players on a Finals contender. Foes will test his jump shot (36.9% from three) and force him to bang with bigger players.
3 CHRIS PAUL ROCKETS
CP3 has become the NBA's forgotten superstar. As his game slipped this season, so did Houston's success—until James Harden's MVP-caliber tear thrust them back into the West's top four. But Paul (who scored a career-low 15.6 points per game) will need to be a second star as Houston gets deeper into the postseason. An encouraging sign for the Rockets is how well their defense played with Paul on the court late in the season: a 98.3 rating in March and 92.5 in April. If the 33-year-old point guard can provide a release valve when pressure mounts on Harden—and buy the Beard a few minutes of rest—Houston will again be the team that pushed the Warriors to seven games last spring.
4 D.J. WILSON BUCKS
The Bucks had the best record in the NBA, but the playoffs will present new challenges. As teams get smaller and faster and search for advantages to exploit, bigs like Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotić may not be able to keep up. That's where the 23-year-old Wilson comes in. After a rookie season that saw him marooned at the end of Jason Kidd's bench, he has been reborn as a specialist who can plug nearly any hole in Milwaukee's defense. In 173 minutes on the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo, lineups with the 6'10" Wilson have put up an 87.7 defensive rating—a substantial improvement over the Bucks' league-best 104.9 mark.