Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The NBA playoffs begin in eight days and very few things are certain.

The Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs are the favorites, but there's always someone who either takes a leap or does something that propels his team to greatness.

Look no further than last year's NBA Finals. After some shaky performances early against the Miami Heat, Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs blossomed and won the Finals MVP.

Here's a look at some key players who will play pivotal roles if their teams perform at high levels:


Doesn't get any more obvious than Rose, does it? How many times does a team get a former MVP back in the lineup for a playoff push? It's rare, but as we've learned with Rose, expect the unexpect.

After knee surgery, Rose is back in the Bulls' lineup. He's on a sub-20 minutes restriction, and in his return, Rose has shown more rust than a rain- soaked grill. There's no shame in that. The final regular-season games are a tune-up for Rose and the Bulls.

A healthy Rose may be too much to ask for because if he was healthy, the Bulls would be more frightening than a den of snakes. A shaky Rose can still be dangerous, though. If he's on the floor, teams will be have to respect his ability to drive, at least early. The unknown play of Rose could be an asset for Chicago because teams won't know what to expect.


Since Donatas Motiejunas is apparently done for the season with a back injury, Smith will need to play heavy minutes for the Rockets at the power forward spot.

Smith is capable and has been pretty solid in his Houston tenure. Dwight Howard won't be 100 percent, either, so if Smith can focus on playing in the interior, he could be a plus for the Rockets.

Smith has to be dependable. He's been incident-free in Houston, but if he goes out and jacks up long-range bombs, he'll hurt the Houston approach.


He's been plagued by a back injury, but Lowry could come back as early as Friday.

What impressed me most about Lowry this season was how well he played when DeMar DeRozan was injured. The Raps lost some ground, but Lowry took on a bigger role and assumed a leadership mantle, which didn't seem likely early in his career.

DeRozan has been awesome with Lowry hurt, but the two together have to be at a high level if Toronto wants to make it out of the first round for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

A first-round matchup with the Washington Wizards would mean Lowry would have to cover John Wall. That's not an easy matchup if your back was in perfect alignment. Lowry has to be the All-Star starter-type of player or the Raptors' season will be something of a waste.


Lillard is a stud. He may be an under-appreciated one, but he's a stud. He's ice-cold in the fourth quarter and Lillard might have to do even more if Portland wants to survive.

The Blazers lost Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo injured his arm on Thursday night. That puts almost all of the deep shooting, and all of the great guard play in Portland, on the shoulders of Lillard.

He can handle it, but he'll have to be stout on the defensive end considering the point guards in the Western Conference. Lillard's strength is not on the defensive side of the ball. He will have to play a lot of minutes, which shouldn't be a problem because he's second in total minutes and seventh in average per game.


Millsap has been shut down with a shoulder strain and probably won't play again during the regular season. He shouldn't.

It's easy to think a team like the Hawks doesn't need an individual player considering everything is built around the team concept and efficiency. That's true ... so long as Millsap is out there.

He's the team's leading scorer. He's become such an offensive threat with the development of 3-point range. There's literally no flaw in Millsap's offensive game and it's a massive part of what has made Atlanta one of the best offenses in the NBA.

Millsap is also a leader. His presence is gigantic and the expectations in Atlanta are huge. A second-round loss as the No. 1 seed would manifest the cynic's belief that the Hawks weren't real contenders. A healthy Millsap would virtually guarantee a fighting chance in the second round versus the Raptors, Wizards or, gulp, the Bulls.


My unconditional love of Draymond Green falls just under my son, girlfriend, parents, the Memphis Grizzlies, "Arrested Development" and Peter Gabriel, but just ahead of my dog (he's been going in the house lately).

Green is the emotional catalyst of the best team in the NBA. His presence forces everyone in a Golden State jersey to elevate their intensity to match Green.

What Green does better than anyone is defend multiple positions. With him on the floor, the Warriors switch everything because Green can cover Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. Defense is still what wins.

Green is also an underrated offensive player who put the 3-point shot in the bag this season. He is a winning basketball player. He has that "it" factor. Guys like Green win championships because of determination, effort, IQ, selflessness and talent.


- I just can't sugarcoat it, the Hawks should be furious with Thabo Sefolosha. To break your ankle in a police altercation, at 4 a.m., resisting arrest, after an incident not involving a teammate, on a game day, is a terrible situation. He did it to himself and now his team will suffer. That's the definition of a bad teammate in my eyes. Sure, Sefolosha will have a chance to air his side considering he said he'll fight the charges, but the fact he's gone for the playoffs because of this is inexcusable and unforgivable.

- Jason Kidd just doesn't get it. For him to be curt and question the media for asking why he inexplicably sat Giannis Antetokounmpo after he started 64 consecutive games is ignorant.

- There's not a great group of forwards in the All-NBA race, so I'd assume Leonard makes at least the third team. The first team will be LeBron James and Anthony Davis. LaMarcus Aldridge will be in the mix. Blake Griffin as well, but after that, where do you look?

- At this time of year, there are young men who make smart decisions and ones who make bad ones. Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns made obvious choices. I think Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles made solid decisions. The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, and Dakari Johnson are second-rounders. That's fact. They'll have to live with their decisions.

- I'm not a big Sam Dekker guy. What I saw was a guy who caught fire and became the flavor of the month. Dekker made some incredibly difficult shots that won't fall consistently. There's upside. He's big, strong and can shoot. I'll never criticize a kid who declares when he's expected to be a top-15 pick.

- Frank Kaminsky can be a productive pro. He's offensively gifted, but the problem will be defensively. Kaminsky is not strong enough to guard NBA big men.

- I love Cauley-Stein. He reminds me of Joakim Noah from the Chicago Bulls. There's no offensive game, but he can block shots and defend multiple positions with his athleticism. Cauley-Stein is unique in how his mind works. I love that.

- Those of you with LeBron James hate in your heart (I get how bad "The Decision" was), read his Twitter timeline from Friday and his tribute to Lauren Hill.

- Movie moment - Haley Joel Osment, the kid from "The Sixth Sense," is 27 years old. Jordan Spieth is blowing out the field at the Masters. I'm so old I want to eat Denny's at 4 p.m. and fall asleep at 8.

- TV moment - The girlfriend asked on Thursday if we are going to watch "True Detective" weekly, or binge-watch after. We binged on Season 1, but I can't do it for Season 2. I get the idea behind it, but I need immediate gratification.