NBA playoff X-factors: 7 under-the-radar difference-makers who could tilt a series

Which team has the best player, to this day, still marks a proverbial rule of thumb among NBA personnel in determining which team will win a playoff series. And yet, front offices and coaching staffs consider every seventh and eighth man, every potential bench unit, in order to defeat whichever foe they see in each round of the postseason. For that, here are seven under-the-radar difference-makers for seven championship hopefuls in these playoffs.

G Justin Holiday, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ strategy of rounding out their rotation with rising players on rookie contracts like Christian Braun and Peyton Watson has been rightly praised around the league. Denver appeared to focus a good amount of coaching energy throughout this spring evaluating options for its second unit at large, giving plenty of run and opportunity for Zeke Nnaji to claim the backup center position. While those important minutes could very well end up going to Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon, one unheralded piece of Denver’s rotation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The older brother of Boston’s Jrue Holiday and Houston’s Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday’s journeyman career has enjoyed an ideal stop in Denver this season. He’s drilled 40.4% of his 3s this season over 58 games. He’s arguably been the Nuggets’ most important player outside of their vaunted starting five. According to Inpredictable, Holiday has been Denver’s sixth-most impactful player this season in terms of added win probability when he’s on the floor, earning consistent faith from coach Michael Malone’s coaching staff along the way.

F Nicolas Batum, Philadelphia 76ers

In what could amount to the French forward’s final NBA season, Batum has provided Philadelphia with invaluable cross-positional utility ever since arriving — thanks to November’s trade with Los Angeles that delivered James Harden to the Clippers — and that’s before his heroic play-in performance Wednesday night. The 35-year-old is perhaps the most trusted member of head coach Nick Nurse’s roster, whether because of defensive positioning or executing quick play designs coming out of late-game huddles. He’s been an integral part of Philadelphia’s two-best five-man lineups this season. He’s drilled 40% of his triples over the past four seasons, supplying another critical floor spacer to help stretch opponents for Joel Embiid’s greater individual brilliance. And Batum marks another option for Nurse if the Sixers find it necessary to play with a smaller man at the five position while Embiid takes a well-earned breather after commanding double teams and loaded defensive fronts.

F Bojan Bogdanović, New York Knicks

Batum’s postseason in Philadelphia will be short-lived if the New York Knicks maintain home-court advantage as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the scoring and playmaking of Bogdanović might be as necessary an element for New York’s success in these playoffs, helping to uplift the Knicks’ offense whenever All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson heads to the bench. Those minutes will be few and far between. Perhaps Brunson plays every minute for Tom Thibodeau’s latest postseason push. Yet for the Knicks to truly compile a long run into May or even June, New York will need to spare its do-it-all ball-handler, and that’s precisely why the Knicks sacrificed young guard Quentin Grimes and the contract of Evan Fournier — two trade assets New York was holding onto as premium currency to upgrade its roster. Bogdanović struggled to find a rhythm throughout his early games at Madison Square Garden, connecting on just 31.5% of his attempts from distance in March. And yet, the 34-year-old veteran, with plenty of playoff miles from his days in Utah, was back over 43% from deep during eight games in April, including a key 13 points in the Knicks’ regular-season overtime finale against the Bulls — when Bogdanović and Miles McBride played just shy of perfect when spelling Brunson in that one.

F Royce O’Neale, Phoenix Suns

Phoenix had limited flexibility to improve its roster before the February trade deadline, but focused on improving its wing depth with a sweet-shooting forward who could guard up positions — especially in smaller lineups with Kevin Durant at the five. The group of Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon bested opponents by 27.1 points per 100 possessions this season, and O’Neale could bring more size to a similar unit in Gordon’s stead. That’s largely why Phoenix opted to send three second-round picks to Brooklyn to acquire O’Neale’s services, and he’s responded by converting 37.6% of his triples since the move back west. Several opposing coaches have noted the Suns’ chances could ultimately come down to O’Neale, Allen and Gordon’s efficiency once Phoenix’s star-driven offense swing-swing-swings possessions to the corners. O’Neale’s defensive size will perhaps be most critical of the three players when it comes to the different choices the Suns have in attacking Minneseota’s large frontcourt that typically plays two of Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Sixth Man of the Year favorite Naz Reid.

G Malik Beasley, Milwaukee Bucks

For all the clear offensive and playmaking upgrades Milwaukee received for acquiring Damian Lillard, the departures of Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen left the Bucks’ defense quite susceptible on the perimeter. Patrick Beverley arrived at the trade deadline to help fill that gap, but plenty of that responsibility falls on Beasley’s shoulders. The Bucks’ path to the Eastern Conference finals, let alone any championship aspirations, will run through Tyrese Haliburton, and then one of Jalen Brunson or Tyrese Maxey. Beasley was called to shadow Haliburton in Las Vegas when the Pacers upended the Bucks in the semifinals of the in-season tournament — and did not exactly live up to the task. Haliburton averaged 27 points, 5.8 rebounds and 11 assists over five games against the Bucks this season, flirting with 50/40/90 shooting splits. Of course, the status of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ailing calf will be most important to Milwaukee’s postseason hopes. In the event he’s available, Beasley’s two-way role could be essential to the Bucks’ chances of moving forward.

G Dante Exum, Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks’ trade-deadline acquisitions of P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford, each costing Dallas a first-round pick and more, have surely fit next to Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Although Exum, an offseason acquisition, remains as consequential a swing piece for the Mavericks as any player outside of their top two ball-handlers. Exum brings a different change of pace, weaponized 3-point shooting and defensive versatility — especially in three-guard lineups with Dončić and Irving. When all three have shared the floor, over 192 minutes, the Mavericks sport a 131.9 offensive rating — 12.3 points per 100 possessions above the Dončić-Irving output, higher than the league-leading Celtics — with a 106.1 defensive rating, two points stingier than Minnesota’s NBA-best mark on the year.

G Cason Wallace, Oklahoma City Thunder

While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed a handful of games during the stretch run of the regular season, Oklahoma City’s rookie guard made a strong impression among rival scouts watching the Thunder’s last few games. Wallace appeared in all 82 for OKC this season, drilling 41.9% of his triples and sliding in seamlessly to closing lineups for the Thunder. Wallace also is as strong of a one-on-one perimeter defender as anyone on OKC’s young roster, and that’s quite the statement about a rookie playing on the same team as Lu Dort.