East: 3 playoff players to watch

Editor’s note: After a very brief hiatus, we’re back in full force here at Armchair 3. Tonight, I give you 3 players on likely Eastern Conference playoff teams worth watching through the season’s end and playoff stretch. Tomorrow night, predictably, will be our Western Conference edition. Thanks for reading!

Player No. 1: Monta Ellis

Named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the Feb. 25 – March 3 stretch, Ellis is on a roll. The shoot-first guard who’s struggled to coalesce with Brandon Jennings has, for whatever reason, exploded as of late, scoring 22 points in 7 straight games. He’s a major reason the Bucks are 6-1 with J.J. Redick in uniform, with 4 of those wins coming on the road and 3 against current playoff teams. (In 5 games in March, Ellis is averaging an even-better 26.8 points on 54% shooting.)

Consider this: the Bucks are 16-9 this season when Ellis scores at least 20, and 7-1 since Feb. 13.

With Ellis hitting on all cylinders, Milwaukee’s an intriguing out. Should they advance out of the No. 8 seed and thus avoid Miami — they’re only 2 games behind No. 5-seeded Chicago — the Bucks have the offensive firepower to compete with any other team in the East, especially when they go small with Ellis and Jennings in the backcourt, Redick at the 3, and Ersan Ilyasova at the 4 with LARRY SANDERS! (Milwaukee’s also one of 5 East teams to enjoy a winning record on the road.)

Speculation continues as to whether Ellis, due an $11 million player option, will opt in for 2013-14, or (likely) take an immediate pay cut for long-term security. So if Monta can continue his hot stretch into the postseason, there’s also the incentive of millions to be made.

Player No. 2: Kenyon Martin

This is an obvious one. Rasheed Wallace, 38, has been out since Dec. 15 with a stress fracture in his foot, though he insists he will return this year. And last week news came down that Amar’e Stoudemire, who already missed the first 2 months of the year due to knee surgery, will miss another 6 weeks due to, you guessed it, knee surgery. This leaves Martin, 35; Tyson Chandler, 30; Marcus Camby, 38; and Kurt Thomas, 40, in the Knicks’ frontcourt.

And a lot of pressure on Martin, signed off the street less than a month ago. Martin, who averaged 22.4 minutes in 42 games on the Clippers last year, played 17 minutes against Oklahoma City on Thursday and 22 more against Utah on Saturday, more in both than Camby or Thomas. And the Knicks will need K-Mart’s size should they draw a big-heavy team like Indiana, Brooklyn or Chicago in the postseason.

But New York’s best lineup is when Carmelo Anthony plays the 4, so there’s less onus on Martin in that regard. Still, Chandler is off the floor 15 minutes a night, a time the Knicks could sorely use Martin’s defensive intensity to make up for Jason Kidd’s lack of lateral quickness, and the team’s overall weak perimeter D.

Player No. 3: Jeff Teague

Lost in the will-they-or-won’t-they-trade-Josh-Smith kerfuffle from trade deadlines past is Teague’s future in Atlanta; he’s a restricted free agent due a $3.5 million qualifying offer, though it would be in GM Danny Ferry’s best long-term interest to ink his point guard long-term. (But, should Ferry decide to give up on Teague, he has combo guard Louis Williams under contract through 2014-15.)

Teague’s quietly been a solid third option in Atlanta, averaging 14.6 points (trailing only Smith and Al Horford), 7 assists, 33.1 minutes and a respectable 16.58 player-efficiency rating. He’s a limited (but improved) outside shooter, but his scoring and assist numbers have increased each of his 4 years. And, at 24, he’s a very capable floor general. Atlanta’s a remarkable 10-2 in games Teague averages double-digit assists; their last loss in such a case came Jan. 18 in Brooklyn.

If I’m a top seed in the East, Atlanta’s still the team that scares me the least; Milwaukee’s guards can get hot quickly, Boston’s been there and done that, and Chicago’s a healthy Derrick Rose away from being Miami’s top threat. But Teague, like Ellis, is playing for dough, and Atlanta needs defenses to respect his passing skills, if only to further open up secondary Smith and Horford screen-and-rolls.

Another stat: Atlanta’s 7-11 in games Teague averages 5 or less assists, and 0-6 since Jan. 12.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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