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The Conference Finals Y Factors

These aren’t the best players, but they’re the ones that could make a difference on the margins

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Each team remaining has a prototypical X factor (or, in the case of the Warriors, at least three prototypical X factors). These are the players who can single-handedly swing a game—or a series. But there are also those players who haven’t performed well in specific areas so far in the playoffs, but could still make a difference in their matchups. They’re not X factors—they’re Y factors. Here are the conference finals players we have our fingers crossed for.

Cleveland: Jordan Clarkson

If we cared about role players choking in the playoffs as much as we do stars, Stephen A. Smith would spend entire segments on Clarkson. His only decent performance was Game 4 against Indiana, in which he tallied 12 points. He was even worse during the second round, and so off-kilter from what he was in the regular season (Clarkson was the second-highest bench scorer in the league) that it looked like he belonged with the Raptors.

A quarter of Clarkson’s minutes in the conference semifinals came in garbage time; the 40 other minutes he played were just garbage. Before Game 4 against Toronto, Tyronn Lue said he was considering taking Clarkson out of the rotation and making Jose Calderon, whose defense makes Kevin Love look like Marcus Smart, the go-to instead. Lue didn’t follow through. Clarkson played 19 minutes in Game 4, trying, again, to shoot through it. He contributed five points on eight shots.

To capitalize on Boston missing Shane Larkin—what a time to be alive—Cleveland’s backcourt reserves have to be effective. Especially with all the defensive weapons Brad Stevens can use to counter the Cavs’ starters, Clarkson stepping up has never been more crucial.

Boston: Marcus Morris

Morris nearly shot Boston out of its second-round series clincher, missing nine of his 10 shots and making TD Garden collectively cringe each time he had the ball in his hands. That inconsistency on offense is Morris’s biggest flaw, but Stevens can’t afford to sit the streaky player during his down games; remember, the Celtics roster is so thin that Larkin being out is a major blow. Especially heading into the next round, since Morris will occasionally handle one of the most essential duties in the playoffs: trying to contain LeBron.

Golden State: Jordan Bell

Bell fell out of the Warriors rotation after missing 14 games in January and February due to an ankle sprain. By the time he was fully healthy again in March, Kevon Looney had proved his competence in Bell’s role, and the hype for Bell as a discount Draymond apprentice was put on hold.

“Looney has just taken that job,” Steve Kerr said recently, and so far, Looney’s kept the gig in the playoffs. But against the Rockets, Kerr could toy with the center spot. Despite Bell sitting for three of the Warriors’ 10 postseason games thus far and averaging just 4.9 minutes in the other seven, Kerr said that it “Wouldn’t shock me if he got back into the mix at some point. ... [He] could definitely play a role.”

Much of the praise for Looney centers on his defense, but before Bell’s ankle injury, the same applied to the rookie, who was already showing an ability to lock down multiple positions. Bell’s quick feet allow him to venture out to the perimeter and hang with his man on isolations—that might come in handy should he find himself on Chris Paul or James Harden—while also fulfilling traditional center duties like protecting the rim. In January, Jonathan Tjarks wrote that Bell “allows the Warriors to play more small ball in the regular season and spares the stars from additional wear and tear.” Two series in, against the best non-Warriors team remaining in the playoffs, that relief sounds as good as getting a promising rookie for just $3.5 million in cash considerations.

Houston: Gerald Green

For a journeyman picked up 33 games in, Green is one of Houston’s sparks. He averaged more points during the 2017-18 regular season (12.1) than in his five prior, and continuously moved up Mike D’Antoni’s bench. But to say Green’s consistency has dropped off during the playoffs is generous: The highs, like a 21-point, five-3-pointer night against the Wolves, are so far masked by the lows, like scoring four or fewer points in six of the Rockets’ 10 games so far. Still, D’Antoni will have to reach deep in his rotation to try to counter Golden State, especially during the inevitable poor shooting night Houston’s had each round, and Green can, even at 32 years old, bring the energy.