- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
For those who casually check their ESPN fantasy basketball head-to-head teams, check a little closer this week. The playoffs are here! To quote Jim Mora, "Playoffs?" Sure, not all of you made it, but if you did and thought you'd passively make lineup decisions until the regular season ended, there's breaking news: The playoffs are here! Leave no free agent stone unturned!
Not that this was a total surprise for me. Let's just say the two ESPN teams I have that cruised into the playoffs will now be managed differently. Every game matters now. The waiver-wire moves are more critical. The decisions made on Fridays and Saturdays for the next day need to be made with more care, with an eye on taking advantage of every last statistic. I admit, for the past month or so, knowing these teams of mine weren't in jeopardy of the evil "consolation" status, I didn't make a ton of moves. Now? Time to work.
For example, on one of those playoff teams, I've been moving Shane Battier in and out of the lineup, using him for game day, but not releasing him when he's not playing. He's not a fantasy star, but he's helpful statistically, and man, what an influence in our imaginary clubhouse! Battier is good, but not good enough, especially against better defensive teams, for me to keep at all times during the playoffs. I cut him today since he doesn't play tomorrow so I can get someone who is in action. I want games, lots of them, and I certainly don't want to end up eliminated because I fell one blocked shot or assist short, and kept Battier around on his off-days.
Even though I'm facing a team 32 wins my junior during the regular season (I went 119-41, my No. 4-seeded opponent Bimal Kapadia was 87-73), fantasy owners can't assume anything. There are no favorites in any fantasy playoffs, no matter the sport. Think that way and you get beat. Unlike real life, when the better teams/seeds have a distinct advantage, in fantasy, it's all statistical, and you can't control performance. Of course, the best way to win is if your players stay healthy and perform well. Good luck with that.
I cut Battier to add Drew Gooden, who seemed to flip a switch in his underwhelming game the past two weeks. Yeah, I know Gooden's Bulls face the defensive-minded Spurs on Thursday, but Gooden is playing so well, I can't ignore it. Over his past five games, he's apparently realized none of his teammates are anything like LeBron James, and he can shoot and board more. He's averaged 18.6 points and 10 rebounds in five games but also 2.6 blocks and 1.4 steals. Drew Gooden, the shot-blocker? It's the playoffs, baby, and he's stepping up!
Then again, I'll probably be sending Mr. Gooden to the waiver wire tomorrow in search of the next hot player for Friday's games. That's how you win in the fantasy basketball playoffs: by getting plenty of the cumulative stats, paying attention to the percentages and massaging your moves later in the week. Each playoff round is two weeks, so even if you win 5-3 this week, you can still lose the overall fortnight matchup if things go poorly next week. Don't let that happen.
As for which players win in the playoffs, your stars need to show up, and it's helpful if they play three or more games in a week. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, suit up a mere twice all week. Not that too many Bucks are saving your fantasy team, but if you're saving a roster spot for Andrew Bogut, and really need to use it on others, I'd do that. Check your borderline players for future weeks, you might need to make some tough decisions as well.
Gooden is the No. 20 guy on ESPN's Player Rater over the past 15 days, a significant development considering he was available in more than a quarter of leagues. Gooden's situation changed over the past month, unlike those of some of the other players on our "Most Added" list, but players of all ilk can be fantasy heroes at this point.
Nevertheless, here are five players other than Gooden you should take a look at in your playoffs, depending on need and regardless of whether they are one-game options or fellas you stick with. I'm inclined to make them all one-game options, but if they're still out there the next time they play, why not pick them back up again?
Jason Williams, PG, Heat: He's been known to follow up his good games with poor ones, so be careful here, but on a game-by-game basis, there doesn't seem to be a ton of downside to signing him. He's capable of a big scoring and/or assist game at any time, especially now that the Heat have so few options, and even if he misses 10 of 15 shots, as he did Tuesday at Milwaukee, that won't kill your fantasy week.
J.R. Smith, SG, Nuggets: Like Williams, we worry about his field-goal percentage on a long-term basis, but it hasn't been a problem of late, and he's still averaging more than two 3-pointers per game. Yes, Smith might have been noticed by fantasy owners when he scored 19 points in the Nuggets' 168-point outburst against Seattle, but he also had 22 points at the Spurs a week earlier and hit a few threes against Detroit on Tuesday. You know what you're getting.
Mickael Pietrus, SF, Warriors: Don't bother looking at his season numbers because he's playing more -- and better -- recently. Over his past five games, he's averaging 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds, as the league-leading Warriors are scoring even more than normal. Like most players, seeing your playing time go from mid-teens to high-30s helps a ton, but Pietrus is talented enough to keep helping fantasy rosters.
Julian Wright, SF, Hornets: His opportunity for more playing time opened up when David West got hurt, and the All-Star could return for the next game, so don't drop a key player to get Wright. However, Wright is the No. 21 small forward in fantasy over the past two weeks, ahead of Luol Deng, Josh Howard and Shane Battier, so if West must sit more, Wright is an active guy who can score in bunches, hit a three and get steals.
Ryan Gomes, SF/PF, Timberwolves: It's been an inconsistent year for Gomes, who certainly had opportunity to emerge, and fantasy owners haven't known whether they could count on this third-year player or not. If the past five games are any indication, pick him up and don't worry about the inconsistency. He has averaged 18.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, and among the opponents coming up are the Grizzlies, Pacers and woebegone Knicks.
Erick Dampier, C, Mavericks: I don't like to punt a statistic in any fantasy sport, ever. Thanks to players like Dampier, who aren't in demand but do thrive in two fantasy stats, you don't have to. Dampier is available in 73 percent of ESPN leagues, and over the past five games, while he's being mass-dropped, he's still delivered 8.2 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. Don't punt blocks, use players like Dampier to get what you can.