- Chris Palmer, ESPN the Magazine
New Orleans Hornets head coach Monty Williams peered down at the box score with a small smile forming at the corners of his mouth.
"Our bench was big today," Williams said after the Hornets' stunning 109-100 Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Chris Paul's electrifying performance dominated the headlines and postgame chatter, but Williams knew the play of his second unit sealed the victory. His reserves blindsided the Lakers by shooting 15-of-22 from the field, including a season-high 12 points from seldom-used center Aaron Gray.
The next time the teams met, the respective second units played vastly different roles. Just 24 hours after being named Sixth Man of the Year, Lamar Odom scored 16 points on 8-for-12 shooting to lead a spirited effort from the Lakers' reserves, tying the series at 1 despite one of Kobe Bryant's worst playoff outings in recent memory. "Tonight the bench was crucial to our cause," Phil Jackson said.
Make no mistake about it, teams will live and die by their superstars and other key starters during the playoffs, but a quality bench serves many purposes, the most important of which is keeping it close when those same superstars are getting a breather. And in an evenly matched series, bench play can be the deciding factor -- and often seed plays no part in how good a second unit can be.
The Lakers-Hornets matchup isn't the only series where the second unit, for better or worse, has had a significant impact on the outcome. Here's a look at the playoff benches that are getting it done and the ones that aren't:
Chris Palmer ranks the best- and worst-performing benches of the playoffs, providing hints on which teams might hold the advantage in their first-round series.