Thursday, June 11, 2020

B/R NBA Staff: 6 Unlikely Playoff Heroes We Can Already See Coming



The NBA superstar is one of the most elusive and valuable assets throughout sports. If a franchise can grasp one of the brightest stars in the game, it can bring instant marketability, attract free agents, even earn immortality if everything aligns properly. 

And yet, none of these historic heroes could have blazed their trail to championship glory without the collection of role players who helped push them across the threshold. From the timely threes of Steve Kerr and John Paxson to the unforgettable .4-second buzzer-beater from Derek Fisher and the countless contributions of "Big Shot" Robert Horry, role players make up some of the most significant and exciting moments in NBA playoff history. 

This postseason, the chance to shine will reveal itself to this unheralded group once more. Who will step out of the shadows, emerge the unlikely hero and steal a critical game that will play out in our memories for years to come? Here are our picks.

Donte DiVincenzo


When Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon this past summer and needed a new master of the subtleties, Donte DiVincenzo answered the call.

As with Brogdon before, DiVincenzo's numbers don't jump off the page. But for a second-year player who barely saw the floor during his injury-riddled debut season, his instincts belie his inexperience and his ability to execute his role makes him among the most trustworthy on the roster.

The Bucks need better support for Giannis Antetokounmpo. His co-stars wilted around him in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Brogdon often serving as the most reliable sidekick.

That burden now falls to DiVincenzo, who doesn't have Brogdon's shooting but brings the same nonstop hustle, on-time rotations and disruptive defense (fifth in defensive box plus/minus). DiVincenzo is a good rebounder for his position, a clever off-ball cutter and a steady finisher at the rim (66.9 percent within three feet).

Good things happen when he steps inside the lines. Only Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton—Milwaukee's All-Stars—had better net differentials among Bucks rotation players than DiVincenzo's plus-5.7 points per 100 possessions.

If Milwaukee realizes its championship potential, DiVincenzo's defense, motor and do-it-all offense will be major reasons why.

Danny Green

 
Less than one hour after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shocked and awed the NBA landscape by defecting to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers quickly shifted gears and signed veteran sniper Danny Green to a two-year, $30 million deal.

Green's season has been disappointing by his standards. After finishing last season 13th in real plus-minus with the league's second-best three-point stroke (minimum 2.5 three-point attempts per game), Green's real plus-minus plummeted to 107th while his stroke dropped from 45.5 to 37.8. 

But as Green has shown in the past, he can take over games from beyond the arc. You may remember Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals when he hit seven of nine three-pointers en route to setting a then-record 27 three-pointers throughout the Finals (Stephen Curry would break the record in 2016). Green also put the Golden State Warriors on their heels in the 2019 NBA Finals by stealing Game 3 at Oracle with 18 points on just 10 shots. 

Green joins LeBron James as the only Lakers to convert 100 three-pointers thus far in 2019-20. While Green isn't a regular volume scorer, he's come up big when they needed him, scoring 20 or more points in games against Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Houston and New Orleans this season. 

LeBron and Anthony Davis will need Green's floor-spacing to keep defenses honest come this postseason, and he's bound to deliver.


Jordan Clarkson

 
Jordan Clarkson's first playoff experience was nothing short of a disaster.

In 2018, Clarkson was part of a Cleveland Cavaliers team that made it to the Finals before being swept by the Golden State Warriors. Clarkson was nearly unplayable, averaging 4.7 points on 30.1 percent shooting in 15.1 minutes per game.

Now two years later, Clarkson should be a major factor in his new role off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Averaging 15.6 points on 48.2 percent shooting since his trade to Utah in December, Clarkson has been a major spark plug in the Jazz offense. Utah is 23-11 since making the trade, the sixth-best record in the NBA. Utah's bench had been outscored by 71 points in 30 games without Clarkson (24th in the NBA) and has flipped the script by outscoring teams by 42 points in 34 games since acquiring the 28-year-old shooting guard (sixth overall).

Donovan Mitchell was asked to do the vast majority of the ball-handling last postseason, but Clarkson can use his microwave scoring ability to power Utah in stretches while allowing Mitchell time to rest. Clarkson already lit up the Denver Nuggets this season, pouring in 37 points off the bench while knocking down seven of his 12 three-pointers.

If Clarkson gets the hot hand, he can win a playoff game (or two) for the Jazz.


Eric Bledsoe


The last two postseasons haven’t been good ones for Eric Bledsoe. He was having a solid 2019-20 season, and the expectations have never been higher for the Bucks coming off a disappointing loss to Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

The depth of this Bucks team has allowed it to keep Bledsoe’s minutes down significantly. Despite starting all 56 games he played, he was averaging just 27.2 minutes per game, his fewest over a full season since he was a Clipper.

A big part of that is because the league-best Bucks have blown out so many teams this season. If that continues, expect a fresher, more efficient Bledsoe this postseason, which could be the final piece to put the Bucks over the top in what looks to be Giannis Antetokounmpo’s second straight MVP campaign.


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander


The Oklahoma City Thunder have wildly surpassed expectations, sitting fifth in the Western Conference with a 40-24 record. 

It's been a redemption story of sorts for Chris Paul, who has been at the forefront of the Cinderella season. Dennis Schroder has enjoyed his own renaissance, emerging as the arguable favorite for Sixth Man of the Year. Danilo Gallinari has earned himself a nice payday this summer by scoring 19.2 points with 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 40.9 percent from three.

But for the Thunder to have any chance at advancing into the Western Conference Finals, they'll need their leading scorer to ascend into the role of future superstar. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is already on that path, averaging 19.3 points while shooting 47.3 percent from the field in just his second season. As versatile as they come, SGA graded in the 100th percentile in his time at the small forward position after playing 97 percent of his minutes at point guard last year. 

Just last postseason, SGA scored 18 or more points in three of his six games against the Golden State Warriors. If he can improve on those performances, the Thunder will continue their unlikely trajectory, and SGA will emerge as one of the next great stars in the game.


Alex Caruso


Caruso is already a league leader, sharing the best two-man net rating with LeBron James for combinations with at least 300 minutes on the floor together, per NBA.com. After spending a couple of years with the Lakers on a two-way contract, Caruso earned his first true NBA deal this offseason.

Defensively, Caruso is one of the team's best options in the backcourt. Offensively, he is inconsistent, although he seems to have a knack for big plays in key moments, be it a shocking putback dunk or an occasional three-pointer.

At 5.4 points a game, Caruso is far from the team's go-to scorer, but look for the guard to step into his LeBron-given GOAT nickname this postseason.


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