With the start of the playoffs just 25 days away, playoff bound teams have just a handful of regular season games left to get primed for the NBA’s second season.
What that preparation entails varies by team and circumstance, but one common aspect of playoff preparation is developing strategies to effectively utilize depth. This often means adding rifts, sets, and other tactics to allow more involvement from secondary players. In a seven-game series, a team has more time to adjust and scheme for an opponent’s primary options, opening up opportunities for lesser-known players to emerge in the playoffs.
Throughout NBA playoff history, we have seen a long list of unlikely heroes produce spectacular playoff performances, whether it be within a series, game, quarter, or even single play. Here are a few examples:
Mike Miller‘s Seven Threes-Pointers, Game 5, 2012 NBA Finals:
Missing much of the season due to injury, Miller entered the Heat’s Game 5 against the Thunder averaging just 4.41 points-per-game over the playoff run. However, the twelve-year vet and career 40.7% three-point shooter had a flashback game to his early days in Memphis, scoring 21 points by knocking down seven-of-eight from three-point land to secure a 121-106 win and a first ring for Lebron.
Kelly Olynyk Closes Game 7, 2017 Eastern Conference Second Round
In one of the more memorable performances from the 2017 playoffs, Boston’s Olynyk took over the role of Mr. 4th Quarter in Game 7 of a thrilling series against the Wizards, scoring 14 in the final quarter to punch Boston’s ticket to the ECF. Averaging 9.0 points per game off the bench, Olynyk finished the game with a season-high 26 ponts.
Glen “Big Baby” Davis on 2009 Celtics:
After losing Kevin Garnett to a season-ending injury, Davis, in his second year, stepped into the starting role and delivered multiple clutch performances, including this buzzer beater to save the Celtics in an 3-1 elimination game against the Magic in the ECF in which he scored 21 points and had six rebounds. The Celtics would lost the series in Game 7. Davis finished his career averaging 8.0 points per game and joined a long list of clutch playoff shots from unlikely sources like Derek Fisher, Steve Kerr, Big Shot Rob Horry.
Even if it doesn’t lead to a signature moment like the above, in the often razor-thin margins of the playoffs, increased production and value from a bench player can easily make the difference in a single game or even series. With that in mind, we have highlighted a few such secondary players (averaging <25 mins) that have the potential to become this year's unlikely heroes with breakout playoff performances:
Greg Monroe, Boston Celtics, 10 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 59.4% FG, 20.1 MPG
Monroe appears to be finding his niche on his third team of the season. In his last four games with the Celtics, the former lottery pick is averaging 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 23.5 MPG, giving Brad Stevens a needed interior offensive boost to the Celtics second unit. While Monroe can be exposed defensively against a smaller lineup, his offensive upside looks like it may be an excellent fit for a Celtics team that leads the league in defense rating, but has been mediocre offensively, particularly on the glass.
Nermanja Bjelica, Minnesota Timberwolves, 6.8 PTS, 4 REB, 43.2% 3P, 19.3 MPG
In the absence of Jimmy Butler the 6’10” third-year power forward out of Yugoslavia has moved into the Timberwolves starting rotation and quickly made a name for himself. He averages just 6.0 points per game over the course of his career, but Bjelica has been excellent in March, averaging 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds in 36.6 minutes per game, while hitting at an incredible 44.1% rate from three, including six-of-nine from deep in a 30-point outburst against the Wizards.
With Butler expected to return for the playoffs, it is unclear where that will leave Bjelica in the rotation, but it is hard to imagine Tom Thibodeau won’t find some minutes for the lethal shooter, particularly on a team that is last in attempted three-point field goals (22.2 per game).
Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers, 9.5 PTS, 5.1 REB, 22.8 MPG
Back in Indiana, Stephenson looks to be hitting his stride in his role as a veteran coming off the bench. He had a season-high 25 points on 10-15 shooting while adding five boards and five assists in Saturday’s loss to the Wizards, followed by 16 points in a win over the Lakers. Currently set to play the Cavaliers in the first round, the Pacers will need all they can get from their sporadic second-unit led by Stephenson, Corey Joseph, and Domantas Sabonis.
At his best, Stephenson can be an instant spark; a sensational play-maker whose swagger and fiery personality can rally his teammates and the crowd. Then, there is the other Lance Stephenson we have seen: an erratic, selfish player, that has displayed immaturity and disinterest that alienates him from teammates. Now in his eighth year, with the most playoff experience on the roster, this talented young Pacers team will need Stephenson at his best if they are going to make any noise.
CJ Miles, Toronto Raptors, 10.4 PPG, 38.4% 3P, 18.9 MPG
With a 19-2 record since February 1st, Toronto is cruising to a first ever Eastern Conference regular season banner. Integral to that success has been the play of 13-year veteran CJ Miles and the Raptor bench that leads the NBA in efficiency. A free-agent addition last off-season, Miles has exceeded expectations as a vital component of the effort to replace the offensive production of departed P.J. Tucker (Houston) and Patrick Patterson (OKC).
After shooting a career-high 41.3% from deep last season, Miles has continued to be extremely effective on the offensive end, posting one of the most efficient statistical seasons of his career, including a career high 19.8 points per 36-minutes. At 6.5 attempts per game, second on the team behind Kyle Lowry (7.6), Miles has been central to Dwayne Casey’s increased focus on the three-ball, an essentially compulsory component to success in the modern NBA.
Miles is a mediocre at best defensively, but that is largely offset by stout defense from the young and talented group surrounding him on the Raptor bench, including Jacob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet. Dubbed the “bench mob”, the Raptors bench has arguably been the best second unit in the league. This allows him to lock in on his role as a shooter that spaces the floor and stretches opposing defenses. Having recorded seven games with five or more made threes, Miles has the ability to quickly change the complexion of any game.
Ed Davis, Portland Trailblazers, 5.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 19.1 MPG
Davis is rarely going to put up large point totals, but he influences the game in a number of other ways that contribute to the overall of success of his unit. Most notably is his elite rebounding ability, which has been even better since the All-Star break at 9.2 rebounds per game in just 20.6 minutes, making him fourth in the league at 19.1 rebounds/48 minutes, behind only Deandre Jordan, Andre Drummond, and Enes Kanter. He is averaging 2.7 offensive rebounds and, while he doesn’t shoot often, he is efficient at 59% FG on the season (64.6% since the break). Davis’ athleticism makes him a versatile defender, a valuable trait against a team like the Warriors that likes to play small ball.
The Trailblazers have been the hottest team in the league since the break, reeling off 13-straight wins before last night’s loss to the Rockets. They have defied expectations all year long, thanks in no small part to the production of Davis and fellow reserves Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier, and rookie Zach Collins. Davis’ ability to anchor this group on the defensive end while creating second opportunities on the offensive glass will go a long way towards Portland having success this postseason.
This list could easily be extended to 30-40 players, but these are a few that stuck out. Some other names to watch include:
Jamal Crawford, Minnesota Timberwolves 10.4 PPG, 20.1 MPG
Nick Young, Golden State Warriors, 7.1 PPG, 37.9% 3P, 16.2 MPG
Mike Scott, Washington Wizards, 8.6 PPG, 40.7% 3P, 18.1 MPG
Montrezl Harrell, Houston Rockets, 10.4 PPG, 4 RPG, 16.2 MPG
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat, 7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 20.3 MPG
Joe Johnson, Houston Rockets, 6.7 PPG, 21.9 MPG
Jodie Meeks, Washington Wizards, 6.4 PPG, 15.1 MPG
Justin Anderson, Philadelphia Sixers, 5.9 PPG, 13.6 MPG
Jakkob Hurdl, Toronto Raptors, 6.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 18.3 MPG
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors, 7.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 20.4 MPG
Cheick Diallo, New Orleans Pelicans, 4.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 10.2 MPG
Fred Van Fleet, Toronto Raptors, 8.3 PPG, 39.4% 3P, 19.8 MPG
Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors, 4.7 PPG, 1 BPG, 14.2 MPG
Alex Abrines Oklahoma City Thunder, 4.7 PPG, 38.3% 3P, 15.1 MPG
Jonas Jerebko, Utah Jazz, 5.7 PPG, 39.8% 3P, 15.7 MPG