NBA Playoffs 2012: 5 Most Underrated Players
The NBA is a storyline-driven league.
That's doubly true in the playoffs, when the cast of characters is smaller, the heroes more heroic, and blame and credit for the outcomes of games gets doled out in clumsily heaped servings.
Naturally, some performances get the short end of the stick in these analyses. With this in mind, here are five players who deserve more recognition than they have received in the 2012 NBA playoffs.
5. Boris Diaw
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If the Spurs win the 2011-12 NBA championship, one of the first footnotes to the title should reference a heist—that is, the San Antonio’s acquisition of 29-year-old forward Boris Diaw after he was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in March of this year.
Pronounced washed up (and unrepentantly overweight) just a few months ago, Diaw has been the Spurs’ most versatile frontcourt player in these playoffs.
He rebounds, passes and can step out to hit the three, a critical triumvirate of skills in Popovich's offense, which asks its bigs to execute from both the low and high post.
Diaw’s posted a 16.3 PER through 12 playoff games, which ranks him ahead of such luminaries as Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Danny Granger and Danilo Gallinari this postseason.
The Boris Diaw Rule is now clear—on a bottom-dwelling team, he ebbs. And on a competitive one—be it this year’s Spurs, the mid-2000s Suns or his beloved French national team—he’s a glue guy who plays his unorthodox game to great effect.
We won’t be fooled again.
4. Mario Chalmers
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It’s a wonder that Chalmers doesn’t have more of a reputation as a big-game performer.
Dating back to his Kansas days, he’s certainly shown a knack for stepping up when his team needs him.
To wit, in Game 2 of the Heat’s conference semifinal series against the Indiana Pacers—their first played without Chris Bosh, who remains day-to-day with an abdominal strain—Chalmers poured in 25 points, six rebounds and five assists.
And when Miami needed to rally from 15 points down against the Celtics in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Chalmers came through with an efficient 22 points (8-of-16 from the field, 3-of-6 from three) spread over 45 minutes of regulation and overtime play.
Chalmers’ role is limited, certainly. He’s asked to spread the floor, defend, assume ball-handling duties when LeBron and Wade need to be spelled, and little more.
But in these playoffs he's done all of these things reliably, which makes him peerless among the Miami Heat role players.
3. Andrew Bynum
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If Andrew Bynum’s play this postseason had been overshadowed by his personality quirks, no one’s crying for him: “Close-out games are easy”, Three-gate and his repeated insubordination of Lakers brass are the tantrums of a man who, on the heels of his best season as a pro, obviously has a conflicted relationship with success.
That doesn’t change the fact that he was the second-best center (behind Kevin Garnett) in the playoffs through two rounds.
Bynum finished fifth in offensive win-shares (1.3), putting him only behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kobe Bryant.
He also recorded 3.1 blocks per game versus a mere 1.75 personal fouls, a strong sign that the 24-year-old is learning to be aggressive on defense without disqualifying himself.
His consistency as a scorer was the most impressive, however—long criticized for his tendency to disappear for stretches, Bynum reached double-digit scoring in each of his 12 playoff outings.
2. Thabo Sefolosha
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Thabo Sefolosha’s stats may underwhelm, but he’s changed the tenor of the Western Conference Finals with his defense on Spurs point guard Tony Parker.
These last two games, Parker has languished on Sefolosha’s watch. He’s averaged a mere 14 points per game and four assists on 40 percent FG shooting—that’s a startling drop from the 26 points and seven assists on 61 percent shooting that he posted in Games 1 and 2, when Russell Westbrook drew the assignment.
On offense, Sefolosha has thrived as a “no harm” player.
He’s turned the ball over just three times in the entire playoffs—versus 20 steals—and averages a tolerable 2.2 fouls per game. He’s also a credible if unprolific three-point threat, posting a 36.4 shooting percentage from beyond the arc.
With its three-headed monster of Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder are built to live with Sefolosha’s modest offensive contributions. What they couldn’t live with, however, was Tony Parker continuing to run roughshod over their perimeter defense.
Since Game 3, Thabo’s made sure they haven’t had to.
1. LeBron James
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LeBron James’ praises have been sung plenty in these playoffs.
So we’re going to use this space to pump him up some more?
Yes, we are.
Because what’s not being said is by how much James is blowing away the field.
James leads all playoff performers in PER (31.0) and win shares (3.9). Kevin Durant, his closest competitor in both categories, trails significantly with marks of 27.7 and 2.7, respectively.
And unlike Kevin Durant, he’s performing without another stud to help carry the water.
Odd as it may seem to deny Dwyane Wade the “stud” tag, he’s putting up his worst playoff numbers since 2006-07. Through four games against the Celtics, he has yet to crack 23 points, despite drawing an unchallenging defensive assignment (a hobbled Ray Allen) for much of the series.
With Bosh out and the Heat's third leading playoff scorer turning in a mere 12.1 PPG (Chalmers), the Heat have needed more from the All-Star shooting guard, and simply haven't gotten it.
Consequently, we've witnessed the return of “Cleveland LeBron” in every way. The Heat have gotten this far on his shoulders—they can't afford a drop-off in his production in this series or, should they be so fortunate, the next.