Playoff heroes come in many forms and several guises. Michael Jordan took a shot, well, the shot, over Craig Ehlo and nailed it for the win. Jerry West once swished a 60-foot buzzer-beater to cement his claim of being Mr. Clutch. On the defensive side of the equation, John Havlicek famously “stole the ball” to send Boston to the 1965 NBA Finals. Hakeem Olajuwon got a finger on a John Starks three to save the 1994 Rockets’ season.
All of those heroes are Hall of Famers and their exploits will be remembered for years to come.
Some playoff heroes, however, are flashes in the pan. They come out of nowhere and fade into nothing. In between the dark voids of their beginning and end, these men had a blinding brilliance. For a game, a series, or even a whole postseason, they were basketball luminaries.
One such player is Lee Shaffer of the Syracuse Nationals.
To say Shaffer was totally unknown prior to his remarkable postseason exploits is an overstatement. He was the fifth pick in the 1960 NBA Draft and was an All-Star in 1963 averaging 18.6 points per game. However, to say people were expecting his outburst in the playoffs is surely an overstatement, too.
Shaffer’s Nationals faced Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals in the opening round of the 1963 Eastern Division playoffs. Initially, Shaffer was unremarkable with 25 total points in the first two games. In Game 3, though, Shaffer caught fire and tormented the Royals for 34 points. In Game 4 he replicated the inferno with 32 points. With the series tied at 2-2, the decisive Game 5 would be played in Syracuse.
Although the Nationals ultimately fell short in the overtime game, 131 – 127, Shaffer saved the best performance of his career for that final game. He scored 45 points in the losing effort in what was his finest game as a professional.
Despite his heroic playoff series, Shaffer’s NBA career was just about over. He broke his leg midway through the next season (1963-64) which limited him to just 41 mediocre games. Then in the summer of 1964 he was traded to the San Francisco Warriors in exchange for Wilt Chamberlain. Instead of reporting to the Warriors, Shaffer decided to retire from the NBA after just 2.5 seasons in the league.
Even more meteoric than Shaffer, though, was Billy Ray Bates of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Bates spent most of the 1979-80 NBA season not in the NBA, but with the Continental Basketball League’s Maine Lumberjacks. Bates was signed by the Blazers in late February 1980 as a warm body to sop up minutes as the club was devastated by injuries. Bates admirably filled in with 11 points a night in the season’s last 16 games.
When the playoffs arrived on April 2, 1980, Bates went supernova on Portland’s first round opponent, the Seattle SuperSonics. In his very first career playoff game, Bates scored 29 points. In Game 2, he subsided to just 20 points but it was a well-placed 20 points. Bates hit a baseline jumper to send the game into overtime tied at 89. In the extra period he pumped in six more points to give Portland the 105 – 95 victory.
In the third and final game of the series, Bates notched 26 points, but the Sonics silenced the Blazers with a 103 – 86 win. Bates remarkably replicated his feats during the next postseason (1981) against the Kansas City Kings. Bates scored 25, 26, and 34 points in the 3-game series, which Portland lost.
Bates’ NBA career faded quickly thereafter, much like Lee Shaffer’s. A final season in Portland in 1981-82 was followed by very brief stints with the Washington Bullets and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1982-83 season. For his regular season career, Bates managed an average of 11.7 points on 47% shooting. But in the postseason he upped the ante to 26.7 points a game on 54.5% shooting.
A player who many New York fans wish had vanished as quickly as Shaffer and Bates was Jerome James.
James’ whole career, the good parts at least, basically boils down to 11 games in the spring of 2005. His career to that point was decidedly mediocre and woeful: 5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game over 5 seasons.
That spring of 2005 was something to behold, nonetheless. James opened the postseason with a thrashing of the Sacramento Kings: 17 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks. The Kings never found an answer for James throughout the series. The mammoth center ended up averaging 17 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks while shooting 58.1% from the field and 82.4% from the free throw line. The Sonics won that series against Sacramento 4 games to 2.
Astute observers at the time may have noticed that the Kings were trotting out a platoon of defensive sieves like Brad Miller, Kenny Thomas, Darius Songalia, and even Greg Ostertag to “thwart” James. Even more astute onlookers would have noted that in the next series James was exposed by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
James’ averages were halved to 8.5 points and 4.7 rebounds on a miserable 42.9% shooting. The playoff heroics were clearly a fluke inspired by weak competition and James’ expiring contract. None of that mattered to then-Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas. Jerome James for his one-week run as an upper echelon center was rewarded with a 5-year contract worth slightly over $30 million. James would see court action in just 90 more games in his career averaging an awful 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds.
For all of his drawbacks, at least Jerome James gave a whole series worth of good games. Leon Powe of the Boston Celtics really had just one impactful playoff game in his career. The game was so good, though, that you can just say “the Leon Powe Game” and any basketball fan alive in 2008 knows exactly what you’re talking about.
Officially, it was Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. But, really, it is the Leon Powe Game. The burly power forward dominated the game in a way that even his 21 points on 6-7 shooting doesn’t fully illustrate. Powe muscled, pummeled, and brutalized the Lakers around the basket for easy layups and dunks.
The Boston crowd was in ecstasy watching the little-known Powe run their hated rival off the court. Sadly, Powe never again had a game like that one. Knee injuries curtailed his career. Over the next three seasons, Powe appeared in just 120 games and he’s been out of the league since 2011.
Over time we come to expect the heroics of players like Michael Jordan, John Havlicek, Jerry West, and Hakeem Olajuwon. However, during any given series, postseason, or game, heroics can come from any corner of the court. It’s the unexpected brilliance of men like Powe, James, Bates, and Shaffer that creates the expected joy of watching the NBA playoffs year after year after year.