Highlighting the Breakout Player of Every NBA Playoff Team Still Alive
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The NBA playoffs provide an opportunity for players to break out and make names for themselves on the grand stage. Each of the four remaining teams has at least one player who has enhanced his reputation during this postseason.
It is often said that the NBA is a league of stars. Yet the ousters of Carmelo Anthony's New York Knicks, Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder and Chris Paul's Los Angeles Clippers demonstrated that well-rounded teams, as opposed to individuals, win playoff series and championships.
Most teams that advance deep into the playoffs have at least one All-Star on the roster, though it is often the role players who make the difference in tightly contested series. Typically, at least one of those players exceeds all expectations along the way.
Breakout players are usually youngsters who are still improving early in their careers. However, on occasion, a veteran will flourish in a new environment or based on a specific matchup.
Indiana Pacers: Lance Stephenson
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport
Paul George won the league's Most Improved Player Award, though an argument can be made that he was not even the most improved player on his team. That distinction might belong to third-year guard Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson was one of the top recruits in the country after leading Abraham Lincoln High School to its fourth consecutive New York City championship in 2009. However, after one year at the University of Cincinnati, he slipped to the second round of the 2010 NBA draft due to off-court issues.
Stephenson did not receive much playing time during his first two seasons with the Indiana Pacers. The Brooklyn native averaged just 2.5 points per game on 37.6 percent shooting in 2011-12 and was best known for giving the choke sign to LeBron James when the Pacers and Miami Heat met in the playoffs.
Stephenson was thrust into the starting lineup this season when Danny Granger suffered a knee injury, and he demonstrated significant improvement in his attitude and overall game. Stephenson averaged 8.8 points per game, and his shooting percentage climbed to 46 percent.
He has taken his game to another level in the playoffs, averaging 9.5 points and 8.4 rebounds through 13 games. Stephenson was particularly effective against the New York Knicks, using his 6'5'' frame to push around the Knicks' undersized guards. His 25 points and 10 rebounds were the difference in the series-clinching Game 6.
Miami Heat: Norris Cole
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The Miami Heat acquired the rights to Norris Cole after the Chicago Bulls selected the Cleveland State product with the 28th pick of the 2011 draft. The point guard made poor decisions with the ball during his rookie season and shot a putrid 39.3 percent from the field and 27.6 percent from downtown.
The game appeared to slow down for Cole in his second season, and he became a valuable contributor off the bench for the defending champions. His shooting numbers jumped to 42.1 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from downtown, and the youngster emerged as one of the team's top on-ball defenders.
Cole has been on fire in the postseason, connecting on 57.7 percent of his shots and 64.7 percent of his three-point attempts. He has raised his scoring average from 5.6 points per game during the regular season to 8.1.
Cole scored 18 points in each of Miami's Game 2 and Game 3 victories over the Chicago Bulls in the second round of the playoffs and has been stealing minutes from starting point guard Mario Chalmers. His defensive prowess will be crucial against George Hill in Miami's conference finals matchup against the Indiana Pacers.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Conley did not burst onto the NBA scene when the Memphis Grizzlies selected him with the fourth pick in the 2007 draft. His rise has been slow and steady.
He does not scoot up and down the court like Tony Parker or rain threes like Stephen Curry. Conley is capable of blowing by defenders, but he prefers to rely on his craftiness to get where he wants to go. Best known for his defense (he was third in the league with 2.2 steals per game), he is a career 37.5 percent shooter from downtown and can finish with either hand.
The point guard was forced to take on a greater offensive role when the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay midseason. He responded with 17.6 points per game in March and 17.0 in April, well above his season average of 14.6.
Conley has carried that success into the playoffs, averaging 17.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists over the Grizzlies' 13 postseason contests. He more than held his own against Chris Paul during the Grizzlies' first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, and he will have to continue to produce at an All-Star level for the Grizzlies to overcome their 2-0 deficit against the San Antonio Spurs.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard built on an impressive rookie campaign by improving in just about every statistical category this season. With Manu Ginobili at less-than-full strength, Gregg Popovich has leaned on the young forward more heavily during the playoffs. He leads the Spurs with 37.3 minutes per game in the postseason.
Leonard has become the lockdown defender San Antonio has been searching for since Bruce Bowen retired. His quick feet and tremendous wingspan stifled Golden State Warriors guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the second round.
However, Leonard's game does not stop there. He is the Spurs' third-leading scorer in the playoffs at 13.9 points per game, and he has scored in double digits in all but one of the Spurs' 12 contests. He is also averaging 7.9 rebounds per game.
Like Bowen, he has mastered the corner three and is shooting 42.4 percent from behind the arc in the postseason. Leonard often ignites the Spurs' fast break with his quick hands, and he uses his athleticism and enormous hands to finish around the basket.