8 Best Offensive Kickstarters in the NBA Playoffs

Micky ShakedContributor IIIApril 25, 2014

8 Best Offensive Kickstarters in the NBA Playoffs

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    Patric Schneider

    We did it guys. We finally reached the land Where Amazing Happens. The NBA playoffs!

    Now that you’ve finished doing the Nae Nae it’s time to talk spark plugs. Not the device that delivers electric current from an ignition system to the combustion chamber of a spark-ignition engine to ignite the compressed fuel/air mixture by an electric spark (thanks Wikipedia).

    Well, sort of.

    Replace device with player, ignition system with bench, combustion cham—you get the point.

    The postseason is all about the stars and even the starters. Forty-one players averaged at least 35 minutes among last year’s 16 playoff teams. Only 34 did it across the entire league this season.

    All eyes will focus on how far the Kevin Durants and James Hardens of the world can take their squads. And rightly so, this is a superstars’ league.

    Though starters’ minutes go up and rotations shrink significantly from here on out, the playoffs will add about a quarter of a full season to players’ legs if they are fortunate enough to reach the Finals. So while the bench sees less time overall, the production value increases significantly for the three or four reserves who do get time.

    A few examples from a year ago:

    • Nate Robinson came off the bench to average 17.3 points and help Chicago open a 3-1 lead through the first four games of its first-round matchup with Brooklyn. This included a memorable 34-point effort in triple overtime of Game 4 in which Robinson almost single-handedly erase a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. He stepped into the starting lineup when Kirk Hinrich went down with a bruised calf and contributed nearly 16 points a game as the Bulls downed the Nets in seven games and lost to Miami in five.
    • Jarrett Jack was Golden State’s second-leading playoffs scorer behind Stephen Curry at 17.2 points per game, originally coming off the bench until David Lee’s torn hip flexor moved him into the lineup for Games 2 through 5 of the first round. He scored at least 20 points in six of the Warriors’ 12 playoff games, among them a 24-point effort in a Game 4 victory of their second round matchup with San Antonio.
    • J.R. Smith also came off the bench to be the Knicks’ second-leading scorer in their two playoff series. His 15.2 points per game helped dispatch the Celtics in six before the Pacers overwhelmed New York.
    • Kevin Martin reached double figures in all but two of Oklahoma City’s 11 playoff games. Excluding a Game 5 stinker in which he went 1-for-10, Martin averaged nearly 16 points in the Thunder’s first-round win over Houston. He also scored 25 points back-to-back in Game 6 at the Rockets and Game 1 versus Memphis in the second round.

    This year’s crop of playoff teams is loaded with guys who can come off the bench and score in bunches, allowing coaches to rest their big-minute guys with less worry about where points will come from and how much the game will change before the starters go back in.

    We already know all about the Clippers’ Jamal Crawford and his prowess as the league’s resident Sixth Man of the Year, so let’s meet eight others.

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of ESPN.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate to the end of the regular season. Stats for players who played for multiple teams this season will reflect just those numbers posted for the team with which the player finished the regular season.

     

C.J. Watson, PG, Indiana Pacers

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    Overlooked as a factor in Indiana’s late season collapse, C.J. Watson’s absence robbed Frank Vogel of his only legitimate backup ball handler for 18 games in March and April. Lance Stephenson and Paul George are certainly capable of running the offense, but both are susceptible to shooting long pull-up jumpers with the ball in their hands.

    The Pacers’ starting five logged more minutes this season than any other, and they have a 16-14 record since the All-Star break to show for it. It also explains Watson’s unimpressive 6.6 points per game this season. But the crafty seventh-year guard has the ability to knock down big shots and get hot from range. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Watson shot over 50 percent from the field in 26 of 63 games and hit on 40 percent of his threes 23 times.

    To say the Pacers didn’t miss the University of Tennessee product’s presence would be a mistake. He returned from hamstring and elbow injuries to play three games before the playoffs and hit eight of 11 three-point attempts. Indiana needed every late-season victory it could get to secure the top seed in the East, and Watson’s 20 points in the penultimate game against Oklahoma City came right on cue.

    As Eye on Basketball’s Zach Harper points out, Watson was plus plus-two, plus-four and plus-nine in those three games. He also notes that Watson is one of only two Pacers (David West being the other) with a positive net rating since the All-Star break.

    Watson’s versatility as a slasher and proven outside threat has the potential to give Indiana the offensive boost it’s been sorely missing of late.

D.J. Augustin, PG, Chicago Bulls

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    Even the most casual NBA fan has heard D.J. Augustin’s rags-to-riches story. In a nutshell, he was cut by the Pacers in the offseason, signed by Toronto and then cast into the free agency abyss after just 10 games. Chicago signed him in early December for point guard depth after Derrick Rose went out for the season—mainly so they wouldn’t have to give Marquis Teague significant minutes—and from there he resurrected a floundering career.

    Augustin hit double-digit points in six of his first nine games as a Bull, including two as a spot starter for the injured Hinrich. He quickly became a fan favorite at the United Center, topping 20 points four times in the month of January as the team coped with the loss of leading scorer Luol Deng.

    His inclusion in this list almost isn’t fair as he is the team’s leading scorer since Deng left town, but the damage still comes from the bench. His .411 clip from beyond the arc leads the team by a significant margin and he’s the only Bulls backcourt player capable of taking defenders off the dribble.

    While Chicago’s anemic offense routinely features a different leading scorer every game, Augustin is heating up at the right time. He averaged 19.4 points in April and had his second-best shooting month from the three-point line (.423).

    Only Jamal Crawford, Nick Young and J.R. Smith contributed more points to their teams from the bench this season.

    You can call him the Nate Robinson of 2013-14, but the truth is he’s been even more important to the Bulls’ success this time around than the purveyor of #holdat was a year ago.

Jordan Crawford, SG, Golden State Warriors

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    Jordan Crawford shoots. A lot.

    Jordan Crawford shot a jumper during the review break. He's gonna find a way to get his shots in

    — J.A. Adande (@jadande) April 19, 2014

    His 19.3 field goal attempts per 36 minutes since joining Golden State keeps some elite company. Only LaMarcus Aldridge, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Al Jefferson shot more often this season.

    A roster crowded with wing players served as both a gift and a curse for the thrice-traded Crawford. On the one hand it limited him to less than 16 minutes of tick per game. But sharing the court with scoring-averse small forwards in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green meant he ran with the greenest of lights. Take his 41-point outburst in the Warriors’ meaningless final game of the season as Exhibit A.

    Crawford’s .417 field goal percentage leaves a lot to be desired, but the guy can score in bunches. He reached double figures in exactly one-third of his 42 games as a Warrior despite limited minutes.

    It remains to be seen whether Steez will even be a significant part of Mark Jackson’s playoff rotation, but a lot of people appear to be excited for a possible Battle of the Crawfords in Round 1.

    Y'all. Jamal Crawford and Jordan Crawford are going to be on the court together in a playoff series on opposite teams. Y'ALL.

    — Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 19, 2014

    Putting Jordan Crawford against Jamal Crawford in a playoff series is essentially asking me to pick which kid I like better.

    — Zach Harper (@talkhoops) April 19, 2014

    Jamal Crawford and Jordan Crawford in the same series is weird.

    — Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) April 19, 2014

     

Vince Carter, SF, Dallas Mavericks

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    All you really need to know about Vince Carter is that he climbed to 25th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list on April 12. Drop the mic and walk off the stage, Vince.

    Better yet, he did it while coming off the bench in all but three games the last two seasons.

    Even if LeBron James bumped him back down to 26th a few days later, at 37 years of age the 10-time All-Star is playing just as well on a per-minute basis as he was three seasons ago. How old is 37 in basketball years?

    Vince Carter's rookie season was the year of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I can't get past the 5th day of a juice cleanse.

    — Jensen Karp (@JensenClan88) March 28, 2014

    The once and former “Half Man, Half Amazing” has been surprisingly durable, missing just seven games in three seasons with the Mavericks. And the veteran has kept himself relevant by scorching the three-point line. Despite posting a career-low .418 field goal percentage on 2s, Carter’s .394 clip from behind the arc was on par with Damian Lillard and J.R. Smith and the fifth-best mark of his 16 seasons.

    Even with his seniority status, Vinsanity still possesses the ability to take over a quarter (nine in the fourth against the Kings on April 6) and occasionally an entire game (23 in a loss 109-103 loss to the Clippers on March 27). And his 6.8 fourth-quarter minutes prove he contributed when it mattered most.

    Though he’s a real long shot to win, Carter has garnered Sixth Man of the Year ballot consideration. If, God forbid, Dirk hits a cold streak or Monta Ellis loses focus, Rick Carlisle knows he can count on Carter to put his team back on track with his sweet stroke.

Reggie Jackson, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    This Tweet speaks for itself:

    Jackson checks in. OKC is 24-2 when Reggie Jackson socres at least 15 points.

    — Thunder Obsessed (@ThunderObsessed) April 20, 2014

    And with Oklahoma City’s championship desires in mind, this one does too:

    In 4 wins v. SAS this season, Reggie Jackson avg. 21.3 Pts (his most v. any team) on 67.9% FG (his best v. any team) http://t.co/Jsxg3Avgne

    — NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 4, 2014

    Oklahoma City’s suspect bench makes Reggie Jackson’s 12.3 points per game as a reserve more important than conventional wisdom would suggest. The Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-Serge Ibaka trio accounted for nearly 65 percent of the team’s scoring and the Thunder reserves scored the sixth fewest points among playoff teams.

    Westbrook’s knee surgeries make Jackson the team’s true X-factor. He did an admirable job filling in for Westbrook, averaging 14 points in 36 games as a starter. But some of his best work came as the first guy off the bench, including four of his 10 highest-scoring games this season, per Basketball-Reference.com. He also shot over three percent better from three and the field overall in the reserve role.

    The Thunder didn’t skip a beat this season with Jackson in the lineup. Their offensive rating bumped slightly from 110.0 with him on the bench to 110.8 when he played.

    Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel details Jackson’s efficient play off the bench:

    When Jackson’s role is coming off the bench, either to play sidekick to Westbrook or to run the B team, then Jackson plays more freely. More shots, more success with the shots. Jackson’s 3-point shooting is remarkably better when he doesn’t start — .351 to .322. His foul shooting is much better. Jackson has missed just three foul shots all season during games in which he didn’t start.

    I think some of that can be attributed to relaxing. Jackson doesn’t feel the weight of the world on his shoulders when Westbrook starts. When Jackson has to start, as we saw in the 2013 playoffs and occasionally this season, he seems to be carrying a burden.

    Look for Jackson to team up with Westbrook, giving the Thunder one of the most explosive duos of backcourt scorers in the playoffs.

Marcus Thornton, SG, Brooklyn Nets

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    Because he spent the first four and a half years of his career in New Orleans and Sacramento, Marcus Thornton might be the only player to average nearly 20 points a game in recent memory that you know nothing about. The fifth-year guard from LSU joined Brooklyn via trade with 26 games left in the season and was the team’s fourth leading scorer off the bench at 12.3 points per game.

    While Brooklyn executed the season’s best strategic (mini) tank job in dropping to the No. 6 seed in the East, Thornton displayed why the team traded scrappy big man Reggie Evans for him in February. He put up a combined 44 points in losses to the Knicks and Cavs on the strength of eight three-pointers.

    Thornton’s specialty is the three-point line, where he hit on 38 percent of his attempts. He hit multiple triples in 12 of his 26 games as a Net and topped 20 points five times off the bench. That’s key for a team that was just 14th in offensive efficiency this season. His 18.6 points per 36 minutes are good for 15th among players who came off the bench at least 25 games and played at least 15 minutes per, so you know he can fill up the stat sheet in a hurry.

    Did I mention that he dropped 42 points on the Pacers back in January, before they forgot how to play ball?

Patty Mills, PG, San Antonio Spurs

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    Playing word association with “Spurs” and “bench”, you should come up with Manu Ginobili 100 times out of 100. He’s been San Antonio’s super sub for the better part of 12 years.

    But in Gregg Popovich’s chaotic lineup juggling, Patty Mills has been putting shrimps on the barbie with the best of them. He does things like explode for 26 points in 36 minutes—albeit on 25 shots—when called on for a spot start, as was the case against the Mavericks on April 10. He can also give you 21 points on an efficient 13 attempts off the bench, as he did at Oklahoma City a week prior. In fact, Mills’ and Ginobili’s points per 36 minutes are identical.

    Pop spares no feelings for anyone. So when he explained why Mills didn’t see much court time last year in the wake of this breakout campaign, it was both the most Popovich explanation ever but also carried unusual levels of praise.

    Per Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:

    He was a little fat ass. He had too much junk in the trunk. His decision making wasn’t great, and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it. He’s been real important to us, obviously.

    Unfortunately for Mills, who was excluded from last year’s playoff rotation, minutes will be hard to come by, as he and Tony Parker never share the floor. That could change, though: 

    Congratulations to @Patty_Mills on graduating to 'being rested by Pop for the playoffs' level.

    — Downtown (@Downtownball) April 14, 2014

    Mills has been one of the Spurs’ most efficient scorers, and one of the league’s best off the bench. His 56.5 percent effective field goal percentage trailed only Gerald Green and Pablo Prigioni for reserve players.

    Paul Garcia of ProjectSpurs.com points out that Mills ranked 7th in the NBA in points per possession on pick and rolls and 13th off spot-ups.

    The Aussie can attack in a variety of ways, much like the guy he supplants and gets confused for when you watch the Spurs from a distance.

Lou Williams, PG/SG, Atlanta Hawks

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    After missing half of the 2012-13 season and the first couple weeks of this season recovering from an ACL tear, Lou Williams has struggled to regain his sixth-man form.

    His shooting percentages are the lowest they’ve been since 2008-09, and his per-minute scoring is just barely above where it was in his second season as a pro.

    But the preps-to-pros guard can score in a hurry. He dropped 23 points in 22 minutes against the Heat on April 12, 18 of which came in the fourth quarter. Each one of the Hawks’ games down the stretch was a must-win, as they ultimately finished one game ahead of the Knicks for the eighth playoffs spot in the East.

    If Williams is in the midst of a down year, he ended the season with an upswing. He scored in double figures in 15 of his last 22 games, including a seven-game streak in February and March. Williams gives Atlanta a different dimension on offense than starting point guard Jeff Teague.

    Teague can certainly score with the best of them, but dishing out nearly seven assists per game he is the team’s main distributor. When Williams steps on the court he’s got the green light. And with a thin bench consisting of the elderly Elton Brand and an inexperienced trio of Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott and Cartier Martin, his unabashed shoot-first nature is key for the upstart Hawks.