B/R's NBA Playoff 'Small Sample Size' All-Stars
The biggest stars determine the course of every NBA postseason, but desperate times and the strategic intricacies of a playoff series mean less-heralded contributors always make an impact, too.
You've heard it before: Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Well, playoff series are like that. These fallback options, generally role-filling small-timers, have stepped in during the postseason to counterpunch from odd angles. They are the guys who unexpectedly put their stamp on single games or entire series—either duration is a small sample size when considering we're well beyond the 82-game regular season.
Some of these names used to do this a lot. In fact, a couple were once the stars you'd count on determining the outcome of a series. Due to age and circumstance, their contributions count as surprises now.
Others are just true out-of-nowhere stunners, proving you never really know who's going to seize the moment.
Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers
Lance Stephenson played for five teams over the past two seasons, stretching the bounds of the term "journeyman" to their absolute limits.
Bouncing around that often in such a short stretch is almost always a sign the end is near. For Stephenson, it may have just been a wild intermission before a homecoming.
After averaging 6.8 points and seeing action in just 18 regular season games—six apiece with the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers—Stephenson produced 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers swept his Pacers in the first round.
It was almost as if the version of Stephenson that galvanized Indy's deep playoff runs in 2013 and 2014 was back, somehow beamed in from the past. Even his ridiculous flops showed up.
Given the trajectory of his career, Stephenson would have made this list simply by appearing in a postseason game. But he was actually productive, shooting 50.9 percent from the field and logging at least 24 minutes in all four contests.
If he comes anywhere close to those contributions in the future, the three-year, $12 million deal he signed with the Pacers will be a bargain.
Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs
At one point this season, Jonathon Simmons was losing minutes to Kyle Anderson, which is about as damning a demotion as there is in the NBA.
Anderson may still be young enough to stick in the league, but right now, his most notable "skill" is being incomprehensibly slow. That's not the type of player someone like Simmons, a 6'6" ath-a-lete (you have to use three syllables when describing someone this strong and explosive) who can play small-ball power forward, should be sitting behind.
Even in the San Antonio Spurs' opening-round win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Simmons was mostly invisible, averaging 3.6 points in only 10.9 minutes per game—a drop from his modest full-season averages of 6.2 points in 17.9 minutes.
Maybe it's the matchups, or maybe it's a case of head coach Gregg Popovich realizing Anderson shouldn't be on the floor, but Simmons is suddenly a key player in the Spurs' second-round tilt with the Houston Rockets.
He's scored in double figures in four of the series' first five games, peaking with 17 on 6-of-12 shooting in Game 4. And as Houston continues leaning on undersized lineups, Simmons only becomes more useful.
With restricted free agency ahead this summer, Simmons picked a good time to play his best ball.
Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
Why doesn't he play more?
This, the central question of Norman Powell's two-year career, is a blessing and a curse.
It signals a faith in his abilities but also wouldn't be asked if he were, you know, playing more.
Though his Toronto Raptors are finished, Powell's output through two rounds in this postseason should put that question on the shelf for good. Because he's bound to play more now.
Powell's minute average bumped up from 18.0 to 25.2 per game in the playoffs, and his ability to either hit the open three or attack a closeout made him a vital weapon against defenses that often dug in against a stagnant Raptors offense.
The highlight for Powell was a 25-point outburst in a 118-93 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the first round, but his key playoff averages—11.7 points on 44.1 percent shooting from deep—were both better than his regular-season stats, 8.4 points with a 32.4 percent accuracy rate beyond the arc.
Of Powell's production against the Bucks, head coach Dwane Casey told reporters: "In this series, he's been the X-factor."
Even if we all agree Powell should have been seeing more minutes all along, that's a surprising turn of events after another season on the bench and just a 9-9 record as a starter.
Isaiah Canaan, Chicago Bulls
Isaiah Canaan scored in double figures six times in 2016-17, and the last such "outburst", a 10-point effort, came on Dec. 5.
And then he hit double digits twice in three games against the Boston Celtics for a shorthanded Chicago Bulls team needing a point guard spark in the first round.
He also stuck his tongue out at Isaiah Thomas for some reason.
Canaan was only in a position to play because Rajon Rondo went down with a broken thumb, and the Bulls had no alternatives. And it's not as though his three-game run of big minutes produced success; Chicago got outscored by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
But look: Canaan was a nonentity in the league this year, shooting 36.4 percent from the field and playing in only 39 regular-season games. That he not only stepped into starter's minutes in a playoff series but also somehow hit 13 of his 26 field-goal attempts while tallying totals of 13, 13 and nine points in Games 4, 5 and 6 stands out as a true stunner.
Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls
Did anyone have a weirder year than Rondo?
Signed over the summer as part of a roster reconstruction that never made sense (shooting is important, right?), in and out of the starting lineup and even benched entirely for stretches, he played brilliantly in Games 1 and 2 against Boston.
And then sat out the rest of the series nursing a thumb fracture.
At points during the year, it seemed like his NBA career was over. Then, when the Bulls needed him most, he was their best player in a pair of remarkable postseason victories.
Before getting hurt, he averaged 11.5 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds while posting a plus-14.5 on-court net rating in Games 1 and 2 of the first round. So dominant was his play, and so stunning was Chicago's 2-0 lead, that Rondo later said on TNT's Area 21 he believed his team would have gone on to win in a sweep if he'd stayed healthy.
An eighth seed smashing a No. 1 in four games sounds pretty wild, but he's not exaggerating by much.
Rondo actually improved his play down the stretch of the regular season, but everyone is going to remember those two playoff games most. If Chicago picks up his team option and extends his career, those two games in April may be the reason.
Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
Taurean Prince was building toward this, but whenever a rookie peaks in the postseason, it's noteworthy.
After spending time in the NBA D-League and seeing action in only 33 of his first 56 games this season, Prince's role gradually expanded as his two-way play and NBA-ready frame demanded a larger share of the Atlanta Hawks' wing minutes.
Still, his regular-season averages of 5.7 points in 16.6 minutes made his playoff surge to 11.2 points in 31.2 minutes remarkable. Even if you note that he was logging 28.6 minutes per game in seven April games before the playoffs, his efficiency spike in the postseason proves he took yet another step forward when the games mattered more.
Despite added volume, Prince's postseason 59.6 effective field-goal percentage dwarfed the 45.8 figure he posted during the season.
He may not be Kawhi Leonard reincarnated, but the versatile 6'8", 220-pound wing with game on both ends seems to be cut out for a similarly central role—at least in terms of his mental wiring.
"It was high intensity," Prince told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution of his first playoff action. "I'm a high intensity guy. I compete. I definitely felt it. It took me a bit to get settled in. Once I get settled, I got more comfortable and felt good."
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Internet searches validate Manu Ginobili's incredible postseason impact—just as they underscore how foolish everyone is for expecting that impact to disappear.
Google "Ginobili washed" and you'll get hits from as far back as 2009 wondering if he's finished as a difference-maker.
But Ginobili is most certainly not washed, and in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, he was the one putting dudes through the ringer.
Wrong-footed dunks in traffic.
Huge, momentum-swinging threes.
Game-clinching blocks against a potential MVP.
At 39, the high points are harder to come by. The dunks and Eurosteps and no-look crosscourt dimes less frequent.
Ginobili has to pick his spots these days, and the games when he doesn't quite have his "grandpa juice" can be ugly. Earlier in the playoffs, he went 0-of-15 from the field in a four-game stretch against the Grizzlies in the first round. And he hadn't played more than 18 minutes in any postseason contest until Tuesday's triumph.
Then he logged 32 minutes, scored 12 points and made the biggest plays of a series-swinging San Antonio win.