6 of the NBA's Most Surprising Playoff Stars of the Past Decade
Not all NBA playoff heroes wear capes.
OK, technically, none of them do. But most of the postseason's biggest difference-makers are predictable names: entrenched superstars or obvious breakout candidates. Their standout performances are a given, if not something close to it.
Every once in a while, though, a more random player takes on the hero's role. It doesn't always last for the duration of the playoffs, but this unexpected savior delivers at least one or two monumental efforts that shape an entire series or postseason run.
Circumstances often dictate the ascent of these surprise standouts. Injuries pave the way for more minutes. But certain players are even more unplanned. There is less of a rhyme or reason to their rise. It just happened.
This space is for both types of were-not-supposed-to-be-but-are postseason heroes and their flashbulb moments. And just so we have a benchmark, we're not looking at past-their-prime stars. To wit: Shawn Marion taught a masterclass at both ends of the floor during the 2011 Finals, but relative to what he was known for, his isn't a truly off-the-walls emergence. He and others like him are not on the table.
Mike Miller, Miami Heat (2012)
Flashbulb Performance: Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals
Everyone always knew Mike Miller was a caps-lock problem [insert smoke-face emoji] from beyond the arc. His outside touch was never in question, not even as he transitioned to the back end of his career and hovered somewhere in the middle to the fringes of the Miami Heat's rotation. He entered the 2012 playoffs shooting 40.5 percent from deep through 12 seasons.
Still, anyone who says they saw his championship-clinching eruption coming is most likely, probably, definitely lying.
It isn't so much that he pumped in 23 points while converting seven of his eight three-point attempts. It's that he was on the court at all.
Miller was dealing with back pain so severe that he wasn't always able to sit on the bench during games. He logged under 22 minutes combined through the first four tilts of the 2012 NBA Finals and had cleared 11 minutes in a single game just once over his previous eight appearances. He had no business being the floor for 23-plus minutes in Game 5.
But he was. And he rained down three after three, some of which required him to sprint—with a bad back!—while relocating off the ball. And though the Heat didn't necessarily need Miller to dispatch the Oklahoma City Thunder and win their first title of the Big Three era, his timely eruption helped ensure they didn't have to see a Game 6.
Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls (2013)
Flashbulb Performance: Game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Sure, Nate Robinson carved out a pretty lengthy NBA career as an offensive firecracker. And yes, his most molten stretch of playoff basketball came at a time when it seemed the Chicago Bulls would get a new point guard scoring outburst every week.
But, like, wow.
Robinson came up huge for the Bulls throughout their 2013 postseason. In addition to the flashbulb performance, his 12-game sample featured a 27-point, nine-assist explosion in the team's Game 1 semifinals victory over the super-duper-team Miami Heat.
None of his offensive flare-ups, though, compared to his Game 4 detonation in the first round.
He led the Bulls back from a 14-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining in regulation, almost entirely picking apart the Brooklyn Nets on his own. Twenty-nine of his 34 points came in the fourth quarter and three overtimes, and he buried a floating, one-handed long two that nearly gave Chicago the W with two seconds left in the first extra period.
No, this wasn't a series-clinching performance. But it gave the Bulls, who had neither Derrick Rose nor the superstar version of Jimmy Butler, margin for error. They dropped the next two games and still made it out of the first round, a not-so-miniature feat they wouldn't have pulled off without Robinson's pyrotechnics.
Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs (2014)
Flashbulb Performance: Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals
Boris Diaw's importance to the San Antonio Spurs wasn't novel in 2014. It was a matter of fact. They tapped into his best stuff after signing him once he was released by the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2012.
It is not surprising that he would be at the fore of a Western Conference Finals-clinching victory, particularly one in which Tony Parker missed the entire second half and overtime with a left ankle injury. At the same time, this win included a more extreme snapshot of Diaw's value.
He racked up 26 points—the third-most of his postseason career—while showcasing everything that made him such a natural fit for San Antonio's offense: nifty touch around the rim, craftiness in the post, reliable set shooting, a floor game punctuated by a combination of force and finesse and a knack for being exactly where he needed to be off the ball.
This level of scoring was never expected from Diaw even at his peak, let alone during his second career wind with the Spurs. That he went kaboom in a game that guaranteed San Antonio a return trip to the NBA Finals—and that he was generally indispensable to a title squad—is flat-out absurd.
Josh Smith, Houston Rockets (2015)
Flashbulb Performance: Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals
When the Houston Rockets signed Josh Smith in December 2014, shortly after he was waived by the Detroit Pistons, they couldn't have known they'd need him to save their season around five months later.
And yet, against all logic, that's exactly what happened.
The Rockets' 2015 semifinals showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers was topsy-turvy to the core. They fell behind 3-1 in the series, a deficit that has, historically, ended up being a nail in the coffin.
Demolishing the Clippers in Game 5 didn't do much to reverse that feeling. Houston entered the fourth quarter of Game 6 trailing by 13 points. What happened next still doesn't make a ton of sense.
Smith exploded in the final frame, tallying 14 points on a decidedly un-Smithian 3-of-4 clip from deep and spearheading a 40-15 quarter from Houston that forced a Game 7. More remarkable still, he was not the benefactor of his own superstar teammates. James Harden and Dwight Howard didn't make a single field goal between them during the fourth. Smith instead counted Corey Brewer as his rescue-mission partner.
Maybe this volcanic performance—Smith finished with 19 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block (and an un-Smithian zero turnovers)—doesn't resonate as much if the Rockets don't go on to win Game 7.
We don't have to worry about that because they did, which means Smith not only saved Houston's season but also helped secure its first conference finals berth of the Harden era while derailing Lob City's best-ever shot at making it out of the second round.
Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland Cavaliers (2015)
Flashbulb Performance: Game 2 of the 2015 NBA Finals
Matthew Dellavedova's reputation as the Stephen Curry Stopper was always hyperbolic, an overreaction to a moment in time that briefly, yet effectively, favored the former. That Delly was ever viewed as the antidote to Steph's offense, though, is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Kyrie Irving's left knee injury, suffered during the close to Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, left the Cleveland Cavaliers with few options. Dellavedova went from a rotation mainstay who occasionally received big minutes to a backcourt lifeline playing, essentially, all the minutes. And, well, it didn't not work.
Dellavedova earned both praise and scorn for his aggressive—and some would allege dirty—defense on Curry. The Golden State 1-guard shot 5-of-23 from the floor, including 2-of-15 on threes, with Dellavedova on his case in Game 2. It didn't matter that said letdown proved to be an anomaly within that series. Dellavedova's reputation transformed to legend and took on a life of its own.
His heroics reached a fever pitch in Game 3.
Curry scored 27 points while shooting 7-of-13 on threes, but Dellavedova continued to play defense with a certain zesty ruthlessness. It didn't hurt that he dropped 20 points of his own or that he needed to be given an IV and treated at the Cleveland Clinic afterward, suggesting even further that he was literally giving his all.
As Yaron Weitzman wrote for SB Nation at the time:
"If you were to take an alien and show it the first three games of this series and then tell it that one of the point guards in this series was the league MVP, it'd assume you were talking about Dellavedova, not Curry.
"Curry started finding his rhythm a bit in the fourth quarter, but Dellavedova clearly made him uncomfortable earlier in the game. He definitely got under his skin. There were also the countless times he dove into the stands and onto the floor, as well as the numerous big shots he hit."
Time and context have sanded some of the luster off Dellavedova's 2015 postseason. The Golden State Warriors won the title, and he isn't, as it turns out, the Stephen Curry Stopper.
But his energy still contributed to prolonging the Cavs' hopes. They won Games 2 and 3, and even if only for a few days, even if only superficially, he helped make it feel like they stood a chance without Irving and Kevin Love.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics (2018)
Flashbulb Performance: Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference quarterfinals
Terry Rozier's 2018 postseason enjoys a certain anecdotal boost. The Boston Celtics were without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Jayson Tatum was a rookie. A truckload of responsibility fell on Rozier's shoulders. The circumstances were not ideal.
The Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals anyway. And they didn't just get there. They took the LeBron James-captained Cleveland Cavaliers to a Game 7.
Boston's Cinderella playoff push is so often billed as Rozier's breakout. That's not unfair. But his performance is remembered more fondly than many of his numbers. He cleared 16 points and five assists per game on sub-mediocre efficiency.
This isn't an attempt to devalue Rozier's 2018 playoff performance. It is more so an acknowledgment that what he did to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round wasn't a postseason-long normal.
His outplaying Eric Bledsoe—and inciting some truly hysterical trash talk—was a big flipping deal. That series both thrust Scary Terry into the national spotlight and opened Bledsoe and the Bucks up to criticism they still endure to this day. (Is Bledsoe a postseason liability?)
Through seven games, Rozier averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists while canning 38.2 percent of his treys. He turned in a couple of down shooting nights after Game 2 but went full-tilt superstar when it mattered most.
It was on the back of his 26-point, nine-assist showing in Game 7, which included five made threes, many of which came late and provided much-needed breathing room, that Boston's fairy-tale postseason survived beyond the first round.