Unlikeliest Playoff Stars of the Last Decade

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2020

Unlikeliest Playoff Stars of the Last Decade

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Coming into this postseason, no one could've imagined that Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell would become the third and fourth players in NBA history to have multiple 50-point games in a single series.

    Having it happen in the same series was even less likely.

    These are two of the game's rising stars, but this kind of a battle is literally unprecedented.

    The only predictable thing about the playoffs is that something unpredictable will happen. Murray and Mitchell aren't the first to annihilate expectations. And they won't be the last.

    Over the last decade, specifically 2010 to 2019, we've seen a number unlikely playoff stars help their teams reach the pinnacle of NBA competition.

    From seemingly over-the-hill vets to breakout guards, a variety of players make up this list.

Shawn Marion (2010-11 Dallas Mavericks)

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Shawn Marion was a key cog of the Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns. In fact, during their time as teammates, the two were neck and neck in both box plus/minus and wins over replacement player.

    By the 2011 playoffs, though, Marion was 33 years old and four years removed from the last time he had a positive postseason impact. Experts were split on whether his team, the Dallas Mavericks, would even get out of the first round.

    Of course, they did. After upending the Portland Trail Blazers, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas was set to take on LeBron James in his first Finals with the Miami Heat.

    Several Mavs, including J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, have arguments for unlikeliest star of this run, but Marion solidified his in that last series.

    After being tasked with slowing the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, the small forward got his biggest challenge in the Finals. He didn't do it alone, but a significant portion of the credit for LeBron's 17.8 points that series goes to Marion, who was uniquely prepared for the challenge.

    The Athletic's Michael Lee explained:

    "During that run, Marion said he and [Dirk] Nowitzki would regularly end practice by playing one-on-one... Those matchups sharpened and prepared them for what they would encounter that postseason. Small ball didn’t work on Dirk. Marion hounded elite scorers. 'I won some and he won some,' Marion said of Nowitzki. 'It was amazing. Probably one of the best seasons ever because you won a championship...'"

    Nowitzki understandably gets most of the credit for that title. Jason Terry gets plenty, too. But it's almost impossible to imagine the triumph without Marion's last great playoff performance.

Mike Miller (2011-12 Miami Heat)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    After the Miami Heat essentially cleared their books to add LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade in 2010, they used up most of their remaining flexibility to sign Mike Miller to a five-year deal.

    He was coming off a 2009-10 campaign in which he averaged 10.9 points and shot 48.0 percent from three. His ability to space the floor seemed perfect for a team that featured James and Wade.

    "From the first moment that we met Mike on July 1, it seemed like it would be a match made in heaven," Pat Riley said at the time. "We consider him to be the finest perimeter shooter in the NBA."

    Thanks in large part to injuries, Miller's role in Miami proved to be smaller than expected. He only played three of those five years in a Heat jersey. And over the first two seasons, he averaged just 5.8 points.

    In the 2012 postseason, his role seemed to be diminished even further. Over the first 22 games, he averaged 15.7 minutes and 4.4 points.

    "How dogged was he, you ask? Well, 1970s-era Johnny Carson crowd, he played 80 out of a possible 148 regular-season games over the last two years, and he probably should have played in about half as many," Kelly Dwyer wrote for Yahoo. "Dude shot five free throws in the regular season this year. Five. He was, even in his career-defining moment in Thursday's Game 5, almost painful to watch as he worked his way up and down the court."

    In that closeout game of the Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miller erupted for 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting (including 7-of-8 from three).

    He may not have been moving anywhere near as smoothly as he did as a member of the Orlando Magic or Memphis Grizzlies in his earlier years, but the release on his jumper looked as pure as ever.

    Even with years of wear and tear on his 6'8" frame, Miller managed to leave an imprint on LeBron's first title team.

Boris Diaw (2013-14 San Antonio Spurs)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Like Marion and Miller, the most productive stretch of Boris Diaw's career was years behind him by the time he got to the postseason in question.

    In fact, a couple seasons before 2013-14, his NBA future could optimistically be described as bleak. Out of shape and desire to continue playing for a losing franchise, Diaw was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012.

    As they were often known to do, the San Antonio Spurs revived Diaw in the years leading up to the 2014 postseason. And he rewarded them during that championship run.

    In a series that proved more challenging than the 2014 Finals, Diaw averaged 13.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists, while shooting 42.1 percent from three against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

    He was no longer the bouncy point forward he entered the league as, but Diaw's passing, defense, ability to space the floor and general basketball awareness made him a perfect fit for the Spurs' 2014 revenge tour.

    The exclamation point for his own redemption tour came in the series-clinching Game 6 against OKC, in which he dropped 26 points and was involved in a number of typically Spursian ping-pong passing sequences.

Tristan Thompson (2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers)

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    John G. Mabanglo/Associated Press

    During a contract negotiation stalemate ahead of the 2015-16 season, one NBA scout said there was a "Big difference between what [Tristan Thompson] wants and what he's worth..."

    Eventually, he signed a five-year, $82 million deal that plunged the Cleveland Cavaliers deeper into the luxury tax. Coming off a 2014-15 campaign in which he averaged 8.5 points and 8.0 rebounds as a reserve, that may have felt like an overpay to some.

    In the playoffs, though, Thompson proved his worth. Over the course of the postseason, Cleveland's net rating was 6.6 points better when he was on the floor.

    And in the Finals alone, he had the biggest plus-minus swing of any Cavalier. Against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Cleveland was plus-40 in the 226 Finals minutes Thompson played. It was minus-36 in the other 110 minutes.

    Golden State didn't have anyone who could keep Thompson off the boards. He averaged 10.1 per game, including 3.9 on the offensive end. And defensively, his ability to control the paint was critical.

    Thompson isn't a towering rim protector like Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis, but he works hard on that end, has longer arms than people realize and was laser-focused through that postseason.

    That deal he signed in 2015 just wrapped, and he missed significant portions of the last three years, but his role on the organization's lone title team made it all worth it.

Fred VanVleet (2018-19 Toronto Raptors)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Fred VanVleet participated in two postseasons in 2019: pre-baby and post-baby.

    From his first game in the 2019 postseason through Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, VanVleet averaged 4.0 points while shooting 25.6 percent from the field and 19.5 percent from three.

    Then, his son was born.

    From that point through the end of the Toronto Raptors' title run, VanVleet put up 14.7 points while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from three.

    The difference was stark, and VanVleet had an idea of where it came from.

    "Still not giving him all the credit in the world," VanVleet said, "but he's probably helped me out a little bit."

    His lights-out shooting helped the Raptors out a little bit, too. Over the course of those nine post-baby games, Toronto was plus-73 with VanVleet on the floor and minus-nine with him off, giving him the biggest swing on the team.