As much as the NBA playoffs magnify the focus on the stars, the postseason also gives second-tier and unexpected players a chance to prove that they, too, matter in determining how deep their teams will go. Here we have five players who have been stepping up for their respective squads and surpassing expectations in the first round of the postseason.
5. Terry Rozier
There are two things from this season that Milwaukee Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe has added to his all-time hate list: bad salons, and Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier. Bledsoe prefers matching up with Kyrie Irving in the first round, but he was instead pitted against someone he claims he does not know – or someone he does not believe is on the same level as his in Rozier.
The problem is that Rozier has been regularly exposing Bledsoe in their backcourt matchup in the series. The fact that the former Louisville Cardinal is one of the biggest reason why the Boston Celtics are still hanging around in the playoffs despite being severely undermanned is magnified even more by Bledsoe’s underwhelming showing in the playoffs. The Celtics entered the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, but that designation sounded like a misnomer with the team missing key players, including Irving.
Rozier greatly mitigates the impact of Irving’s loss by upping his averages to 17.6 points and 6.7 assists to go with 4.3 rebounds in 36 minutes per game against the Bucks. He also outscored Bledsoe in five of the seven games in the series. Bledsoe is making almost four times more money this season than Rozier, but it’s the latter who’s showing a higher bang-for-the-buck (no pun intended) value.
4. Thon Maker
Contrary to what the recent installment of Bleacher Report’s Game of Zones suggests, Bucks sophomore biggie Thon Maker is not a thousand-year-old walking basketball artifact, but he sure played like someone kidnapped from another time by Rick Astley Joe Prunty to attempt to save his team from an early playoff exit (didn’t work). John Henson’s absence due to back soreness has left a hole in the middle for Milwaukee, which Maker is covering effectively. Maker continues to provide Milwaukee with an imposing presence in the paint, almost acting like a budget version of Rudy Gobert.
Even without Henson patrolling the shaded area over the past four games, the Celtics still found it tough to score in the paint, thanks in part to Maker, who is swatting 2.2 blocks per game in the series. In Games 3 and 4, the 7-foot-1 Maker rejected a total of 10 shots in playing a pivotal role that helped Milwaukee tie the series at 2-2. With Maker as the Bucks’ top rim protector, the Celtics are only averaging 41.3 points in the paint – just 11th among 16 playoff teams. Boston is also only making 41.4 percent of their field goal attempts on drives to the basket and 56.9 percent on shots taken inside the restricted area. Both those figures are second worst in this postseason.
3. Kyle Korver
If babysitting Rodney Hood’s twins would’ve helped the Cleveland Cavaliers stave off the Indiana Pacers in the first round, LeBron James would have done that too. James has done it all for the Cavs this postseason, and while his teammates, in general, have been criticized for their ineptitude, at least one is stepping up with Kyle Korver providing a much-needed offensive production.. In Game 4, the Cavs sharpshooter scored 18 points with four 3-pointers, which include the two he drilled late in the game to propel Cleveland away from Indiana. He followed that performance with a 19-point outing in Game 5’s victory, going 6-for-11 from the field with five connections from deep.
Korver has found his stroke which is crucial for the Cavs, as it opens up the middle for LeBron James to attack the basket and kick out to his shooters. Korver, however, is going more than just bury 3-pointers. Of all Cavs players who’s played at least 16.0 minutes in the Indiana series, Korver owns the highest defensive rating with 94.8.
This sounds borderline hilarious, but Korver is also third best in that category among all players in these playoffs who are averaging at least 20.0 minutes per game: Joel Embiid, Myles Turner, then Kyle “What Are You Doing Here” Korver. That’s how the list goes in terms of postseason defensive rating. Also, Korver is part of each of the Cavs’ top two-man, three-man, and five-man combination (with a minimum playing time of 15 minutes together) in terms of defensive ratings. Korver, somehow, has become a dependable 3-and-D guy for Cleveland in the playoffs.
2. Nikola Mirotic
When the New Orleans Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins for the rest of the season because of a devastating Achilles injury, the narrative that the Pellies should have followed was one that points to them missing the boat to the playoffs. That did not happen as they edited the script and replaced Cousins with a B-lister actor in Nikola Mirotic.
And you know what? The Pelicans managed to become a hit anyway. During the Pelicans’ first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, Mirotic shot the ball 46.2 percent from distance, making a team-best 3.0 3-pointers on 6.5 attempts per game. Mirotic’s arrival to the Pelicans has added a different dimension to the team, particularly on pick-and-roll plays.
The Pelicans are tops in the playoffs with 1.53 points per possession on PNR plays with the roll man, and Mirotic has been a big part of it. Under that setup, Mirotic is No. 1 among the Pelicans and third overall in the postseason with 3.0 points per PNR plays with him as the roll man. Anthony Davis will always be the top dog in New Orleans. Nonetheless, Mirotic’s play this postseason has been a big reason why the Pelicans are still standing.
For the record, Mirotic is averaging 18.3 points on 57.1 percent shooting from the field so far in the playoffs, and just to fully underscore his elevated performance of late, the Montenegrin–Spanish gunner currently owns the best postseason net rating among players with at least a 20.0 minutes per game average.
1. Donovan Mitchell
Well, we all know how capable Donovan Mitchell is on the court, so his inclusion here might come across as a little iffy to some. That said, it’s one thing for Mitchell to put up a show in the regular season, and it’s another to do it in the playoffs opposite a favored team bannered by the league MVP that also happens to have the same position as him.
Sure, Ben Simmons has been wonderful for the Philadelphia 76ers in his first postseason trip, but Philly was the one expected to win the series against the Miami Heat. Not much of a surprise there really. Mitchell, meanwhile, is keeping in step with Russell Westbrook in the series and has been the more effective player. Through six games in the Thunder series, Mitchell averaged 26.6 points on 44.4 percent shooting from the floor and has been money from the free throw line with a 90.0 percent shooting percentage.