Checking In on Unsung Playoff Heroes and a Heel
The NBA Playoffs are rolling right along and with the top four teams in either conference the last remaining competitors. In all the action, the stars often get all the credit. But we also know that without the role-players playing well, those stars will not be enough to win a championship. So who are the role players who have elevated their games in the postseason?
Yes He Kanter!
Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter is an interesting person. That is a completely separate discussion from this one. On the court, he has filled to big shoes filling in for the injured Jusuf Nurkic. Kanter averaged 13.1/8.6/1.4 in 23 games with eight starts. He has upped those numbers to 15.3/9.6/1.6 in the playoffs. That might not look like much but consider he shot 57.7 percent from the floor, had a 58.4 effective field goal percentage, and shot 73.5 from the stripe. Postseason Kanter has a 60.6 field goal and effective field goal percentage and is shooting 87.5 percent on free throws.
The Turkish big man has upped his true shooting percentage (61.4 to 65.6) and his work on the boards has been phenomenal as well. That he has increased his efficiency while increasing his minutes is a testament to the player that he is. But his effectiveness is surprising when you consider his usage has actually gone down since the regular season. Now the increase in minutes undoubtedly has an impact on his usage rate, but it is impressive nonetheless. He doesn’t have the strength to bang with Denver Nuggets big Nikola Jokic, but he hasn’t had to because of giving as good as he takes buckets and team defense.
Cameroon stand up! Not only is Joel Embiid putting on for the Central African nation, but Pascal Siakam has gone from latent potential to the second-best player on the Toronto Raptors in the span of a year. He is currently tied for 10th in playoff scoring, eighth if you remove players no longer playing. The versatile forward is also 19th in rebounding but is 10th if you remove already eliminated players. This is in addition to his defensive efforts. He is third on the Raptors in defensive win shares behind Kawhi Leonard and (somewhat surprisingly) Kyle Lowry.
Unlike Lowry, however, Siakam has managed to raise his offensive output. Siakam has gone from 16.9/6.9/3.1 in the regular season to 22.9/7.4/2.5 in these playoffs. The former set of numbers already represented an enormous jump for the third-year man, so the latter perhaps hint at an even higher ceiling than previously thought. It does need to be mentioned that in game three versus Philly, Siakam made a dirty play and tripped Embiid after the latter blocked the former’s shot. That play notwithstanding, Siakam is showing why he is most likely the Most Improved Player in the NBA this year.
2018 was probably close to both the highest and lowest Gordon Hayward has felt in his professional career. After securing the bag in free agency, he lasted all of five minutes with the Boston Celtics before suffering a gruesome leg injury. This season has been a test as he put up 11.5 points his lowest since his second year, not including 2018. His 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game are his lowest since the 2012-13 season. But a shift to the bench has led to a greater impact for the C’s and their prized free agent acquisition from last year.
The numbers are not impressive on their own, nor are they an improvement over Hayward’s prior performances in the playoffs with the Utah Jazz. What they are though is enough for Hayward to be the second-leading scorer among bench players. He only trails teammate Marcus Morris, who has missed two games this postseason. Hayward is shooting 40 percent from deep on 2.5 attempts per game and has hit all of his free throws. The hope for Hayward is that, similar to Paul George, his first year back from horrific injury was just getting re-acclimated to the game and he returns to pre-injury form.
Flipping the script with this one. Until now, every player listed has been a pleasant surprise. But when a player goes from putting up 16.6 PPG and 12.7 RPG in the regular season to 10.3 PPG and 9.9 RPG that is a cause for pause. More troubling for Clint Capela is that his attempts have dropped (from 10.9 to 6.9) but his efficiency has not improved with less asked of him. Capela has gone from shooting 64.8 percent from the floor and 63.6 at the charity stripe to 60.4 to 48.3, respectively. Worse still, his rebounding, where he should be making his greatest impact has also suffered. He has gone from 12.7 to 9.9 RPG.
Now, Capela’s usage has dropped from regular to postseason from 18.2 to 13.8 percent. That may explain some drop, but how is he to earn more touches if he is not making good use of the ones he is already getting? Add in his 104.5 defensive rating is second-worst on the Rockets, only better than Eric Gordon who pours in 16.9 points a night. If Capela is not able to exploit the perceived mismatch against a Boogie Cousins-less Golden State squad that seems to be waking up, this series is more likely to be a sweep than a challenge for the Warriors.
Unsung Heroes (and Heel)
Just as it was stated at the outset, the stars (rightfully) get most of the credit and blame. But we also see that the auxiliary players are just as important, and in some ways even more so. Those efforts should not be ignored when discussing what went right (or wrong) for their respective teams. Hopefully, most of these guys keep it up and the other guy figures it out before it is too late and his team is sent home.