The light shines brighter and the microscope intensifies when the NBA postseason tips off. Every team needs its stars, starters, and key role players to improve their game. A variety of players have taken that challenge to heart and produced career-best playoff performances.
Through Round 1 and the early stages of conference semifinal matchups, representatives of each team still competing for the Larry O’Brien trophy have pieced together the best postseason showings of their professional lives.
The degree of success varies, but the following guys have all shown out when compared to the numbers they’ve posted in past postseason appearances.
Atlanta’s starting small forward played the role of unsung hero throughout the 2014-15 campaign. Although he was recognized along with his fellow starters when the Hawks starting five won Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors in January, Carroll was the lone member who did not make the All-Star team.
That’s not to say Carroll should have been an All-Star, but he’s certainly one of the more underrated players in the league today. He’s been using the postseason atmosphere to show exactly how valuable he can be.
Through eight games played thus far, Carroll is the Hawks’ leading scorer at 18.9 points per game (not a misprint). He’s scored 20 points or more in six straight games following an ugly 1-of-8 shooting performance in Game 2 against Brooklyn. He was the high scorer for the game in two of those six.
His postseason averages this year are way up from anything he’s done in years prior. He’s also shooting 55.6% from the field and a ridiculous 46.5% from beyond the arc. Seeing as Kyle Korver’s percentages—41.1% from the field, 37.5% from three—have actually looked mortal, it’s a godsend for head coach Mike Budenholzer that Carroll is picking up the slack with lights-out shooting.
Freshly minted Most Improved Player award winner Jimmy Butler has carried that label into the postseason setting, where his production has crushed what he posted in the three years prior.
It’s fair to say that Jimmy Buckets is an entirely different player than he’s been in years past. He was absolutely brilliant for the Bulls this season, earning his first All-Star team in addition to winning Most Improved. Still, it’s remarkable just how good the Marquette product has been on the big stage.
His 23.4 points, 3.8 assists, 2.5 steals and 38% shooting from downtown are all up from his regular season totals.
Scoring 108.9 points per 100 possessions for the 2015 playoffs thus far, Washington ranks second in offensive rating behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers. A number of Wizards have played an integral role in that offensive success, while a handful are having career-best playoff showings.
Marcin Gortat is the one veteran out of the three guys in question. The 31 year old has reached the postseason five separate times in his career, but only with Washington has he filled a starting role (he was previously Dwight Howard’s backup with Orlando).
The Polish Hammer’s production is up slightly across the board, as he’s averaging 15.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per contest. The biggest difference from his previous best playoff performance one year ago, however, is efficiency. The former second-round pick is converting 67.2% of his field goal attempts in the playoffs—a huge improvement from the 49.2% shooting he posted throughout 11 playoff games in 2014.
John Wall, on the other hand, has been woefully inefficient as a scorer. He’s shooting 39.7% from the field and 23.1% from three-point territory. The plus side? Those figures are both better than those he posted last year in his playoff debut.
Additionally, Wall is dishing out a postseason-leading 12.6 assists per game. That leaves James Harden a distant second at 8.5 assists per game and is significantly better than the 7.1 assists per game Wall collected in the 2014 playoffs.
Add in the fact that Wall is also committing slightly fewer turnovers compared to last year’s playoffs (3.0 versus 3.3) and it becomes easier to overlook the fact that he’s converting less than 40% of his shots. There’s room to improve from a scoring standpoint, but Wall’s ability to orchestrate the offense and get everyone involved has proved invaluable for the Wiz.
Finally, where in the world did Otto Porter Jr. come from? The 21-year-old was an abysmal non-factor as a rookie. He looked genuinely overwhelmed every time he stepped on the court despite entering the league as a highly touted No. 3 overall selection. He was much better throughout his sophomore campaign, but he’s truly blossomed in the playoff atmosphere.
Not only is the youngster averaging 10.5 points and eight rebounds per game—significant leaps from his regular season numbers—but Porter’s also shooting 53.2% from the field and has drained 50% of his triples (9-of-18) all while coming off the bench. He’s been a true spark plug for Washington’s second unit.
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
Since the Cavaliers are such an inexperienced group in terms of playoff appearances, we’ll have to cheat a bit by tabbing Kyrie Irving as the team’s playoff performer who’s beating previous standards. There’s nothing to compare against, of course, because 2015 is Kyrie’s first-ever playoff showing. But the 23 year old has risen to the occasion.
Irving went off for 30 points in his playoff debut, making 11-of-21 shots (5-of-9 from distance). He’s eclipsed 20 points in five of six games thus far—scoring production Cleveland desperately needs, especially with the burden placed on LeBron James with Kevin Love sidelined.
Either Klay Thompson or Draymond Green could be pegged in this spot for the Warriors, but the nod goes to the 25-year-old Splash Brother.
Klay’s rebounding and assists numbers have dipped. His scoring and shooting efficiency, however, sit comfortably at playoff career-highs. He’s shooting 47.6% from the field and 43.2% from long range. Those are both huge jumps from a year ago, when Thompson shot 40.8% and 36.4%, respectively.
Golden State is already seen as the championship favorite by many. If Thompson keeps shooting the ball with confidence, the Dubs will simply have too many weapons to overcome.
Mike Conley deserves heaps of praise for his dominant postseason outings pre- and post-facial fractures. He’s shooting 54.2% from the field (a playoff best by a significant margin) and 42.9% from three-point range. His efforts will not be overlooked, but Courtney Lee has been brilliant compared to his playoff standards.
In addition to scoring a playoff-best 15.7 points per game (stepping up in Conley’s brief absence), Lee has posted shooting percentage splits of 58/50/95.5 through seven games. His scoring efficiency has been robotic, and he’s outscoring his regular season scoring output by a significant margin.
Lee can often be overlooked in the Grizzlies star-studded starting five, but he’s making a huge impact for Memphis this year.
James Harden, Rockets
Playoff performance isn’t factored into NBA MVP voting, but if it was, Stephen Curry would have to be sweating out the performances James Harden has turned in on a game-to-game basis for the Rockets.
By averaging 27.7 points and 8.3 assists per game, the bearded southpaw ranks third and second in those categories for the playoffs, respectively. On top of those figures, Harden has improved his scoring efficiency compared to his regular season marks, leaping to 45.7% from the field and 38.3% from beyond the arc.
He hit a pair of clutch threes down the stretch of Game 2 win against the Clippers on Wednesday night, and he has made 55 of his 58 free throw attempts throughout the postseason thus far.
On the negative side, he’s turning the ball over a whopping five times per contest. That’s ludicrously high, but his ability to score points in heavy volume while also dishing out more than eight assists per game helps override that ugly statistic.
Blake Griffin, Clippers
We’ve saved the best for last, as Blake Griffin is putting together a historically great postseason.
For reference of just how transcendent Blake has been since the regular season came to a close, here’s a list of players who have averaged at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists throughout a postseason, via Basketball Reference:
1. Oscar Robertson (1963)
2. Blake Griffin (2015)
That’s it. The Big O is the only other player in history who has posted numbers similar to what we’re witnessing from Griffin right now. He’s been in a zone similar to the stretch he had in January and February last year with Chris Paul sidelined, when he carried the short-handed Clippers on his shoulders. His 7.7 assists per game ranks fifth among his playoff peers, and he’s already compiled three triple-doubles in these playoffs.
Those three postseason triple-doubles rank Griffin tied for 10th among playoff performers dating back to 1985.
The Clips need CP3 to get back out on the court as soon as possible, but Griffin has ensured that LA will stay competitive regardless. Frankly, that may be the biggest testament to his phenomenal play.
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