can foil even good defense by making a tough shot. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
By the time the NBA playoffs roll around, teams have precious few unused sets in their playbooks and even fewer surprises in how they execute. Diligent coaches may introduce some small, new wrinkle just to keep things fresh, but for the most part postseason opponents know one another impeccably well.
Because of that familiarity, it's important for players and teams to be able to salvage broken possessions. With so much planned and so much known, there's considerable value in the ability to make the most out of a seemingly random turn of the offense.
It's for that reason that we turn our attention here to those players most skilled at making something out of nothing -- and more specifically, those who have an amazing talent for turning "bad" shot attempts into consistent points. They pull up for an out-of-rhythm three-pointer. They do a series of dribble moves for the sake of getting the slightest shooting window, then fire away without pause. They use undeniable skill to reliably convert tough, contested shots off the dribble and provide spontaneous points at the end of the shot clock or the beginning of a longer set.
Here's a look at some of those players -- including a few at the bottom of the list who aren't in the playoffs but deserve mention -- who can buck the odds to create a positive result out of thin air.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
Boston has focused on shading its defense toward Anthony and nudging him into taking difficult pull-up jumpers, but the NBA's leading scorer has countered with 70 points on 53 shots in two straight victories. That's not by accident, nor is it by Anthony's flipping the script; he's largely playing by the Celtics' approach, but doing so at a rather impressive level.
Anthony is about as good as anyone at shuffling into a mid-range shot off the dribble, though with him it always comes back to finding the optimal balance in his game, because he's also strong and quick enough to create mismatches at will. The combination of Anthony's ability to convert those jumpers and his growing patience on offense yielded the best season of his NBA career.
Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau draws a hard line on defensive execution, and yet Robinson -- who is known to stray and gamble in coverage, to say nothing of what he gives up in height -- played more than 25 minutes per game this season. The reason? A stale, Derrick Rose-less offense desperately needed a player of Robinson's offensive talents, no matter how frustrating his game might otherwise be.
Without any other consistent penetrators or top-tier isolation scorers, Chicago relied on Robinson to bounce around a quick high screen and sling an even quicker jumper. There's never any hesitation in Robinson's game, which makes him a perfect counterpoint to a Bulls offense that often ambles through 20-odd seconds of cross-court ball movement before attempting a shot. He's far from perfect, but Robinson averaged 18.5 points per 36 minutes this season. He may well be the key to Chicago's hopes of beating the Nets in a first-round series that is tied at 1-1 entering Game 3 on Thursday.
Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets
The expectation was that Johnson would return to life off the ball after being traded from Atlanta to Brooklyn last summer. With Deron Williams running the offense, Johnson would be positioned to become a more efficient scorer while moving away from the much-maligned "Iso Joe" style so prevalent with the Hawks.
That hasn't exactly happened, though. In Brooklyn's slow-motion offense, Johnson has created out of isolation on 27.5 percent of his possessions used this season (up from 23.3 percent last season and close to his 29 percent figure from 2009-10), according to Synergy Sports, all while living on a familiar diet of contested jumpers and difficult runners. But to Johnson's -- and the Nets' -- credit and benefit, he's unnaturally good at those shots. (Whether he'll be available to take them in Game 3 against the Bulls remains to be seen, as Johnson is dealing with a foot injury.) Few players use the immediate space between them and their defender as effectively as Johnson does, with each dribble, arm bar and bump working in coordination to create enough room to fire up an attempt freely.
J.R. Smith, New York Knicks
The Sixth Man Award winner is one of the league's most ambitious scorers. He remains forever undaunted by coverage or circumstance, convinced that the only variables involved in the make-miss binary lie with him alone. That mindset makes Smith unbelievably frustrating in some games and a giant-killing volume scorer in others.
Sixth Man Award winner J.R. Smith makes a habit of taking and making difficult shots. (Kathy Willens/AP)
His near-unlimited shooting range helps immensely in his efforts to manufacture a shot when the ball swings his way. Defenders running at him, the clock running down -- none of that matters. Smith's primary focus is and will forever be on the hoop, and that consistent gaze to the rim makes him uncommonly good at converting shots that no player should have reason to take.
Monta Ellis, Milwaukee Bucks
Even after years of being a punching bag of basketball analysts and the analytics community, Ellis still amazes enough with the ball in his hands to keep hold of a certain group of apologists and advocates. He is an offensive focal point with a knack for working against the current, spinning and dribbling his way into difficult looks and a high scoring total. He's rather good at that one area of performance -- so much so that he'll probably still draw considerable interest as a potential free agent this summer despite his limitations.
Ellis' bad-shot making is now woven into his very identity as a player. That isn't to say that he can't change or isn't valuable. But Ellis' uncompromising propensity to take bad, low-value shots limits what he accomplishes as an off-the-dribble creator, no matter how scintillating his play may be from a purely aesthetic perspective.
Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
Crawford has carved out a career on the basis of hitting these shots, while falling into a role as a super-sub on the basis of taking them. A team can only go so far with a player like Crawford in a dominant ball-handling role, but with the Clippers he's found a nice balance of complementary spot-up work and flashy solo shot creation.
His isolation work generally starts with a calm dribble, the rhythm and smoothness of which is hypnotic to fans and defenders alike. But Crawford's magnificent crossover is a jolt into action and a means of hopping into a shot that might prove difficult for a scorer with lesser coordination or without his bucket-getting panache. He sets himself up for difficult shots, but makes them in such dense flurries that the Clippers are made notably better by his streak scoring.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
He may well be the greatest of all time in this niche. Bryant's efficient shot selection has generally correlated with his improved health this season (before his Achilles tear, of course), but he succumbs to the allure of launching difficult shots even when playing at his most disciplined. In general, he's increasingly susceptible to the draw of the tough shot as the game progresses; Bryant's clutch rep lurks behind him like an on-court shadow as the minutes dwindle in the fourth quarter, whispering in his ear to dribble out the clock and pull the trigger on a contested jumper.
That tendency can derail the Lakers' late-game offense on some nights, but it's also one of the big reasons that L.A. even contended for the playoffs this year. The Lakers badly needed Bryant to be the kind of player who can convert when all else goes awry, and with so many injuries and snags in on-court chemistry, he had plenty of opportunities to bail out his team with fancy footwork and fading jumpers.
Vince Carter, Dallas Mavericks
If the Mavericks had been better this season, Carter surely would've gotten more play as an under-the-radar candidate for the Sixth Man Award. He was a lifeline for an offense that too often went cold and a vital shot creator through both the early-season absence of Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas' late-season push toward the eighth seed.
Carter, 36, proved to be the Mavs' top pick-and-roll practitioner because he projected a dual threat. He's a decent enough playmaker in those instances, but his real value came as a pull-up jump shooter off a high screen -- the kind of early, low-percentage shot that can prove problematic in large enough volume. But Carter walked the line, aced his long-range opportunities and made the most out of a lengthy series of challenging intermediate shots.
All of those listed above are established names, in part because it takes a certain cachet to be able to get away with those kinds of attempts. Here are a few up-and-comers on the bad-shot-making scene, who may well contend to join the above group over the next few seasons:
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic: Once known as a low-usage, three-and-D type, Afflalo has remade his game over the past two seasons in order to maximize his abilities as a shot creator. His shooting efficiency has suffered as a result, but Afflalo's game is nonetheless broadening in an interesting way.
MarShon Brooks, Brooklyn Nets: The early comparisons to Bryant were misleading, but understandable in terms of classifying Brooks' scoring versatility. He's not just a spot-shooter or a pull-up specialist -- he has a little bit of everything offensively, though at the moment he hasn't improved enough defensively to earn regular minutes.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats:
Walker made some gradual gains as a passer and was a far more useful scorer in his second season. But his step-back jumper remains a consistent part of his game, and in many cases a poor shot that he converts at an impressively consistent rate.