Playoff surprises (so far)
Earlier, I evaluated a few players who have disappointed in the playoffs so far. Now, on to cheerier matters: five players who have exceeded expectations despite the heightened pressure of the playoffs, with a general focus on those whose teams remain alive.
One note off the top: Stephen Curry has been omitted on the grounds of ample exposure and sheer ridiculousness. Even after a season that made him a fringe MVP-ballot candidate (for selection in the fourth/fifth spot, not to actually win the award), Curry has improved to such an incredible and obvious degree that he needs no praise from me.
Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls
There have been times in this postseason when a 5-foot-9 cast-off guard playing on a veteran minimum deal legitimately could not be stopped. He has been defended well in spots, bumped in others and hindered by his own shot selection at times, but Robinson is in such an undeniable groove that few forces on the planet could rightly prevent his shots from going through the net.
And better yet: Robinson has used his offensive success to lure opponents into swarming him before slinging passes to an open Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer, who then makes the ensuing pass to Marco Belinelli or Nazr Mohammed. It's beautiful basketball from a player who, at times in his career, has frankly seemed incapable of it. He's still largely the same Nate who jacks up long two-point jumpers after taking a step in from the pick-and-roll, but a version of that player who converts several of those shots and understands the stress that accuracy puts on defenses.
That's no small thing. Robinson has long been a gifted scorer, but his inability to make correct determinations on those kinds of judgment calls has prevented him from taking a bigger role or claiming a bigger contract. Getting this hot from the field makes those decisions simpler by attracting extra attention and opening up passing lanes, and Robinson deserves credit for turning this into productive and intelligent decision making. As a result, Robinson has been a transformative offensive player in these playoffs. Robinson was the only Bull who could consistently create off the dribble this year, and through that skill he has proved even more valuable in the context of a seven-game series.
Green ends up with the ball in his hands quite a bit by design of the defense, but the rookie forward has made the Nuggets and now Spurs pay often by reading the situation perfectly and completing the play. The gamble there is understandable; Green shot miserably from the floor (32.7 percent overall, 20.9 percent from three-point range) in the regular season, and if nothing else he is a far preferable alternative to Curry or Klay Thompson finding an open look elsewhere. Something has to give when defending a team with such potent shooters, and Green is very often the least dangerous player on the floor. But Green has converted 50 percent (9-of-18) of his three-point tries in the playoffs, nearly doubled his assists, to 3.1 per 36 minutes, and appeared undaunted as defenders scramble back in his direction.
All of which is a big break for the Warriors, who were so badly in need of ways to account for the absence of David Lee. Carl Landry has played a big role there and balanced Golden State's scoring with some nice work from the interior. Rookie center Festus Ezeli has played important minutes against San Antonio, too, largely as a spot defender against Tim Duncan. And rookie forward Harrison Barnes has also moonlighted as a big man in some of the Warriors' smaller lineups. But Green allows coach Mark Jackson to walk the line between big and small, as Green has stretched the floor and moved the ball well while having the frame of a more conventional big man.
It's rare to find players who are both as strong and nimble as Green, a combination that enables him to play a significant defensive role to complement his offense. He navigates the defensive interior quickly and intuitively, giving Andrew Bogut the necessary help when he's drawn away from the basket. The Warriors missed that back-line assistance all season with Lee and Landry filling most of the team's power-forward minutes, but it stands as one of the more underrated factors in this playoff surge.
In a general sense, Shumpert's spot scoring, irksome defense and displays of athleticism all fall within the range of reasonable expectation. He showed these skills as a rookie last season before tearing his ACL in the playoffs.
But there have been enough flourishes in Shumpert's game of late to appreciate him on entirely different levels, beginning with the way he challenged the bigger and stronger Paul Pierce in the first round. Pierce's errant shooting (36.8 percent overall, 26.8 percent on threes) can by no means be attributed solely to Shumpert, but the Knicks' go-to defensive stopper contested Pierce's every step and didn't bail him out by biting on pump fakes. Being so disciplined against a great isolation scorer in the face of such a notable size disadvantage demonstrates an impressive comprehension of one-on-one defense. Shumpert is still learning how to best guard opponents off the ball, but he's incredibly reliable when it comes to shuffling his feet and attacking his opponent's dribble in face-up situations.
On offense, Shumpert isn't much of a shot creator anymore. He's been relieved of that duty by the orchestration of Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni and Jason Kidd, not to mention the simplified isolation pursuits of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. That's probably for the best; Shumpert could certainly expand his game to include more off-the-dribble elements, but his explorations in that area a season ago proved erratic. On this particular team, Shumpert makes far more sense as a cutter and spot-up shooter, with the latter role proving to be quite fruitful this postseason. Shumpert is second on the team in three-point shooting at 46.2 percent (12-of-26), and it's not for nothing that Shumpert's threes -- as has been the case with many of his big plays -- have largely come at crucial times.
Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors
I find myself continually impressed by the postseason decision making of Barnes, who has picked his spots beautifully to pressure defenses at just the right times. It would seem easy for Barnes -- who has connected on 37.2 percent from long range -- to fire threes in many of his semi-open opportunities, looking to shoot over the top of a hard-closing defender. But Barnes has done a fantastic job of driving to attack the close-out and throwing the defense into a jumbled mess. He's limiting his attempts to only those situations in which he has a clear advantage, whether it be wide-open threes, available lanes to the basket or in the post against undersized defenders.
With improved shot selection, Barnes' effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of a three-pointer) has jumped from 48.1 during the regular season to 54.1 in the playoffs. Barnes has filtered most of the showy mid-range pull-up jumpers out of his game, seeking to move the ball when an open look isn't immediately available. He wasn't a particularly selfish player in the regular season, but he's been a perfect cog in a well-oiled postseason machine, scoring and making plays without the kind of hesitation that allows a well-trained defense to recover.
In a matter of months, Garcia went from trade fodder (his contract helped to round out the Rockets' deal for Thomas Robinson) to valued playoff contributor. He may not have cracked the top half of the Rockets' rotation if not for injuries to Jeremy Lin and Carlos Delfino, but Garcia made the most of his opportunity by instantly creating value on both ends. In an offense largely driven by James Harden's off-the-dribble work, Garcia wasn't asked to create often or do anything too dynamic. But he thrived in a specialized role, and in the four games that he played significant minutes, Garcia attempted -- and made -- threes in bulk. Benefiting from open looks created by Harden's penetration and Houston's ball movement, Garcia made 45.5 percent of his 8.3 long-range attempts per game in those four contests (15-of-33 overall). Those marks were team highs even on the three-happy Rockets.
Defensively, Garcia drew the unfortunate assignment of covering Kevin Durant -- a matchup in which he surrendered every physical advantage imaginable. But Garcia played an incredibly active part in bothering Durant at the top of the floor and complicating his new life without Russell Westbrook. When Garcia was on the court, Durant shot a decidedly mortal 46.7 percent from the field and only 22.7 percent from beyond the arc. The Thunder's general disarray and Houston center Omer Asik's readiness to cover for teammates' mistakes aided Garcia, but this was still a spirited defensive showing to complement Garcia's unexpected dose of tidy, role-conscious offense. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.