As we get closer to the start of the NBA conference semifinals, it’s a good time to look at the most surprising stars of the postseason. Some are familiar faces elevating their game, while others are thriving in their first taste of playoff basketball. Here are the five first-round breakout stars of the 2021 NBA playoffs.
5. Austin Rivers
Rivers’s bravado has been infectious for this Nuggets team. Despite being waived multiple times in his career, Rivers plays like he belongs, which has been enough to earn minutes on a depleted Denver roster. Nuggets coach Michael Malone knows he can count on the guard to play tough defense and have the confidence to take the biggest shots.
Rivers has maximized his 32 minute-per-game average in the playoffs to the tune of 12.4 points on almost 50% shooting from three. And as he’s found his rhythm, he’s played more unselfishly—culminating in a seven assist game Tuesday night. Rivers could have been useful to a bunch of postseason teams, including the one that traded him, and he is making all of them look foolish for not pursuing him more aggressively in free agency or the buyout market.
4. Dillon Brooks
Everyone knows Brooks for his hawking defense, but the Memphis guard also had an amazing, under-the-radar offensive postseason, averaging 25.8 points per game and converting almost 52% of his shots. He was a beast in transition, averaging as many points in that area as Russell Westbrook in the postseason, and the Grizzlies also ran a steady diet of pick-and-rolls and handoffs to free him up for open looks.
Brooks has become an awesome sidekick for star point guard Ja Morant, who narrowly holds the highest playoff usage percentage on the team. Brooks can take on the toughest defensive assignment—guard or wing—and still generate offense on the other end of the floor. His three-point shooting is below league average this season, which is one area he can definitely improve. Entering the second year of a three-year, $35 million deal, Brooks has sneakily become one of the best value contracts in the NBA.
3. Derrick Rose
Though the Knicks lost their first-round series in five games, the result could have been a whole lot uglier without Rose’s surprising playoff resurgence. With New York All-Star Julius Randle shooting a wretched 29.8% and Atlanta's Trae Young getting seemingly anything he wanted in the series, Rose kept the Knicks relatively competitive. His 19.4 points and 47% three-point shooting over 35 minutes per game kept the series from being a total disaster.
The 32-year-old guard did this after almost everyone had written him off. The Jazz waived him in 2018, and Rose could not convince a single NBA team to sign him for months. Even as recently as this season, the Knicks acquired the former MVP in a deal where they traded nothing of meaningful value.
Rose has had to basically reinvent his offensive game these past few years, becoming a much better and more willing shooter outside the paint. He is even stopping short of his risky finishes at the rim and instead opting for floaters, which he is shooting at a remarkably good clip this season. Rose has turned into a surprisingly good player that, if they can bear his defensive limitations, could help a championship contender for the next few years.
2. Deandre Ayton
When Ayton came out of Arizona in the 2018 draft, no one doubted his potential. His game was a little raw, especially on defense, but that did not stop Phoenix from becoming enamored with his seven-foot, 250-pound frame and selecting him with the first overall pick. The Suns’ big man had some troubles last year, when he was suspended for 25 games for failing a drug test and notably forgot to take his mandatory coronavirus test in the bubble.
Now, Ayton is finally showing steps to achieving his full potential, averaging 17.4 points and 12.2 rebounds per game against an elite Lakers frontcourt in his first playoff series. His points are not coming from being an elite go-to scorer, which one might expect given his physical gifts. Instead, he’s bringing tons of energy to the Suns and making the most of each opportunity, converting 80% of his field goal attempts through five postseason games.
Ayton has arguably been the most indispensable player on the Suns, who have simply no one else on their roster who can mimic his skillset. He provides a much needed paint presence against the Lakers, who thrive off rebounding and scoring at the rim. Ayton is already one of the biggest reasons Phoenix has gone up 3–2 against the defending champs, but he also has room to grow into an All-Star, which the Suns will need to count on as Chris Paul ages.
1. Luka Dončić
Let’s give Dončić the benefit of the doubt for Games 3 and 4. His neck injury appeared to have limited him at home, but when Dončić has looked healthy in this series, like he did on Wednesday, he has been the best player in the playoffs. The Clippers started the series throwing different defenders and double teams at him, but quickly saw no coverage was going to faze him. After that approach failed, L.A. has tried to keep Kawhi Leonard or Paul George attached to him at all times. But much like LeBron James, Dončić finds the defensive weak link and exploits it for easy baskets every time.
The most incredible part of the Mavericks’ road performance this series is the entire offense running through Dončić. Dallas’s red-hot three-point shooting has definitely made matters easier, but to even find open looks, Dončić has to run pick-and-rolls and make the right read every time. When the Clips switched, Dončić just abused Los Angeles’s lesser perimeter defenders, especially Ivica Zubac, who the Clippers have had to pull from their closing lineup.
What this series has crystalized more than anything else is that the Mavericks need to find Dončić some more help. Kristaps Porziņģis, who was once thought to be the second star on the team, has turned into a stand-still shooter, who cannot score in isolation well enough to carry the offense even for brief stretches. The Mavericks seem completely hopeless on offense whenever Dončić sustains an injury or needs rest during the game. Dončić looks more than ready to be the main guy on a championship team, and Dallas needs to start holding up its end of the bargain.