From the steaming crucible of the NBA Playoffs, one always emerges: the unlikely hero.
On Game 1, casual opposing fans simply say “Who’s that guy?” More knowledgeable ones may mock, saying “He’s still in the league?”
Yet, by Game 4 they will collectively declare “Who the <obscenity> is that <obscenity>ing guy?” By Game 6, they will rend their clothes, lamenting “Man, why won’t that <obscenity> just retire already?”
There’s always some non-household name who will do something like: make a game-winning buzzer-beater, score 20 points in Q4, prevent James Harden from scoring any three-pointers, stuff multiple Giannis Antetokounmpo attacks on the bucket, instigate an altercation that gets the entire Golden State Warriors starting lineup ejected.
It’s impossible to know for sure who these unexpected heroes will be. That’s why they’re unexpected.
But we can make a few guesses based on matchups, end-of-season performances and magic tea leaves leftover from a Genie’s lamp.
MOST LIKELY TO elicit a human emotion from KAWHI LEONARD:
Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets
There’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Brooklyn Nets‘ second-round rookie Rodions Kurucs this postseason. The Nets have not yet sealed themselves a playoff berth. Here’s hoping they clamber into the No. 7 spot and meet the Toronto Raptors in Round 1!
Last time these two teams met, Kurucs drove the inscrutable Kawhi Leonard into an outburst. In a longer series, who knows what exciting surprises Kurucs might shake free from Leonard?
More importantly, “Air Latvia” can do things like this:
Could Kurucs be the unexpected star who helps his team put points on the board in a hurry by running the floor, picking pockets and throwing down fast-break slams? Brooklyn fans (and the Detroit Pistons) wouldn’t be surprised if he was, though there are many NBA observers who would still never see this second-round rookie coming.
Most Likely to go on a Three Spree:
Mike Scott, Philadelphia 76ers
Thirty-year-old forward Mike Scott is now on his fourth team in three seasons after being traded by the L.A. Clippers as part of the swap that sent Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. Scott is only averaging 8.0 points per game for Philly, but he can get hot in a hurry.
A 40.9% shooter from long-range, he dropped six of nine three balls on the Golden State Warriors (in a 120-117 Sixers loss March 2), and six of eight Thursday night during the 128-122 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
A tip to opposing teams: If you don’t like seeing Scott in a tight, late-game situation? Put him on the line. For a guy with such a smooth outside shot, his free throw is a lousy 66.7%.
If we’re talking about unlikely heroes from Philadelphia, we could always mention Philly’s Peskiest Pest, T.J. McConnell, who averages a steal per game in under 20 minutes of play.
MOST LIKELY TO FRUSTRATE JAMES HARDEN and/or STEPH CURRY:
SHAI Gilgeous-ALEXANDER, L.A. CLIPPERS
Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks sweet and unassuming, (and the back of his jersey is almost comical), but don’t poke fun. He’s one big piece of the L.A. Clippers’ snarling guard dog defense, right along with Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley.
Gilgeous-Alexander is an all-around defensive dynamo, but he could really shine by disrupting the perimeter play of the Western Conference’s dominant guards.
As our own Adam Spinella wrote: “Sometimes, he simply reaches out his arms and pokes the ball from unsuspecting handlers who think he is too far away to make an impact. Those arms just emerge from his shoulders like the old Spiderman villain Dr. Octopus, creating a loose ball in the process … Thanks to his length, the Clippers can incorporate more traps on ball screens. The wingspan from the point guard and a seven-foot big create quite the blanket of arms for a ball handler. Tiny guards struggle to see over the traps and execute their passing.”
The Clips are about to face some nasty backcourts, and SGA could be just one blocked three-pointer away from being a legend.
Most likely to AND-ONE LAY-UP HIS WAY BACK INTO A ROTATION:
ISAiah Thomas, Denver Nuggets
Isaiah Thomas is not (at least not yet) the player he was pre-injury with the Boston Celtics. The Denver Nuggets have risen to No. 2 in the West because of point guard play from Jamal Murray and breakout sophomore Monte Morris.
However, one of the Nuggets’ biggest worries going into the postseason is their lack of playoff experience. Yet, the playoffs are exactly when the fearless battle-sprite inside of 5’9″ Isaiah Thomas might come alive again.
The Golden State Warriors embarrassed the Nuggets Tuesday night in a 116-102 statement that was much more one-sided than the final score would indicate. Thomas did not step onto the court until 90 seconds into the fourth quarter when the Nuggets were already down by 25.
A little bit of I.T. might be just what Denver needs now. Thomas’ competitive spirit could help him overcome the wariness that settled in during a long injury rehab, and his playoff mentality could help the Nuggets overcome their toughest opposition.
Maybe Jeremy Lin leads the Toronto Raptors to a fast-break, fourth-quarter scoring bonanza.
Perhaps the Orlando Magic make the playoffs and Markelle Fultz is the star for a game or two.
Probably Joe Ingles does what he always does, but people unfamiliar with the Utah Jazz continue to find his great performances surprising.
No matter what’s to come, we can’t wait. It’s more fun when you can put the tea leaves away.
BONUS: MOST LIKELY TO iso, JAB-step, PUMP-FAKE AND DRAIN A GAME-WINNING Pull-Up jumper:
Carmelo Anthony, TBD
Sure, maybe it is the last week of the regular season and nobody has seen fit to sign many-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony yet.
There are 16 playoff-bound teams who are already a little banged-up, already looking at their benches wondering if they couldn’t use just one more scorer. It’s a long journey to the Finals, and if they can hire him at the right price, some team will see the benefit of having a former scoring title champion sitting on their bench.
Criticize Melo if you will, but you cannot deny that he can sink difficult, well-contested jump shots from any range, has a history of impressive clutch performances and is powerful in the post. His skills might be rusty and he’s probably a bit out of shape, but there’s no doubt Anthony could be some team’s surprise killing stroke.
Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it’s for whatever team meets the Houston Rockets in Round 1?
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.