We’ve covered every major storyline of the NBA playoffs, tackling the X-factors in the Eastern and Western conferences, from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid’s impending return to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry’s knee injury. We’ve run through the upset possibilities in every series and broken down the nine players shouldering the biggest burden when games begin Saturday.
Now, we’re here with the unsung heroes, the six players who you may not know a whole heck of a lot about right now but are probably going to hear a ton about over the coming weeks and months.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
The first thing that comes to mind when you think about the 65-win Rockets is James Harden’s beard, and the offseason acquisition of Chris Paul is probably second. Houston paired two future Hall of Fame playmakers in the same backcourt, and that was the narrative all year, along with the 3-point shooting prowess of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza around them. We even praised the additions of defensive stalwarts P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute.
But we forget about Capela, an athletic rim-running and -protecting big man who won’t turn 24 years old until the conference finals. The Rockets finished 62-12 with Capela and 3-5 without him. There’s no denying what Capela brings to the floor for Houston. He led the league in field-goal percentage (65.2 percent) and was by far the NBA’s most efficient high-volume roll man, scoring 1.34 points per possession on four pick-and-rolls per game. Defensively, nobody challenged more shots at the rim. You’re going to hear his name a lot over the next two months. — Ben Rohrbach
Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans Pelicans
As undeniably gifted as DeMarcus Cousins is, the Pelicans didn’t really take off until his season-ending injury forced a reorientation of New Orleans’ lineup, putting Anthony Davis at center without another giant alongside him. That prompted general manager Dell Demps to upgrade the options next to AD, which led to the midseason acquisition of Mirotic from the Chicago Bulls, which gave the Pelicans a major lift in their successful pursuit of a postseason berth.
Mirotic struggled shooting the ball for most of his first two months in the Big Easy, but it didn’t really matter; the fit just clicked. With another shooter on the floor who wasn’t as likely to bull-rush his way toward the basket, Davis and resurgent guard Jrue Holiday each got more room to maneuver in the half-court, and they’ve made great use of it: the Pelicans have scored a scorching 113.8 points per 100 possessions with Davis, Holiday and Mirotic on the floor, according to lineup data on NBAwowy.com.
Mirotic is a clear third option in the Pelicans’ offensive hierarchy, spotting up and working off the attention that Davis and Holiday command. But the two-time Euroleague Rising Star and 2013 Most Valuable Player in the ACB, Spain’s top league, isn’t afraid to take big shots in big moments, and his flagging shooting stroke has started to come on of late — 26 points and 12 rebounds per game over his final five regular-season outings, on 56/47/100 shooting splits — after he took the drastic mojo-rejuvenating move of shaving off his signature bushy beard. Let’s hope Davis, Holiday, coach Alvin Gentry and company can convince him to keep things smooth over the next couple of weeks. The Pelicans’ chances of upsetting the Blazers could depend on it. — DD
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Even with Stephen Curry out for the first round, the Warriors are an awfully tough draw for the Spurs, who have relied heavily on the shot-making prowess of LaMarcus Aldridge to carry them through a frustrating and injury-wracked season. While Golden State largely shrugged its way through the final few months of the season, especially on the defensive end, you’d have to imagine the Warriors will enter the postseason with ratcheted-up intensity, and that Steve Kerr will look hard at trying to take away San Antonio’s one reliable source of point production by unleashing Draymond Green on Aldridge as often as he can.
If Draymond successfully dampens Aldridge, as he did in last year’s Western Conference finals, San Antonio will need to find an offensive spark elsewhere. And while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili might each be good for at least one turn-back-the-clock game that makes you appreciate their long-running wizardry all over again, the Spurs will need someone else to shake loose, too. Murray, the second-year point guard out of Washington in his first year as the Spurs’ lead guard, is probably Gregg Popovich’s best bet to inject a little bit of chaos into what looks like a paint-by-numbers Warriors win.
The 21-year-old isn’t a traditional source of offensive firepower, or even a standard-issue point guard. He averages twice as many rebounds as assists, he’s only shooting 44 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from 3-point range, and he’s only got one 20-plus-point performance under his belt this season. But he’s fearless, and lightning-quick off the dribble. He’s a pestering menace on the defensive end, capable of using his length and quickness to short-circuit an offense, and virtually all of his offensive numbers have been trending upward since the All-Star break.
Pop didn’t just hand Murray the keys to the Spurs this season for no reason; he thinks the kid’s got a special brand of talent, one that needed more room to grow and develop, and that gave San Antonio a better chance to win in the here and now. Well, there’s no place like a playoff matchup with the defending champs for a young dude to spread his wings. Everybody expects you to lose, Dejounte Murray, and quickly. So go forth, wreak havoc and make stuff weird. — DD
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Before we get too far afield in planning the parade down Broad Street, it’s worth remembering the rampaging Philadelphia 76ers actually have to play somebody in Round 1 before they can advance. Namely, the Heat, a grinding, versatile, athletic and physical team that will do its damnedest to make things uncomfortable for Brett Brown. Perhaps no player in a Heat uniform better personifies that identity than Richardson, a 6-foot-6 swingman whom Miami drafted out of Tennessee in 2015’s second round, and who has evolved into maybe the best player on Erik Spoelstra’s roster.
Richardson has taken steps forward as a shooter, scorer and complementary ball-handler in his third season, but he makes his bones on the other end. He’s an excellent defender, with long limbs, sound instincts, great balance and superb agility; he just never seems to get hung up on screens, forcing defenders to wear him all over the court and, should they shake him, leaving the lingering fear in the back of their minds that he’ll come from behind to swat the ball away once they go up with it.
He’s disruptive, finishing in the top 15 in the league in deflections, and he forces turnovers, as one of only four players to log at least 100 steals and 75 blocked shots this season. The other three are all half a foot taller and All-Stars: Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andre Drummond. Spoelstra’s got a few different options to throw at Ben Simmons, several of whom have more size and bulk to throw at the 6-foot-10 point guard. Despite the size differential, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if Richardson got a few cracks at it; he’s just got a knack for making your life difficult and for getting the ball. A few possessions of that here and there could go a long way toward short-circuiting Philly’s flow.
Even considering their youth, Philly’s favored to dispatch Miami and move on to the conference semifinals. The Heat are going to make them work for it, though, and in the process, they’re going to get some reflected praise from folks who tuned in to watch the other guys. The bet here’s that Richardson’s going to earn his fair share of applause. — DD
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum stole headlines as a teenage rookie torching nets all season, but Brown’s evolution in his sophomore campaign was just as impressive, if not more. He showed flashes of his potential last season, as his role increased to the point he defended LeBron James in the conference finals, but talk of his offensive limitations as an athletic slasher remained the same.
Then came this season, when he shot 40 percent on 4.4 attempts from 3 per game, made strides in his mid-range game, improved his ball-handling ability to attack the rim with greater regularity of the same ferocity and flipped his free-throw percentage from 57 percent in 2017 to 73 percent in the New Year. Oh, and he defended the best opposing wing night in and night out for the NBA’s top defense. In nine games since returning from a scary fall in late March, with increased responsibility in the absence of Kyrie Irving, Brown is averaging 17.2 points on 57.1 percent shooting from distance. Tatum isn’t the only one with room to grow on the Celtics. — BR
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Most prognosticators penciled Turner in to be the Pacers’ breakout star this season, and then Victor Oladipo went supernova, earning an All-Star bid and almost assuredly Most Improved honors. Turner missed two weeks with a concussion at season’s start and another two with an elbow injury midway through it. Turner’s inconsistency between momentum-halting unavailability gave way to a decreased minutes load and the emergence of fellow center Domantas Sabonis.
None of this is to say Turner has been a bust. He’s been good since he entered the league as the 11th overall pick in 2015, and his season averages are as respectable as it gets — 12.7 points (on career-best 35.7 percent shooting from 3-point range), 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 assists per game. But he’s capable of monster stat lines, and he’ll have ample opportunities to post them against a Cleveland Cavaliers team starting Kevin Love at center. If an upset is in order, Indiana will need Turner to be the breakout star we all imagined to be six months ago. — BR
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