Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young officially introduced himself as a playoff villain in his postseason debut last weekend. After hitting a go-ahead floater with under one second left in Game 1 against the Knicks, he silenced the Madison Square Garden crowd in New York, bringing back memories of when Reggie Miller gestured to Spike Lee with the “choke” sign after the Pacers guard scored eight points in nine seconds in 1995 to pull off one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history.
Knicks fans responded in Game 2 by coming together and… encouraging everyone to start a “Trae is balding” chant, which, sure, I guess.
Playoff villains are great for the sport. They’re what fuels rivalries and creates animosity between franchises that can last for several postseasons, sometimes extending decades. Playoff villains also come in many different forms. Here is a look at the many kinds of villains and who might potentially step into the spotlight over the next few months.
Before we start, your Coachella 2030 jersey of the week:
The “playoff nemesis” villain
This is the most common playoff villain. A player who just absolutely torments the opposing fanbase for two weeks, from his antics off the court to his dominance off the court. A recent example (Raptors fans, look away) is Paul Pierce.
Pierce famously blocked Kyle Lowry’s game-winning attempt in Game 7 of the Toronto-Brooklyn series in 2014. He then joined the Washington Wizards the following year, told ESPN the Raptors don’t have “it” on the eve of their first-round matchup, then proceeded to hit a series of big shots in a sweep, calling off the win by posting a “King of the North” photo on Instagram. The last part probably hurts the most considering Pierce is notorious for not knowing how smartphones work.
This year’s candidate: LeBron James. This man has simply been crushing the postseason hopes of opposing teams for over a decade now. The Suns are about to see their wonderful season go up in smoke in Round 1. There will be several Western Conference hopefuls who will talk themselves into beating James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the next few weeks. There’s a long list of fanbases, including Toronto, who will tell you how that usually goes.
The “role player” villain
These are role players who suddenly emerge on the national stage, or secondary pieces that hit huge shots in the postseason to cement their reputation and crush the opposing team’s championship hopes. Robert Horry is a clear example here. Although there’s been a recent push for him to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so given his seven championships, Horry wasn’t a superstar. He was a superstar role player with a long list of clutch shots, most notably this one against the Sacramento Kings:
This year’s candidate: Joe Harris. I almost nominated Dillon Brooks or Grayson Allen, but your team needs to be an actual title contender to be hated. A Brooklyn Net feels right here. The Nets’ big three rightfully gets all the attention but don’t sleep on Harris’s villain potential. There’s nothing more crushing than going up against a team stacked with superstars only to have one of their other players beat you. Harris is also one of the best three-point shooters in the league. I can already see it now: Game 7. Clock ticking down. The Bucks have erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit and taken the lead. There are five seconds left in the game. Kyrie Irving drives to the basket, swings it to Kevin Durant, who throws a pass out of a double-team to a wide-open Harris in the corner for the series-clinching three.
The “annoying pest” villain
This is a subgenre of the role player villain in that the player in question isn’t frustrating just because of what he’s putting up on the box score, but because of the general annoyance he causes. Consider Matthew Dellavedova, who emerged as a second option during the Cavs’ 2015 run to the NBA Finals after injuries to Irving and Kevin Love. He not only went toe-to-toe with Steph Curry in the Finals but along the way drew the ire of the Atlanta Hawks after he ran into Kyle Korver and ended his season:
This year’s candidate: I was tempted to nominate Dennis Schroder but he seems a bit too talented to fall into this category, but let the record show he will be highly irritating in these playoffs. The actual nomination goes to Facundo Campazzo. The Denver Nuggets guard has a very specific agenda on the court: to get under your skin in any way possible. Campazzo is facing the impossible task of slowing down the Blazers backcourt of Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum. In Denver’s Game 2 win, a little bit of acting allowed him to draw a flagrant foul on McCollum, who was incredulous at the call. This series might go the full seven games, so we’re going to hear from the Nuggets guard again before the first round ends.
The “super team” villain
This one is pretty straightforward. The Miami Heat with James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. The Golden State Warriors with Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Teams with an overwhelming amount of talent are so easy to root against.
This year’s candidate: Brooklyn Nets. This one is pretty obvious. But I do want to mention the Los Angeles Clippers have absolutely squandered their villain potential so far. They have Steve Ballmer sitting courtside, a group of players with front-runner tendencies, a perfect role player villain in Patrick Beverley, and two superstars who decided to team up in free agency. All the ingredients are there for them to be an all-time playoff villain, except they continue to struggle to make it out of the second (or, in this year's case, first) round of the playoffs.
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