The All-Surprise Team
Which role players have stepped up in the playoffs so far?
Draymond Green famously said, “There are 82-game players, then there are 16-game players.”Some guys shrink in the bright lights of the playoffs, and some bloom. We are almost through the second round, and I want to highlight some of the players whose surprising playoff performances have proven their worth as 16-game players.
To qualify, a player must have made it to the second round so that we have a larger body of work to examine. I’ve picked one point guard, two wings, and two big men to spotlight. An honoree might be someone who has consistently punched above their weight on defense, started making an unusual number of shots on offense, or even just had one or two game-changing moments. The point is that these guys all stepped up when it matters most. They’ve proven they can share the court with the big dogs and not be eaten alive.
Point Guard: Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies
Tyus was an instrumental part of the Grizzlies’ six-game win against Minnesota in a wild round one, and he’s picked up the slack tremendously in the last two games against Golden State.
Tyus is a small, well-regarded backup point guard who has long thrived in the league as a game manager. He comes in to hit a few threes, take care of the ball, and make the right pass, before exiting without making much noise. It sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, but that’s precisely what an ideal backup point guard should do.
However, most players of this archetype struggle when thrust into a greater role, and Tyus has done the opposite. Since bird-man Ja Morant was injured in Game 3 with a knee bone bruise, Tyus has been thrust into a starting position against one of the best teams in the NBA — and he’s delivered.
Jones responded with two of the best games of his career, averaging 20 points, 4.5 rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 53% from the field and 50% from three. He’s picked up some of the scoring burden left in the wake of Ja’s missing 38 (!!) points per game this series without losing his efficiency. Most importantly, he’s only committed one turnover in the two games combined for an unimaginable 14:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Jones has credibly defended the much bigger Klay Thompson and has survived switching onto most of the other Warriors players — while he’s not a stopper by any means, he’s a noticeable improvement over Ja Morant on that end. His refusal to be a weak link has helped the Grizz hold the Dubs to just 95 and 101 points over the last two games.
Despite being a veteran in the league, Tyus had only played in two playoff series before this season, and both were blowouts. This year is the first time he’s really had an opportunity to show what he’s capable of in the postseason. Jones has shown he can be more than a game manager.
Wing: Wes Matthews, Milwaukee Bucks
Jrue Holiday gets all the love as a perimeter stopper, and rightfully so after his late-game defensive heroics on Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart led to a shocking Bucks win in Game 5. But quietly, Wes Matthews has been almost as impressive on that end. He’s currently tasked with guarding Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum all game long, and he completely dominated Chicago star DeMar DeRozan in Round 1.
Matthews has shot a solid 8 for 19 from deep, but Milwaukee has taken a 3-2 lead in this series thanks to nightmare-inducing defense. Matthews is a big part of that. He’s a squat, physical defender who relies upon intelligence and strength more than quickness to defend players (not dissimilar from Jrue). The bigger Tatum has spent much of this series trying and failing to dislodge Matthews in the post. Instead, Tatum’s been forced into difficult turnaround fadeaways or had to kick the ball out.
Below, Matthews helps onto a crashing big before closing out hard on Jayson. He expertly maintains defensive balance, bodies up Tatum to keep him away from the hoop, and forces a difficult running hook.
That’s a shot Tatum can hit, but Matthews made it as tough as possible.
Matthews went from starting just 14 games in the regular season to starting all ten so far in the playoffs, and his smart physicality has consistently stymied Milwaukee’s most talented foes.
Wing: Max Strus, Miami Heat
Strus took $90-million-man Duncan Robinson’s starting spot at the tail end of the regular season and hasn’t looked back since. It’s hard to say that Spoelstra made the wrong call, as Strus has continued to deliver in his first real playoff experience.
Max has made more than twice as many threes as his closest teammate (Jimmy Butler has 16 triples in the playoffs to Strus’ 33). He has the highest plus/minus in the entire playoffs at +142 (Desmond Bane is second with +121).
Strus’ willingness to fire without any hesitation creates necessary breathing room for Butler to go to work down low. His defense has been significantly stronger than Robinson’s (or Tyler Herro’s, for that matter). He’s much bouncier with the ball than Robinson, with a quicker first step and better strength on both ends.
Strus is averaging almost 30 minutes per game, up from 23 in the regular season. He had his first career double-double in the essential Game 5 win against Philly before tallying a second one in the close-out Game 6. His shooting and athleticism will be crucial against either Boston or Milwaukee in the ECF.
Big Man: Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks
Kleber picked a perfect time to come back from the dead. Long a Basketball Poetry favorite, Kleber struggled horribly with his shot this season, shooting just 32.5% from three this year after averaging almost 38% for the three years prior. He’s a natural power forward, but after the Mavericks moved off of Kristaps Porzingis at the trade deadline, he’s cemented his role as a stretch five.
Since the playoffs started, the 6’10” gunner has increased his deep accuracy to a whopping 48.3%. He takes advantage of the attention defenses give to a driving Luka Doncic to cleverly reposition himself for open treys, befuddling big men not used to defending on the perimeter:
Dallas lineups with Kleber at center outscored opponents by +8.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, and that was before he was hitting shots. Now, his increased gravitational pull has helped unlock Luka’s beastliest tendencies by clearing out the lane and letting the big point guard eat up smaller defenders inside.
Big Man: Al Horford, Boston Celtics
]The Celtics are losing one of the best second-round series in recent memory 3-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks, but that’s through no fault of Horford’s.
The big man has continued to play All-Defensive-Team caliber defense, but that was expected. What wasn’t expected was for the average three-point shooter to turn into prime Steph Curry when needed most.
Horford has shot over 50% from three and nearly 60% from the field in these playoffs. He had 22 points in Game 3 against the Bucks in a narrow two-point loss, then dropped 30 (including a crucial 16 fourth-quarter points) in a had-to-have-it Game 4 win where he turned back the clock and annihilated Giannis Antetokounmpo both spiritually and physically:
Big Al added injury to insult by accidentally elbowing Giannis in the face on the way down.
The Bucks have spent much of the series in a traditional “drop” coverage, in which center Brook Lopez helps protect the paint by leaving Horford on the perimeter. Traditionally a little gun-shy, Horford has been uncharacteristically aggressive in abusing that defense, eagerly bombing threes to the point that Lopez had to be subbed out at the end of Game 5 to avoid a repeat of Game 4.
The 35-year-old veteran big man has missed the playoffs only twice in his fifteen-year career but is averaging near playoff-career-highs in almost every statistical category. Al’s accumulating 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and a block and a steal each while turning it over less than once per game. The scoring and rebounding are well over his regular-season averages, and he’s playing an astonishing 36 minutes per game, much of that spent covering a mobile ironbark in Giannis.
The Celtics have gotten far more from their resident old man than could be reasonably expected. I’m excited to see if he can lead by example for two more games.
A team needs to win 16 playoff games to win the championship: four series of best-of-seven basketball.