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Underappreciated Studs Propelling Playoff Teams

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The NBA playoffs are where stars are born.

Year after year, someone new expands on the horizon as an up-and-coming star, or an already-established star elevates their game to the next level.

Although we’re still in the Conference Semifinals, it’s pretty straightforward who the stars of the postseason have been thus far. They are why their teams remain in contention for a championship.

Last year, new names like Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Luka Doncic had several breakout playoff performances, while familiar names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul reminded everyone why they’re the best of the best right now.

Other than obvious choices like Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Stephen Curry or Joel Embiid, there are guys that have performed in big moments when their team has needed them the most.

That said, here are five names that have taken their game to the next level as a top performer so far in this year’s playoffs.

Transforming Tatum

At 24 years old, Jayson Tatum has already been battle-tested many times when it comes to the playoffs in his five-year career. He was tested almost instantaneously in a head-to-head match-up against LeBron James in the 2017-18 Eastern Conference Finals. The then 20-year-old Tatum was averaged 18.5 points per game that postseason.

Still in his prime, LeBron would be no easy task in a seven-game series and it did take all seven, but Tatum was still very young and not ready for that kind of spotlight yet.

Just a couple of years later in the 2019-2020 season, Tatum and the Celtics would find themselves once again in the Conference Finals — this time against a streaking-hot Miami Heat team. As we know, this was the pandemic year where the NBA resumed its season in the Orlando Bubble.

It was a great year for Tatum, but it wasn’t enough as the Celtics would once again fall in the ECF in six games.

After playing for gold-medal-winning Team USA last summer and becoming the second-leading scorer behind Kevin Durant, Tatum was starting to gain some respect from his peers, including Durant himself.

In back-to-back seasons, we drew a Durant-Tatum first-round series. These matchups are what everyone looks forward to– established superstar against budding superstar.

Both series wouldn’t last long, however, as the Nets gentleman-swept the Celtics last season, with Boston returning the favor in a full sweep this year. This series, Tatum defended Durant on 139 partial possessions, and held him to just 12 points on 3-of-18 (16.7 percent) shooting from the field along with 12 turnovers.

In nine playoff games this season, he is averaging 26.9 points, 6.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game. His 34 points in Game 5 against the Bucks Wednesday night wasn’t enough, as the Celtics now trail the series 3-2. If they are able to come back and win in seven, they will without question usurp the Bucks as the Conference-Finals favorite.

Jimmy Can Elevate, Too

For as great of a player Jimmy Butler is, he still doesn’t seem to get the amount of respect he rightfully deserves. Admittedly, even from myself at times.

“He’s not a winner, he’s a horrible player to play with.”

These things are said on social media all of the time, and he continues to prove those doubters wrong. The 2020 NBA Finals between the Heat and Los Angeles Lakers was a phenomenal six-game series and even as outmatched as the Heat were, Butler’s amazing performances kept them in the series.

But Butler has unlocked a new kind of player from within this postseason. His level of scoring is better than it’s ever been. It is time to consider putting Butler’s signature mid-range fadeaway up there with Harden’s step-back three or Giannis’ euro-step.

He’s always been a scorer, but not at the level he has been this postseason. In a battle with his former team in the 76ers, Butler will need to continue his structured play if they want to finish a hungry Philly team off and once again reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

Brunson Emerging as Batman

It’s too easy to give all of the credit to Doncic when it comes to the Dallas Mavericks’ success thus far and obviously he deserves most of the praise.

https://twitter.com/rtnba/status/1522785281761497089?s=21&t=c_g7jwXnG-NC3EyBaaozJQ

But let’s not forget Dallas wouldn’t even be here without the improved play of Jalen Brunson. In case you did, he provided an efficient 27.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game against the Utah Jazz in the first round. Which, in most part was highlighted by 41- and 31-point performances in the Mavs’ pair of wins while Doncic was out due to a strained calf.

Without his stellar performances, Dallas is much more likely to lose those games and the series and they wouldn’t be competing with the reigning Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns right now.

Since Doncic returned, Dallas hasn’t needed the 30-40 point games from Brunson, but he has still provided a much-needed second option offensively for the Mavericks. Overall, Brunson is more confident, more aggressive, and makes better decisions with the basketball.

https://twitter.com/dallasmavs/status/1524214463959691264?s=20&t=tiFnmgfwkdYlCwRkweSkYw

Poole Proving His Worth

Honestly, you could probably highlight the entire season for Jordan Poole as a top performer.

Klay Thompson had been out for two seasons — including the first half of the 2021-22 season — and the Warriors needed someone to step up and fill the void until he returned. At just 22 years old, and barely cracking the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft, expectations coming into the season weren’t high for Poole to perform. Most of the pressure lied on Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and James Wiseman to produce.

With many breakout performances throughout the regular season, Poole instantly became “one of the splash brothers.”

At that point, the only remaining concern was how would things be would Thompson returned. Could they maintain the chemistry? Obviously they did, finishing the season with the third-best record in a stacked Western Conference. Even with Thompson back, Poole was able to finish with an average of 18.5 points per game.

As impressive as he was during the regular season, it is the playoffs where he has continued to gain respect as one of the best players on the court. In the Warriors’ Game 3 win over the Denver Nuggets in the first round, Poole scored 27 points and became the 16th player in NBA history to score at least 25 points in each of their first three career playoff games.

Not to mention, he’s only the second Warrior ever to do it, along with legend Wilt Chamberlain.

Up 3-2 over a hot Grizzlies team, the Warriors are rolling and looking to finish the series off in Game 6 and reach the WCF. Even in games when they shoot the ball horrendously (like in Game 4), they still found a way to win.

Even after a debacle of a Game 5 Wednesday night, Poole’s defensive play and offensive firepower makes the Warriors the team to beat right now. Through 10 playoff games, Poole is averaging 20.0 points and 5.1 assists per game and has elevated his game to an entire new level.

Honorable Mentions: Tyrese Maxey, Jalen Brown, Jrue Holiday

Morant on the Map

Nobody has taken the league by storm more than Ja Morant. Whether it be a viral video of his Usher look-alike dad being animated on the sideline or Morant dancing after a victory, he was the talk of this playoffs until he suffered a bone bruise in his knee.

And rightfully so. This first-time All-Star led the Memphis Grizzlies to a Western Conference Semifinals appearance for the first time since the 2015 playoffs.

The NBA’s Most Improved Player of the year continues to get better and better every game. For the rest of the league, that’s bad news. It’s basically expected at this point that Morant is unstoppable and all-time greats are starting to take notice.

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The 22-year-old phenom is currently leading in assists (9.8) per game, while averaging 27.1 points on 44% shooting thus far in the post-season.

Unfortunately, his team is at the brink of elimination and Morant is doubtful for the remainder of the playoffs. Still, no player has been as electrifying this playoffs as Morant and arguably nobody has had a better individual performance either. His 47-point, eight-rebound and eight-assist Game 2 against Golden State was nothing short of spectacular and no player has scored more points in a single game this postseason.

It’ll take a lot for the Grizzlies to come back in this series, but if Morant were healthy, we could be having an entire different conversation. At the very least, he has stamped his name as one of the best players in the league.

Honorable Mentions: Tyrese Maxey, Jalen Brown, Jrue Holiday

An exciting announcement was released early Thursday morning about new postseason hardware for Conference Finals MVPs. The East’s award will be named after Larry Bird, and the West’s will be honored by Magic Johnson.

Don’t be surprised if one of these players’ receive one of these trophies. Obviously, it depends on whether or not their respective team plays in the Conference Finals, but the odds are at least one of them will be playing. Another way for players to be recognized for their post-season play.

About DC Hendrix

DC is a NBA writer. His favorite team is the Phoenix Suns, but he has love for them all. Growing up his favorite player other than Michael Jordan was Reggie Miller. His current favorite player is Kevin Durant. His all-time starting 5 is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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