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Six Improbable NBA Playoff Performances

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There have been some outstanding individual performances over the years in the NBA playoffs. On the game’s biggest stage, we’ve seen players elevate their play to another level and turn in some incredible outings.

Of course, we’ve come to expect great performances by the league’s biggest stars, but what about big playoff outings by some unexpected players? Over the years, we’ve seen a number of improbable contributions that all helped their team one way or another.

We have decided to look back over the past 15 years or so and highlight some notable performances. Each performance had varying factors that played a role in it being unexpected. Here is what we found (in no particular order):

Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls: 2013 Eastern Conference First Round Game 4 vs. Brooklyn:

Robinson single-handedly carried the Bulls down the stretch in this game. The Bulls trailed by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter, but it was Robinson that led the Bulls to the tie game at the end of regulation and eventually win the game in triple overtime to take a 3-1 series lead.

In a performance that has many calling it the “Nate Robinson game,” he scored 23 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter in a game that he didn’t even start. He had a stretch where he scored 12 straight to help erase the Nets’ lead.

Robinson nearly won the game in the first overtime on a bank shot, but Joe Johnson hit a jumper with two seconds left to send the game to a second overtime. Robinson eventually fouled out of the game, but he was a huge reason why the Bulls walked away with the win.

Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls went on to win the series in seven games before bowing out to the Miami HEAT in the next round.

Mike Miller, Miami HEAT: 2012 NBA Finals Game 5 vs. Oklahoma City:

Miller dealt with so many injuries during the 2011-12 season that he appeared in just 39 regular-season games for the HEAT, but it was his Game 5 performance that was perhaps the biggest of his career.

He scored 23 points off of the bench to help the HEAT clinch the NBA title and their first with the Big 3. It was his three-point shooting that proved to be most impressive, though. He converted on 7-of-8 shots from three-point range to turn in one of the best Finals shooting displays in recent memory.

Miller shocked everyone during that game. He had played a total of 21 minutes in the previous four games of the series. He was even seen limping toward the scorer’s table to check in and even considered retirement after battling severe back pain all season long.

It was a good thing he didn’t retire.

Brian Scalabrine, New Jersey Nets: 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 5 vs. Detroit:

Scalabrine scored just 30 total points for the Nets in the 2004 playoffs, but it was the 17 he put up against the Pistons in a triple-overtime thriller that proved to be the biggest.

In fact, it was the fact that the game went to three overtimes that allowed Scalabrine to have a chance to play to begin with. Several Nets players battled through foul trouble, and four Nets would eventually foul out, creating a need for Scalabrine to play.

He turned in one of the most unlikely games in playoff history after he put up 17 points off of the bench, converting of 4-of-4 shots from three-point range, including a key trey to put the Nets up by four points with 41 seconds left during the third overtime.

The Nets would fall to the eventual champions in seven games, but the legend of Brian Scalabrine quickly grew with that performance.

Anthony Johnson, Indiana Pacers: 2006 Eastern Conference First Round Game 6 vs. New Jersey:

In the first playoff series after Reggie Miller’s retirement, the Pacers leaned on an unlikely hero in Game 6. Johnson nearly sent the series to a Game 7, but his career-high 40 points proved not to be enough for the Pacers as they fell to the Nets.

For a player that averaged 9.2 during that season, his 40 points in that game seemed highly improbable. Johnson was quoted after the game and said he had never taken that many shots before in a game after finishing 16-of-23 from the field.

That game would end up being Johnson’s last with the Pacers.

Channing Frye, Cleveland Cavaliers: 2016 Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3 vs. Atlanta:

When LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all have it going, the Cavaliers have been proven tough to beat. But when they get huge contributions from others, the Cavaliers are nearly impossible to beat.

Frye turned in a playoff career-high 27 points in Game 3 of last year’s semifinals matchup against the Hawks. He converted on 10-of-13 shots from the field, including 7-of-9 from three-point range.

Frye played sparingly in the team’s first-round matchup against the Detroit Pistons but came up big for the Cavs against the Hawks. It was by far his best outing of the Cavs’ run to the title, as he wouldn’t score over 12 points following that 27-point outburst.

Does he have one of those in the tank for this postseason run?

J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks: 2011 NBA Finals Game 5 vs. Miami:

It’d be hard to project where the Mavericks would have been against the HEAT without the efforts of Barea during their Finals run. Barea established himself as a reliable bench option during this run, but it was his performances as a starter that helped the Mavericks the most.

The only three games Barea started during the playoffs were the last three games of the Finals against the HEAT. He scored 14 of his 17 points during the second half of Game 5 and converted on 4-of-5 three-point attempts in the game.

Each time the HEAT seemed to be closing in on the Mavericks in that game, Barea was there to hit a big shot to keep the Mavericks ahead.

*****

Each year, a player emerges to give his team an unexpected boost and these players above all helped their teams in various ways. While these six were significant in their own way, there have been many great performances over the years that may not have made the cut.

Who did we leave out? Hit the comments and let us know!

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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.