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Six Improbable NBA Playoff Performances

Cody Taylor breaks down some of the most unexpected huge playoff performances of the last two decades.

Cody Taylor



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!

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


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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”

Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.

Dennis Chambers



The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.

Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.

With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.

One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.

“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”

Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.

“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”

In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.

“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”

Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.

While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.

Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.

“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”

The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.

Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.

“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”

Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.

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NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.

Steve Kyler



The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.

Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.

Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.

There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.

Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.

In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.

Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.

Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.

This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?

There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.

Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.

Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.

The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.

There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.

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