The 2015 NBA Playoffs are just around the corner and in the coming weeks the league will see teams that have secured their place in the playoffs resting their starters while other teams will still be vying for those final playoff spots that have yet to be determined. There have been many surprises so far this NBA season, but it is undeniable that regular-season success means nothing if it is followed by an early-playoff exit.
The Eastern Conference is still very much up in the air, as there are currently four teams within 1½ games of each other, and the next few weeks could see a great deal of shuffling between the six, seven and eight seeds in the conference. Some of those teams are surging (Boston, Miami) while others are seemingly falling apart (Milwaukee, Indiana), but there are still plenty of games left for those teams to earn the right to face off with the best teams in the conference in the playoffs.
The Western Conference is a bit more settled, and while Phoenix has come on strong despite their trade deadline overhaul, it seems unlikely that they will be able to catch the Oklahoma City Thunder given the way Russell Westbrook has been playing since Kevin Durant’s foot injury. However the Eastern and Western Conferences ultimately shake out, teams will not just rely on their established stars, but will also hope to benefit from breakout performances from unexpected players already on their roster.
The NBA Playoffs are the perfect opportunity for players looking to showcase their talents, and the heightened intensity and atmospheres of these games is ideal for those players who happen to have the “Championship Gene.” There are just some players who thrive in the biggest moments and on the NBA’s greatest stage, and every year there are a host of players who surprise everyone by providing unexpected contributions to their team’s success in the playoffs. What follows are the 15 players who are most likely to provide an unexpected boost to their teams come playoff time.
All stats were taken from ESPN.com and are correct as of March 25th, 2015.
15. P.J. Tucker – Phoenix Suns
While the Suns are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff position, the team has been on a roll lately and could make a run at OKC and the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. Since moving to shooting guard, Tucker has thrived in the Phoenix offense and has been able to shut down opponents on the defensive end of the floor. If the Suns make the playoffs, Tucker’s increased production will be a major reason why and he could very well continue his success as a breakout candidate during the playoffs.
14. Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics
Thomas has missed a great deal of time recently due to injury, but he has been a revelation as a part of a surging Boston Celtics team that has its eyes on a playoff berth in the wretched Eastern Conference. Thomas has been an incredible scoring threat off of the bench since being acquired via trade, averaging 21.4 points and 5.4 assists in just over 27 minutes per game. If Boston ends up in the postseason, expect to see Thomas up the ante even more with his ability to score in bunches and create opportunities at the rim.
13. Hassan Whiteside – Miami Heat
Whiteside has always been considered a gifted big man, but his talent has not always translated to production on the floor. Since joining the Heat, Whiteside has proven to be a reliable post presence and rebounder, and his production has increased as the season has progressed. Since the All-Star break, Whiteside has averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game while seeing a lot more game action for the Heat as they try to maintain the seventh position in the Eastern Conference. The playoffs could prove to be Whiteside’s coming out party, especially since the Heat may face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
12. Rajon Rondo – Dallas Mavericks
Rondo is an established NBA player and a former All-Star, but it has been so long since anyone has seen “Playoff Rondo” that it seems that the Dallas point guard’s postseason exploits have been entirely forgotten. Rondo is definitely the type of player who is as good as he wants to be, and when the bright lights of the playoffs shine, he is as good a point guard as there is in the NBA today. The Mavericks may not be entirely happy with the Rondo acquisition thus far, but once they see how transcendent a player Rondo can be in the playoffs they will likely be much more pleased with the deal. So while Rondo is not a breakout player in the traditional sense, the fact that it has been several years since he has been involved in a playoff run makes him eligible as a breakout candidate.
11. DeAndre Jordan – Los Angeles Clippers
Jordan has been in the league for quite some time, but he has recently transformed himself into a fearsome rebounder on a whole other level. In the month of March, Jordan has averaged 18.1 rebounds per game while adding 11 points and just under two blocks per contest. If he is able to continue to produce at this level once the playoffs begin, Jordan could cement his reputation as one of the league’s most dominant big men. Of course, there is still the issue of his historically bad free throw shooting (40.1 percent), which may cause coach Doc Rivers to keep him off the floor during crunch time.
10. Dennis Schroder – Atlanta Hawks
Schroder has been a key component to the Hawks’ surprising success in the East this season, and he has been improving steadily as the season has worn on. Coach Mike Budenholzer has rewarded Schroder with more playing time in his role as Jeff Teague’s backup, and the young point guard has responded by averaging 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game since the All-Star break. The true test for Schroder will come in the playoffs, as Atlanta is expected to make a deep run as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Based on his constant improvements over the course of his young career, it looks like Schroder has the skills to break out significantly once the playoffs begin.
9. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
Green is perhaps a bit overshadowed by his Splash Brothers teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but the 6’7” small forward is going to be an important part of a playoff run for the Golden State Warriors. Opposing defenders have rightfully keyed on Curry and Thompson in an attempt to slow Golden State’s potent offense, and Green has responded by upping his offensive production across the board. The playoffs will likely see Green really break out, especially considering the fact that the Michigan State product is about to enter restricted free agency. Green’s defensive prowess will be showcased nationally and may ultimately help him secure the massive deal that Jeff Van Gundy has predicted for him.
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have been struggling lately, but they are still in very good position to make the playoffs as coach Jason Kidd has begun to rely more on the player known as the “Greek Freak.” Since the All-Star break, all of Antetokounmpo’s stats have increased significantly, as he has averaged 14.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game during that time. A playoff run could prove an opportunity for Antetokounmpo to further break out, especially if the Bucks are able to give one of the East’s top seeds a run for their money.
7. Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
Though it could easily be argued that the 2014 NBA Finals MVP already had his breakout playoff performance during the Spurs’ run to the championship a season ago, Leonard has still not shown what he is truly capable of as a focal point of the Spurs offense. The Spurs are increasingly relying on Leonard to shoulder the scoring load this season, and over the past 10 games the small forward has averaged 19.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for a team with championship aspirations. The 2015 playoffs are an opportunity for Leonard to showcase his exceptional talents throughout the entire playoff run rather than just the finals.
6. Kevin Love – Cleveland Cavaliers
While the Cavs are looking like contenders in the Eastern Conference, this has been something of a lost season for Love, who has put up numbers well out of line with his career averages while still with Minnesota. Once considered a top-ten player in the NBA, Love’s reputation has taken a significant hit, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Love goes on a tear during this year’s playoffs to remind all of the doubters how good of a player he is capable of being. This is, of course, dependent upon LeBron James’ willingness to include Love in the offense in such a way, but it should not come as a surprise if Love performs exceptionally well in his first postseason run.
5. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
While Lillard is already an established star in the league as the point guard of the Trail Blazers, a rash of injuries will force Lillard to take on an increased role if Portland is to make any kind of noise in the playoffs this season. LaMarcus Aldridge is already playing with a torn ligament in his thumb, Wes Matthews is out for the season with a tear to his Achilles, and Nicolas Batum is dealing with back issues. All this means that Lillard, already a two-time All-Star in just his third season in the NBA, will have to take charge in the playoffs and be even more of a force than he already is.
4. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
After a great start to the 2014-15 season, the Wizards have been out of synch for quite some time. Due to the generally awful state of the Eastern Conference, Washington has been able to maintain solid playoff position despite coming off the rails in the second half of the season. Beal, who is just 21 and is in his third year in the league, should rise to the occasion when the Wizards begin their first playoff series. With Beal and John Wall, Washington has one of the best backcourts in the East, and Beal could prove to be a disruptive presence in the postseason.
3. Greivis Vasquez – Toronto Raptors
Vasquez has seen his role change with the Raptors with relative frequency this season, but the Raptors should be aware of the fact that the presence of the point guard in the team’s starting lineup has a clear impact on wins and losses. Vazquez has provided a steadying presence as the team’s point guard when Kyle Lowry has been out, leading the team to a 14-7 record when he starts while averaging about 11 points and 5 assists per game. Obviously, Vasquez should not displace Lowry, but the backup point guard could ultimately play a crucial role if Toronto is to have any playoff success in 2015.
2. Nikola Mirotic – Chicago Bulls
Mirotic has had an excellent debut season that just keeps getting better as the season rolls on. After averaging 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game before the All-Star break, Mirotic has benefited from an increased role to put up 17.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in the time since. The playoffs will be the true test for Mirotic and the Bulls, as the return of Derrick Rose and the increased intensity of postseason basketball should help Mirotic showcase his true skills as a player.
1. Enes Kanter – Oklahoma City Thunder
Kanter has been phenomenal since joining Oklahoma City via trade with the Utah Jazz. The fourth-year center has put up 17.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game since donning the Thunder uniform, and while most of the attention has been on Russell Westbrook’s incredible run of triple-doubles, Kanter has played a significant part in OKC’s recent success while trying to maintain the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference. Kanter will have to have a huge playoff series if the Thunder expect to get by the Warriors in the first round, but Kanter’s recent performance has demonstrated he is more than up for the challenge.
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