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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
We’re in the age of superteams in the NBA, but even now, stars can’t win titles all on their own. Supporting-cast members always have and always will need to star in their roles in order for teams to win championships.
Perhaps the best role player in NBA history was Robert Horry.
Though he averaged a measly 7.0 points per game in his career, Horry lasted 16 seasons in the NBA, won seven titles with three different organizations and made a litany of clutch shots in major postseason moments. Last month, none other than Shaquille O’Neal put Horry on his Mt. Rushmore of former teammates, and the largely bench-bound forward is a Hall of Fame cause celebre among certain sects of fans.
It’s nearly impossible for a player to live up to Horry’s unprecedented track record. But in his honor, we’re announcing the 2020 Robert Horry All-Stars. These are 12 role players who stood out most in this particularly stressful postseason and were as key to victory as their more famous and pedigreed teammates.
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Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
After cruising through their seeding games and walking all over a shorthanded Brooklyn Nets club in the first round, the Toronto Raptors hit a snag in the conference semifinals against the similarly red-hot Boston Celtics. Pascal Siakam couldn’t create a shot to save his life, Marc Gasol was rendered nearly unplayable, and the team’s usually fearsome defense was repeatedly gashed by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But through it all, OG Anunoby provided the Raptors with a sense of stability and competence when nobody else could.
After finishing the regular season on fire (11.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 54.5/46.6/77.8 shooting splits over his last 20 games), the third-year wing maintained his production against the Celtics.
He recorded two double-doubles in the series, shut down Tatum and Kemba Walker and continued to drain threes with Stephen Curry-esque efficiency (46.4 percent). You could also credibly argue that the Indiana alum legitimately (though temporarily) saved Toronto’s season when he sunk a thrilling buzzer-beater over Brown to win Game 3 and get his team on the board.
With Marc Gasol potentially going to play in his native Spain, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet approaching free agency and Kyle Lowry set to hit the open market in 2021, the Raptors could soon look very different. But as long as they lay claim to Anunoby and his consistently stellar two-way play—alongside Siakam, of course—they’ll be a competitive team in the Eastern Conference.
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Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
From Tim Hardaway Jr. to Dorian Finney-Smith to Trey Burke, plenty of Dallas Mavericks role players stood out in their hard-fought first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But none were as locked in as Seth Curry, who has now officially transcended any whispers of nepotism and is definitely one of the NBA’s best shooters.
Though he sank 45.2 percent of his threes in the regular season, it was reasonable to doubt whether Curry could sustain such efficiency when the postseason began. After all, he’s a 6’2″, 185-pound shooting guard who struggled in his first playoff outing with the Portland Trail Blazers last year, and the Clippers boasted a fleet of capable perimeter stoppers.
But the Luka Doncic effect is powerful, and Curry saw the benefits of playing with a basketball prodigy translate to the bright lights. He recorded an outrageous 67.9 effective field-goal percentage over the series’ six games, bested many of those aforementioned Clippers in individual matchups and even showed some playmaking prowess, ranking in the 92nd percentile among postseason pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
Given how well Dallas performed against a talented Los Angeles roster, it’s only a matter of time before Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Co. are making conference finals and NBA Finals appearances. With Curry under contract for three more seasons, you can bet he’ll be an integral part of those teams and potentially achieve folk-hero status in the process.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s obsession with physically marvelous wings who can’t shoot has been apparent for a while. But in Luguentz Dort, they may have found the best version of that archetype.
Dort is special in two specific ways.
First, he works his ass off on defense. Both Grant Gibbs—the Thunder’s G League coach—and Oklahoma City’s former head coach Billy Donovan have praised the Canadian’s work ethic.
Secondly, at 6’3″, 220 pounds, the rookie is built like a linebacker, enabling him to physically bother his opponent like few other guards can. This particular trait served Dort well in the Thunder’s first-round series against the Houston Rockets as he constantly harassed James Harden, tangibly impacted the former MVP’s performance and earned plaudits from around the NBA world for doing so as an undrafted rookie.
The most exciting parts of Dort’s playoff showing, however, were the glimpses he showed on offense. Scoring was never part of his appeal as a draft prospect, and nothing in the regular season indicated that he’d ever be a notable bucket-getter. But the fact that the 21-year-old rose to the occasion in Games 6 and 7, scoring 43 total points on 50 percent shooting from the field, is exciting for his future.
Were Dort’s last two games merely a hot streak? Possibly. But let’s be optimistic here. They might also suggest a more consistent three-and-D profile that Oklahoma City can invest in alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going forward.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
So much has been made of Nikola Jokic’s and Jamal Murray’s standout postseason performances—and deservedly so—that it’s easy to forget the rest of the Denver Nuggets’ deep roster. No member of the supporting cast was consistently excellent throughout the team’s 19 postseason matchups, but many stepped up in crucial moments to lift Denver to victories.
For instance, take Jerami Grant.
He wasn’t flawless over this run—the Los Angeles Clippers series was a particularly distressing stretch—but he rose to the occasion in several of the Nuggets’ most pivotal games. The Syracuse alum scored 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in Denver’s Game 6 victory over the Utah Jazz in the first round, was similarly efficient in its historic Game 7 triumph against the Clippers and averaged 21.0 points on 47.6 percent shooting in the last three games of the Western Conference Finals.
The Nuggets have many candidates for the Horry All-Stars. Michael Porter Jr. delivered several dynamite scoring displays, Gary Harris played terrific defense for a team that sorely needed it, Monte Morris was often just as effective a playmaker as Murray or Jokic, and Paul Millsap provided crucial veteran know-how and paint defense against the Clippers.
But Grant played the third-most minutes on the roster, was given a corresponding amount of responsibility on both ends and seems to have earned another contract in Denver if he wants it. He’s a safe and deserving choice.
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Kim Klement/Associated Press
Jeff Green is in the midst of a late-career renaissance. It started back in 2018 when he helped save LeBron James’ last playoff run with the Cleveland Cavaliers by posting 19 points and eight rebounds in an Eastern Conference-clinching victory. After spending the subsequent year and a half with the Washington Wizards and Utah Jazz, who waived him after 30 games, he added another chapter to his post-prime by joining the Houston Rockets.
Both parties ended up needing each other much more than any observer could have predicted.
Green needed Houston purely to extend his NBA career. However, the Rockets quickly realized that as long as he produced at a high level, the 34-year-old could be the “big man” in their ultra-small lineups.
Playing center wasn’t a completely new experience for the 6’8″ Green, but doing so with such frequency certainly was. To his credit, the Georgetown alum fit in seamlessly and continued his recent run of strong playoff performances, scoring at least 15 points four times and making multiple threes in six games.
And besides, who doesn’t love a good redemption story? For the second time in three years, Green found himself contributing to a playoff run alongside future Hall of Famers.
Perhaps the next time he does so, it will result in a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Both Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have struggled against the Los Angeles Lakers, but that doesn’t take away from how mighty they each were in the previous three rounds.
Herro emerged on the national stage with a 37-point masterpiece in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals but earned praise well before that due to a generally outstanding first postseason run. He’s already earned the coveted Dwyane Wade endorsement and was recently called “relentless” by head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Robinson has been a bit more up-and-down throughout these playoffs—such is life as a shooting specialist—but his highs were back-breaking for opponents on the right day. He made at least three triples in seven separate games, including an 18-point showing in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals that helped the Miami Heat escape with a five-point victory over the Boston Celtics.
The Michigan alum’s one-dimensionality has made him more difficult to play the deeper the Heat progress through the postseason. But if we’ve learned anything from Robinson’s journey to the NBA, it’s that he’ll come back next season having added nuance and complexity to his game.
With these two, Bam Adebayo and whomever Miami lands in 2021 free agency, South Beach will be home to a serious title contender for the better part of the next decade.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
If you thought Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo could still be effective playoff performers before this season, you’re either lying or a family member.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ reunion with Howard seemed like a last resort for both sides. Even after the big man got off to a strong start, maintained a steady level of play all season and didn’t make any off-court waves, it seemed too good to be true. At some point, the guy who has been repeatedly (and happily) dumped by several franchises was surely going to harm the pursuit of a title.
Well, the season is nearly over, and none of those fears have come true. Quite the opposite, in fact. Howard has a team-best 70.4 effective field-goal percentage in the postseason, has held his own against players like Nikola Jokic and was recently moved into the starting lineup.
Rondo’s emergence is less surprising. The legend of Playoff Rondo is well-worn at this point, and after years of him doing this, we probably should accept it as truth. But it was reasonable to doubt the 34-year-old’s ability to get up for the sport’s biggest moments until we could see him in those situations.
We’ll remember the 2019-20 NBA season for plenty of reasons, both on and off the court. But two complicated, past-their-prime stars like Howard and Rondo helping LeBron James and Anthony Davis win their first title as Lakers would definitely be one of the most memorable aspects of this wild campaign.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
After playing at a 63-win pace in the regular season and losing in five games in the conference semifinals, the Milwaukee Bucks inarguably disappointed this postseason. And while blame can be assigned to a number of sources—Giannis Antetokounmpo, head coach Mike Budenholzer, general manager Jon Horst and even Eric Bledsoe deserve a large share of responsibility for the team’s failure—one party at minimal fault is Brook Lopez.
After failing to match his historic 2018-19 campaign in the subsequent playoffs, Lopez’s shooting translated smoothly to the 2020 postseason. He performed to expectations against an undermanned Orlando Magic club in the first round but soon became one of Milwaukee’s only reliable options against the underdog Miami Heat in the second round.
While Giannis’ jumper disappeared, Khris Middleton slowly succumbed to increasingly great responsibility and Bledsoe once again panicked under the bright lights, Lopez seemed cool as could be against a swarming Miami defense, averaging 18.2 points on 53.2/42.9/76.5 shooting splits in the five games. And as if the degree of difficulty wasn’t high enough already, remember that his primary defender in this series was All-NBA stopper Bam Adebayo.
The big man definitely wasn’t perfect, as Adebayo and Goran Dragic repeatedly carved him up on defense. But because he was a consistent scorer for a team that needed an offensive spark more often than anybody expected, Lopez earns a spot here.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
It would be reasonable to entirely omit the Los Angeles Clippers’ role players from this exercise. That’s how shameful their collapse against the Denver Nuggets was. But doing so would unreasonably punish the contributions of Marcus Morris Sr., who was excellent before falling victim to a team-wide slump in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Though Los Angeles’ acquisition of Morris at the trade deadline made sense at the time, the worst-case scenario didn’t seem far-fetched. At his worst, Morris is a one-dimensional ball-stopper, and the Clippers already had multiple players with that troubling tendency.
While the Kansas alum’s 19 regular-season games with the team did nothing to assuage those fears, a switch flipped in the postseason.
As Los Angeles scored over 110 points in eight playoff games, Morris was far from the only efficient shooter on the roster. But through the first 11 matchups, you couldn’t be hotter than he was since he recorded 54.6/53.1/90.0 shooting splits against typically effective defenders like Paul Millsap, Dorian Finney-Smith and Kristaps Porzingis while posting the second-best net rating among rotation Clippers.
Morris is an impending free agent, and considering how the season ended, you certainly couldn’t blame him for wanting to start over elsewhere. But he seemed to be hitting his stride with the Clippers before everything came crashing down, so it would be interesting to see at least one full season with him in blue and white.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Is it better to have Al Horford and Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis? On a talent basis, the former duo is surely the correct answer. However, Theis seemed a better fit throughout the 2019-20 regular season and remained a key cog of Boston’s starting lineup as the team progressed through the playoffs.
As the big man only shot 15.4 percent from three over the team’s 17 postseason games, you might think he’d quickly be rendered unplayable. However, Theis stayed afloat enough on offense to maintain a spot in the Celtics rotation, and Boston wouldn’t have been nearly as effective defensively without the German big man.
Theis is one of those rare centers who can both protect the rim and switch screens effectively on the perimeter, and those skills proved especially handy at various times.
In the paint, he averaged 1.2 blocks per game and took several key charges through the Celtics’ playoff run, including one against Goran Dragic in the fourth quarter of a win-or-go-home game against the Miami Heat. And as far as defending guards goes, he reached his apex during the conference semifinals, limiting the Toronto Raptors’ dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet to 16-of-47 shooting with him as their primary defender.
Boston may still want to pursue an undervalued center like Nerlens Noel in free agency or trade for a big man like Clint Capela this offseason. But if none of those plans work out, Theis remains a more-than-serviceable fallback option.