The NBA has begun its second and most important phase of the season: the Playoffs! So far this year’s version has served up healthy portions of great basketball for hungry hoop fans. We’ve seen it all, from nail biting overtime games to breakout star moments to last-second thriller buzzer beaters. By now viewers of this year’s NBA season are quite familiar with the teams’ brightest stars, but as history has shown us time and time again, alongside every superstar or deadly tandem there is the pivotal “glue guy,” he’s that one person who keeps things together by going out and handling his business night in and night out, without reveling in the spotlight or receiving much recognition. It’s time for these guys to step into the limelight and for us to show them some love. Here’s a look at five of the best players still playing in this year’s playoffs who have flourished in their roles as unheralded heroes.
Point Guard Mike Conley – The casual NBA fan might not be familiar with his game, which might be due to the fact the Memphis Grizzlies and their grind-it-out style doesn’t make for the most entertaining basketball to watch, or because Conley’s team doesn’t host many nationally televised games. Either way its put, Mike Conley has subsequently flown under the radar. While the Grizzlies’ two all-stars, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, receive the most recognition, Conley’s the man that keeps the machine running. In this year’s playoffs he has shown that he can ball with the best of them. The six-year veteran point guard has stepped his game up when it counts the most, and Conley’s ability to hit the three-pointer or mid-range jump shot, paired with his knack for breaking down his defender off the dribble has proven to be serious trouble for the Oklahoma Thunder. He’s noticeably increased his offensive production during this year’s playoffs averaging a team leading 19 points per game while sitting among the top of active playoff point guards in assists. A natural floor general with a silent, yet calm demeanor, the speedy and elusive left-hander has been the catalyst to the Memphis Grizzlies playoff wins, giving the lower-seeded Grizzlies a fighter’s chance to knock out the heavily favored Thunder.
Shooting Guard Bradley Beal – The second-year shooting guard is Washington, D.C.’s newest secret weapon. After an up and down rollercoaster ride of a regular season, in which he showed flashes of brilliance with his play, the 20-year-old is now shining bright on basketball’s biggest stage. Paired with his all-star counterpart, John Wall, the Washington Wizard’s backcourt has been one of the more pleasant surprises of this year’s playoffs, largely due to Bradley Beal’s breakout postseason performance against the Chicago Bulls in the first round. A pure scorer with nice ball-handling ability to complement a silky smooth jump shot, Beal can flat out get buckets, aka score points in bunches. Standing at a stout six feet, five inches and blessed with superb athleticism, Beal has showcased a rare talent on offense. He terrorized one of the league’s best defenses, scoring 25 plus points on two different occasions, and had an overall average of 20 points a game while shooting an outstanding 50% from the three-point line for the series. Thanks to Beal’s coming of age and key offensive contributions, the Washington Wizards cruised pass the Bulls and made it into the second round for the first time in nearly a decade.
Center Jonas Valančiūnas – With skillful big men becoming a rarity in today’s NBA, the Raptors have found a diamond in the rough with second year center, Jonas Valanciunas. The big man in the middle has been an invaluable asset as the Toronto Raptors have been restored to basketball relevancy behind this year’s regular season resurgence and subsequent playoff appearance. The seven-foot product of Lithuania has been more than serviceable down low during the Raptors playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. Negating the soft reputation attached to most European players, Jonas has shown an uncanny level of toughness going up against aging future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. Valanciunas has not let KG and his well-known scare tactics intimidate him one bit, sending a clear message that he won’t back down to anyone. He’s also displayed an array of impressive skills on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. During his playoff debut against the Nets, he compiled a very respectable 17 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. Valanciunas has been a standout contributor in his supporting role, giving emerging superstar DeMar Derozan and feisty do-it-all point guard Kyle Lowary some much needed depth in the low post.
Shooting Guard Wes Matthews –Wesley Matthews is the silent assassin amongst the young, deep, and talented Portland Trailblazers. LaMarcus Aldridge’s tremendous play and emergence into a legitimate superstar has dominated playoff headlines, with Damien Lillard’s inaugural playoff performance coming in a close second. Welsey Matthews has been no slouch, either. Matthews has continued to do what he’s been doing all year long in the playoffs, too, providing a quiet but influential presence. The Blazers passionate shooting guard has continued to expand his game. This season he has been the team’s emotional leader and third leading scorer. His scoring initially dipped in the postseason from a couple of weak shooting performances, but in his defense, he drew the tough assignment of guarding the Rockets’ crafty All-Star James Harden. Matthews has made up for his offensive struggles, though, by exceling on defense; he’s physically proving to be a nuisance for Harden frustrating the Rockets’ go-to-man by holding him to an erratic 35 % shooting for the series. Recently, Matthews seems to have found his way on offense with a clutch 21-point, 4-rebound, and 4-steal performance in game 4, with Portland leading in the series over the favored Rockets. It seems like some folks hit the snooze button a little too early by sleeping on Wes and the Blazers.
Power Forward Paul Millsap – Paul Millsap’s game has been underappreciated all year long, even with an All-Star reserve selection for the first time in his 7 years in the NBA. Earlier in his career, Millsap spent most his time playing second fiddle to other celebrated stars, while coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz. Thanks to free agency, his much improved shooting and more allotted playing time in Atlanta, he has refined his game and found a nice median between his old down-low bruiser style of basketball and his new stretch four-man mentality. At six-foot-eight, he’s undersized for his position but makes up for it with his strength, quickness, and ambitious motor. He has the ability to play down low on the block or outside around the three-point line, which has made him a difficult cover for the NBA’s taller, slow footed power forwards. Adding the dimension of being able to knock down the open three paid off for him enormously, and as a result he put fourth career numbers in the Hawks opening first-round series against the Indiana Pacers. The Atlanta Hawks’ playoffs success is a full team effort that’s been anchored by the blue-collar Millsap, and with the Hawks holding home court advantage and leading in the series, the Pacers’ title hopes look to be sinking quickly.