It’s been an eternity, but the NBA Finals are about to begin. By now, you know the major players — LeBron James, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, etc. — who’ll impose their will on the series and write their names in the history books. Seemingly every year, an unlikely hero emerges in the Finals to key a shift in momentum or even swing a game. This man won’t win the MVP, but he will be remembered for his “out of nowhere” performance, like Danny Green and Mike Miller raining 3s in the classic 2013 Spurs-Heat Finals, or Warriors coach Steve Kerr being the unlikely hero to hit the final shot of the 1997 Finals:
Steph and LeBron won’t play 48 minutes a night, nor will Draymond or Kyrie or Klay Thompson. The Warriors have the deepest bench in the league, so there are any number of reserves that could step up in a crucial moment for them. The Cavaliers are, shall we say, not quite as deep, but if they’re going to pull off the upset, they’ll need meaningful contributions from role players. So, which players are the most likely of the unlikely ones to be a hero? Let’s look at the Cavs first:
I was considering leaving J.R. off this list because he’s almost too obvious, but he’s not a starter, and I love him (on the court, not on his dumb Instagram). But I’m writing this article, not you, so just lay off, alright?
J.R. may be the single biggest X-factor in this series. He’s just as likely to shoot 0-10 from three as he is to shoot 8-10, but rest assured, he’s getting those shots up. His irrational confidence is legendary. In the playoffs so far, he’s hit a shade under 40 percent from deep, which will certainly play. He’ll have more defensive responsibility than he’s comfortable with — that’s just how it works against the Warriors — so he’ll need to stay engaged on that end to prevent the Cavs from bleeding more points than he can get back if/when he catches fire.
The bottom line is that if J.R. Smith gets hot, these Finals get way more interesting. And fun. He should go Zero Dark Thirty on social media, though.
If James Jones plays here, now that will be a surprise. Of all the creaky vets that the Cavs brought in to make LeBron feel more comfortable — Jones, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion — Jones is the only one still getting minutes. Defensively, he may be the worst player to see the floor in this series, but he’s got two things going for him: He’s 6-foot-8, and he can shoot the three. Mark my words, there will be at least one point in the Finals when LeBron has to rest and the Warriors keep size out on the floor. Tristan Thompson will probably average as many (if not more) minutes per game as LeBron, but a lineup with him and Mozgov without LeBron is offensive death. Jones will play, and if he hits a couple of shots in Cleveland, the home crowd is sure to go nuts. He’s more likely to pull a 2013 Mike Miller than 2015 Mike Miller is, anyway.
As for the Warriors, we’ll just use the same formula… the obvious choice and the prayer. The Warriors very much resemble the Spurs in their consistent willingness to let role players have big moments, and the Finals should see that strategy bear fruit.
Once unfairly branded as a primary scorer and the successor to Allen Iverson in Philadelphia, Andre Iguodala has been in an ideal situation in Golden State since he arrived last season, where he isn’t asked to score and can do pretty much every other thing extremely well. He’s a gifted passer, a very good finisher in transition (his dunks still are some of the prettiest in the NBA), and an excellent defender. If the Warriors don’t double-team LeBron, Iggy will be one of the main guys to check the King, along with Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green.
Seriously, though, the man has become allergic to scoring. In the playoffs, he’s only finished 13.6 percent of Warriors possessions while he’s been on the floor, more than only Shaun Livingston (another unlikely hero candidate) and Andrew Bogut. He’s actually a competent 3-point shooter at 35 percent over the past two regular seasons, though he’s down to 32 percent in these playoffs, but he doesn’t need to shoot to contribute on offense. He’ll be valuable for his steadiness with the ball.
One of the very few areas in which the Warriors don’t excel has been turnovers. They’ve averaged the most turnovers per possession of any team in these playoffs. The Cavs, unfortunately, don’t force turnovers very often (second-fewest of any team in the playoffs). But if LeBron turns it on defensively, and if a couple of J.R. Smith gambles pay off, who knows? Maybe the relative youth of Steph, Klay and Draymond will cause them to tighten up, as many predicted they would at some point in these playoffs. In the unlikely event they do, they’ll likely turn to the only Warrior with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 2.0 in the playoffs (Iggy’s ratio is an unfathomable 6.4) to steady the ship. And if he hits a couple of corner 3s while he’s at it, boom. There’s your unlikely hero.
Here’s a fun question: Of all the players in the NBA Finals, who’s grabbed the highest percentage of possible offensive rebounds in the 2015 NBA Playoffs? If your answer is Tristan Thompson, you’ve probably been watching the games; he’s a complete animal on the glass, but you’d still be wrong. It’s David Lee!
Look, I’m not stupid, or I’m not stupidly claiming that Lee is a better offensive rebounder than Thompson, at least. Thompson’s played far more minutes against starting-level big men than Lee in the playoffs. But even though Lee is so bad on defense that he lost his spot in the playoff rotation to Festus Ezeli, we know he has two above-average NBA skills … scoring in the paint and rebounding the ball. He was a walking double-double for a while, and he made the All-Star game twice based on that fact. Sure, his hamstring injury might have been the best thing to happen to the Warriors this year (because it allowed Kerr to start Draymond without hurting chemistry), but this is a dream match-up for him!
Tristan Thompson isn’t good enough offensively to pick on Lee, which mitigates the biggest liability in his game. The glass is where Thompson feasts, and if he’s doing it enough to affect the series, Steve Kerr might trot Lee out there to see if they cancel each other out. The other situation in which Lee could be needed is if Draymond finds himself in early and/or persistent foul trouble. Ezeli and Bogut are both incredibly limited offensively (Ezeli more so, being that Bogut’s a great passer), and they’ll simply never play together. Foul trouble for Green and/or a Thompson-related rebounding deficit could mean Lee time. I’m not saying it’s likely, but I’m saying that if David Lee gets a surprise double-double in the Finals, you heard it here first.