In today’s league, we’re all aware that it takes a lot of talent to maintain an elite level of play — just look at Miami’s up-and-down performance in the Finals. We’ve seen the shift towards superstar-heavy rosters, players joining forces to bring home a championship, and the need for a face of the franchise. These are the players you build a team around.
But, as we watch the Finals unfold, we’re always reminded it takes more than an All-Star to take a team to the promised land. The supporting cast, the guys who slip into roles to fulfill a duty, the ones who sacrifice touches for the betterment of the team, those are the ones who ultimately make or break a season.
If you had told me that Danny Green would’ve been leading the Finals in scoring through the first three games, I would’ve laughed in your face. But after a phenomenal 27-point performance on Tuesday night, he did just that. (Last night, he reverted back to form, scoring only 10.) He might be the unlikely hero that delivers the hardware for San Antonio. Let’s look back at some of the other role players throughout history who have stepped up their game when it matters most…
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10. MIKE MILLER
Just about the only Heat player who came to play in Game 3 of the Finals was Miller, who sank all five of his three-pointers. He’s made 9-for-11 in the Finals thus far. Many forget that Miller was the key to the series clincher in last year’s Finals, hitting seven of eight triples en route to Miami’s first title with the Big Three.
Despite his injury issues over the years, Miller has always saved a little bit extra for the spotlight. He has thrived in big games for the Heat, and it seems he’ll be counted on again to help take the pressure off of LeBron and co. when the double-teams come.
9. BRUCE BOWEN
Bowen was a member of the Spurs during their three title runs in ’03, ’05 and ’07. He was recognized as one of the best defenders in league during his career, and would often be asked to cover the toughest assignment on the other team. This earned him quite a reputation, dogging some of the best scorers in the league by kicking and tripping everyone in sight.
Bowen was tasked with locking down the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Vince Carter, Ray Allen and Carmelo Anthony, among other star swingmen of the 2000s. Although some of Bowen’s tactics were questionable, as he was often accused of stepping under a shooter’s landing zone with intent to injure, he was still one of the most respected defenders of his era and a key figure on the Spurs during their championship seasons. He even made his mark on offense, hitting enough corner threes that Lakers and Mavericks fans probably still hate him.
The forward’s most memorable playoff performance came in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals. Bowen and the Spurs headed into Game 2 looking to take a commanding lead against the Lakers, who had won three straight titles. Bowen dropped 27 points, including seven three-pointers, all while frustrating Kobe to an inefficient 9-of-24 shooting night. The Spurs went on to win in six games, and took home a championship a month later. That series against the Lakers was one of Bowen’s defining moments. Yes, Bryant averaged 32.3 points per game on him, but Kobe shot 43 percent and averaged more turnovers (4.5) than assists (3.7).
8. BILL BRADLEY
Bradley was a key contributor to the Knicks teams that brought home titles in 1970 and 1973. The future senator may have been overshadowed by the likes of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Dave DeBusschere, but he was vital in his own right.
Bradley was said to have an unmatched basketball I.Q. on an extremely smart Knicks team, often able to read plays before they happened. His forward-thinking wasn’t just reserved for the basketball court, though. The reason he chose to attend Princeton University was that he felt it would provide better opportunities for him if his basketball career never panned out. He was always a step ahead.
The Rhodes Scholar also consistently knocked down jumpers and was an above-average on-ball defender, two skills that are invaluable to any contender. Bradley was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.
7. STEVE KERR
As a career 45 percent three-point shooter, the highest in NBA history, Kerr was known for his talents as a sharpshooter. If you gave him an inch of space on the perimeter, he’d make you pay. Such was the case in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals, when he — not Jordan, not Pippen — knocked down the shot that gave the Bulls their fifth title in seven years.
Another example of Kerr’s impact came in Game six of the 2003 Western Conference Finals. The Mavericks looked primed to push the series to a deciding Game 7, holding a 13-point lead with just 10 minutes to play. But then, in one of the most incredible runs in playoff history, the Spurs rallied off 23 unanswered points. The 37-year-old Kerr hit the game-tying and go-ahead three-pointers, providing an invaluable spark while filling in for a struggling Tony Parker. You want to know how incredible this performance was? Kerr scored 12 points on four triples that night. The entire rest of the postseason he scored 10.
Kerr is now known for his skill behind the mic as a color commentator for TNT, but his NBA rÃ©sumÃ© is extremely impressive. He won five championships (including a stretch of four straight) during his mostly under-the-radar career, and constantly answered the call when his team needed a big three.
6. MARIO ELIE
Known by some of the greatest nicknames ever (he was the original Junkyard Dog, and also went by Super Mario and our favorite, the Jedi), Elie was never really an impending threat to his opponents (never averaged more than 11.7 points a game). But he made his presence known by doing whatever his team asked of him. He was never afraid to take a big shot, never afraid to take on the other team’s best player. There was nothing glamorous about his game.
His hard-nosed mentality completely changed San Antonio’s persona during their 1999 NBA championship run. The Spurs had been known for years as soft puppies who would falter under pressure. Elie’s presence turned them into a powerhouse that was never tested that season.
But Elie will forever be known for his clutch shot against the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals. With the game tied and just seven seconds to play, Elie received a rifled pass from Robert Horry and sank a corner three to give the Rockets the game and the series, completing a comeback after falling down 3-1. The shot is known as the Kiss of Death, and it solidified Elie as a prime-time performer. They went on to win the title that season, the second of his three career championships.
5. MICHAEL COOPER
When you think of the “Showtime” Lakers of the ’80s, you think of Magic, Kareem and Worthy. Often overlooked was Cooper, the tenacious defender who was with them for all five of their titles. (We also rated him No. 19 on our list of the greatest trash-talkers ever.) A fan favorite, Coop was a Laker for life and established himself as a stud despite never being the first, second or even third option on his team. Among his accomplishments were eight All-Defensive selections and a Defensive Player of the Year award in 1987 (unbelievably… in a season where he started only two games), the only Laker ever to do so.
Coop was a major factor in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 1980s as well. He was often tasked with handling the opposing team’s best shooters, and in these classic series, that meant covering Larry Bird. Bird called Cooper the toughest defender he ever faced, and this was in an era where Sidney Moncrief and MJ were frustrating the heck out of opponents on a nightly basis. In that same season that Cooper won DPOY, Boston and L.A. faced off again in the Finals. Cooper held Bird to 44 percent shooting in the series, and just 16 points in the deciding Game 6.
4. VINNIE JOHNSON
Nicknamed “The Microwave” for his ability to heat up in a hurry, Johnson was the sixth man off the bench for the Pistons squad that won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Johnson backed up future HOFers Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, but his role was just as important to the team. If Detroit needed a quick offensive spark, they’d call on Johnson to relieve the All-Star backcourt and pour in some buckets.
The legend of “The Microwave” began in Game 4 the 1985 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when Johnson scored 22 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter to defeat the rival Celtics. But his career-defining moment came in Game 5 of the 1990 Finals, when he hit a title-clinching 15-footer to give the Pistons a repeat. Isiah gave up the ball to Johnson, who isolated and let the clock tick down before launching the contested jumper. Thomas, one of the best guards of all time, trusted a bench player to win the Finals for Detroit. Think about that. He wasn’t stupid either — Johnson scored 57 points in the last three games of the series, missing all of 12 shots in the process.
3. K.C. JONES
Jones never averaged more than 10 points per game in his entire career, yet he was an extremely important cog in the machine that was the Celtics’ legendary dynasty. Playing alongside Bill Russell and Sam Jones, K.C.’s prowess as a lockdown defender helped Boston to eight titles in his nine seasons in the league. Jones was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, proving that you can have a stellar career without filling up a stat sheet.
In one notable series against the Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati Royals in the 1964 Playoffs, Jones shut down the legend, holding him to 12 points under his average and limiting him to just five assists per game in a season where the Big O averaged 31.4 points and 11.0 dimes a night.
2. DEREK FISHER
Fisher’s career can be defined by a single play. With the Lakers and Spurs tied at two games apiece in the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals, the series shifted to San Antonio for a pivotal Game 5. As the hard-fought contest drew to a close, Tim Duncan sunk an improbable, off-balance fadeaway to put the Spurs up by a point, leaving just 0.4 seconds on the clock.
With the Spurs focused on Kobe and Shaq, Fisher was able to free himself on the ensuing inbounds play and drain one of the most impossible shots in NBA history, somehow releasing the ball before the horn sounded.
D-Fish has won five titles in his 17-year career, all with the Lakers, all as an afterthought in the eyes of the opponent. He was never known as “the guy,” but he’ll forever haunt those who underestimated his role throughout his tenure. From the .4 shot to his game-saving performance in the playoffs with Utah when he returned to the court late after his baby daughter underwent cancer surgery to his three-pointers that sunk Orlando in the ’09 Finals to his outburst in the 2010 Finals against Boston that was so incredible it moved him to tears, the man was just a *cliche alert* winner.
1. ROBERT HORRY
Big Shot Rob is the ultimate role player in NBA history. In his 16 seasons in the league, he won titles in nearly half of them (seven). You might scream coincidence, or just pure luck, but in Horry’s case, he proved himself pivotal to his team’s success time and time again. The fact that he was able to win it all with three different organizations makes you a believer in his importance.
Everyone remembers the shot he hit in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against Sacramento. That really was a championship-deciding shot. If he misses it, the Kings win that series in five games and go on to destroy New Jersey for the title. Instead, it led directly to a Lakers’ three-peat. Still, that wasn’t his greatest moment.
Who remembers Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals? It was another championship-deciding performance from Big Shot Bob. He came out of nowhere — literally — to score 21 points and hit the game-winning triple after the biggest brain fart of all time from Rasheed Wallace. For anyone who remembers watching this game, there were a minimum of six different occasions throughout the fourth quarter and overtime where you were saying to yourself, “That’s it. Detroit’s winning this shit. It’s over.” Yet… Every. Single. Time… Horry made some absolutely miraculous play to counter. This was the epitome, the golden standard, the Illmatic of role player performances.
You can just let the highlights do the talking for Horry. He will forever be known as one of the most clutch performers of all time. He never backed down from a pressure situation, and he came through nearly every time (well.. except for that one time in 2003 against the Spurs…).
Who do you think is the best role player ever?
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