NBA playoffs X-factors: Six under-the-radar players who could boost their teams’ title chances

Stars ultimately decide NBA championships. Along the way, though, unheralded and overlooked players often step up in big moments to provide key contributions that swing a game or series in their teams’ favor.

Robert Horry made a career out of being a playoff X-factor, hitting clutch shots on the way to seven NBA titles with three different franchises. In recent years, Andre Iguodala played a key role in three Golden State Warriors championships with his defense and leadership.

So while the top contenders will rely heavily on stars like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo to carry them to the NBA Finals, who will be the next Horry? Here are six under-the-radar players who could be the “Big Shot Bob” of this year’s playoffs and boost their teams’ title hopes.

Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets

Porter is an easy first entry after his breakout performance in the seeding games. An increase in playing time resulted in Porter boosting his scoring average from 7.5 points per game before the shutdown to 22.0 per game in the bubble. He’s just 22 and gets lost at times on defense, but his scoring prowess is impossible to ignore. At 6-10, Porter can get his shot off over any defender, and his spot-up shooting (42.2% from 3-point range) could be the perfect complement around All-NBA center Nikola Jokic, who is one of the best passers in the league.

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Bam Adebayo, Heat

After blossoming into an All-Star this season, Adebayo cemented himself as one of Miami’s most vital players in the bubble. As the starting center, Adebayo really unlocks the Heat offense with his ability to create from so many different spots on the floor. His passing vision from the high post and off pick-and-rolls allows him to find Miami’s bevy of shooters on the perimeter. Defensively, Adebayo can anchor the back line, but his quickness and versatility also allows him to step outside and effectively guard smaller players on switches.

Bam Adebayo enters the playoffs averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.3 blocks per game for Miami.

Kyle Kuzma, Lakers

James said it himself after Kuzma’s game-winning 3 against the Nuggets last week: “In order for us to win a championship, he has to be our third-best player.” James and Anthony Davis are going to carry the scoring load, but Kuzma will need to step up and be that consistent third option. After shooting just 29.7% from 3-point range before the shutdown, Kuzma bumped that up to 44.4% during the seeding games. Some regression is likely (he’s at 33.1% from 3-point range for his career), but if he can consistently shoot closer to 40% from deep, the Lakers will be even more dangerous.

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Danilo Gallinari, Thunder

Gallinari quietly had a very good season (18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 43.8% shooting overall, 40.5% from 3-point range) for a Thunder team that was quietly one of the most solid in the league. At 6-10, he’s always been a good 3-point shooter for his size (career 38%), and he will need to take advantage against the small-ball Rockets in the first round. Gallinari could also see time at center if the Thunder want to match the Rockets’ smaller lineups, making it even more important for him to exploit mismatches.

Eric Bledsoe, Bucks

Bledsoe has not played well in the playoffs the past two years. His health is a concern heading into this postseason after testing positive for COVID-19 in early July. Coach Mike Budenholzer eased Bledsoe back into the lineup during seeding games, and he’s expected to resume a heavier workload once the first round begins. When healthy and at his best, Bledsoe is a very good perimeter defender and ball-handler who can take some of the pressure off MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But if he plays poorly again this postseason, Budenholzer may be forced to reallocate some of Bledsoe’s minutes.

Daniel Theis, Celtics

Theis is an undersized big man at 6-9, but he’s a solid defender and capable floor-spacing shooter, and the center spot could decide how deep the Celtics advance. If Theis can shoot close to the 40% from 3-point range he shot during seeding games, it will open up driving lanes for the Celtics’ stars on the outside. On defense, Theis won’t completely stop Joel Embiid, but if he can hold his own and limit the amount of double-teams Boston has to employ, while pulling Embiid away from the basket on the other end, the Celtics should be able to handle the Sixers in the first round.

Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.

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