If NBA fans outside of Pennsylvania didn’t know the name Tyrese Maxey, they sure do now.
While the Toronto Raptors were keying in on superstars Joel Embiid and James Harden, the Philadelphia 76ers‘ second-year guard was showcasing why he is such an important player in their success with 38 points in a Game 1 win.
If the 76ers were to make a deep playoff run, “The Maxey Game” would be the performance that sparked it all.
That got us thinking: What other X factors are hiding in the first round of the playoffs? Which under-the-radar players could swing a game — or even a series — by themselves?
Our NBA experts are breaking down one player from all 16 playoff teams who could get hot from long range, provide a defensive spark or come out of nowhere to lead his team to a victory.
Johnson just had the finest season of his young career, putting up personal bests across the board. He became one of the top Sixth Man of the Year contenders by averaging 12.5 points in just 26.2 minutes per game while shooting a sizzling 42.5% from 3.
Case in point: March 4 vs. Knicks
Johnson also hit at least two 3s in 12 of the 21 playoff games he appeared in last year, offering a glimpse of what he can do on the brightest stage. His worst game out of the Suns’ entire run, however, might have been in the Bucks’ NBA Finals-clinching win in Game 6, when Johnson scored just three points on 1-for-5 shooting, surely giving him motivation for a bounce-back this postseason.
— Dave McMenamin
Herro can get hot in a hurry and will be crucial to any major success the Heat have in the postseason. His ability to space the floor will create even more opportunities for Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and other teammates. Herro already has proved he isn’t afraid of the biggest stage, as he showed during the 2020 playoffs when he repeatedly hit important shots during the Heat’s run to the Finals.
Case in point: Jan. 8 vs. Suns
With the Heat playing without Butler and Adebayo, it was Herro who dropped 33 and went 12-for-20 from the field in a 123-100 rout of the league-leading Suns. The difference in Herro’s game this season is his consistency. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew what he was getting from the Kentucky product on most nights, and that is what should help propel Herro during this postseason run.
— Nick Friedell
After logging only nine minutes in last year’s playoffs, Clarke will need to play a major role in this series with Minnesota if the Grizzlies want Jaren Jackson Jr. to spend a lot of time as the primary defender on All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns. Clarke thrives as a roll threat offensively and can guard forwards.
Case in point: Nov. 8 and Jan. 13 vs. Timberwolves
Clarke was a critical contributor in both of Memphis’ wins over Minnesota this season. He averaged 17 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 66.7% from the floor in those two games, as the Grizzlies outscored the Timberwolves by 25 points with Clarke on the floor. Memphis was plus-20 in 23 minutes against the Minnesota this season when Clarke joined Ja Morant and Jackson on the floor.
— Tim MacMahon
When White arrived in Boston at the trade deadline, he was precisely the player the Celtics needed: one of the league’s better perimeter defenders who also is a quick decision-maker offensively. What could make or break Boston’s hopes of a deep playoff run is White’s 3-point shooting. He shot under 31% with the Celtics after being at around 35% the previous two seasons.
Case in point: April 7 vs. Bucks
While Boston lost to Milwaukee late in the regular season, White’s performance — 19 points and seven rebounds, plus 4-for-8 in 3-point shooting — is exactly the kind of showing the Celtics will want to see on a regular basis during the playoffs.
— Tim Bontemps
The Warriors played 10 players by halftime in their Game 1 win against the Nuggets. And the wild thing is, they probably could have played 11.
Kuminga didn’t see rotational minutes, but Warriors coach Steve Kerr has made it clear he is the next man up off the bench. The Warriors see Kuminga as a guy who can be a game-changer. If someone on the court isn’t having a good night or they just need an extra dose of energy, the Warriors will go to the 19-year-old rookie.
Case in point: March 23 vs. Heat
As Kuminga saw an increased minute load through February and March, he showed the value he can add to Golden State. Against the Heat, Kuminga was the best player on the floor for the Warriors. He not only displayed his physicality but showed off his improved ballhandling and his almost signature hesitation and spin move, and Kuminga did it against one of the league’s top defenders in Bam Adebayo.
Kuminga has been able to stay ready, even when he isn’t playing consistent minutes. And in a situation such as the playoffs, during which lineups and rotations can change night to night, Kuminga needs to be prepared to make his impact — and possibly shift a game or series.
— Kendra Andrews
Opposing teams have spent so much attention defending the paint in an attempt to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo that it often has left Allen with a ton of space to shoot from 3. And Allen entered the postseason on a heater, shooting 47.9% from beyond the arc since the All-Star break. Allen already has been at the center of controversy during Bulls-Bucks matchups this season, so it would be ironic if he could swing a game with his performance.
Case in point: April 5 vs. Bulls
Allen hasn’t shot well from 3 against the Bulls this season, but he has found success scoring against Chicago. In their final regular-season matchup, Allen registered 12 points in the first half — tied for the team high — to help deflate the Bulls’ chances of an upset.
— Jamal Collier
Finney-Smith would have been a coveted free agent if Dallas didn’t sign him to a four-year, $55 million contract extension immediately after the trade deadline. He is predominantly known as a defender — and is taking on Donovan Mitchell as his primary assignment in the first round. But Finney-Smith also has developed into a major 3-point threat, converting 45.2% of his six attempts per game over the past two months.
Case in point: March 7 vs. Jazz
The Mavs hope Finney-Smith’s performance in a late-season win over the Jazz is a sign of the impact he will make in this series. He had 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting (4-of-10 from 3-point range) in that game. More importantly, he made Mitchell work for every look, as the Jazz’s All-Star guard finished with 17 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
With Matisse Thybulle sidelined for the games in Toronto because he isn’t fully vaccinated, Green has been thrust into the starting lineup. And while the three-time NBA champion isn’t quite as spry as he used to be at age 34, he is the only two-way wing Philadelphia has on its roster — and he’ll be leaned on throughout the playoffs as a result.
Case in point: April 7 vs. Raptors
During Philadelphia’s loss in Toronto without Thybulle late in the regular season, Green finished with 18 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal and a block in 39 minutes, including going 6-for-7 from 3-point range. That’s the kind of performance Philadelphia would love to get a few times in these playoffs.
Clarkson’s production and efficiency dipped this season on the heels of his 2021 Sixth Man of the Year campaign, but his scoring off the bench continues to be a critical ingredient of the Jazz’s success. Utah went 16-6 when Clarkson posted at least 20 points this season. The Jazz are 5-1 when Clarkson has scored 20 or more in playoff games.
Case in point: April 5 vs. Grizzlies
Mitchell struggled in a late-season meeting with Memphis, going 6-of-24 from a floor. The Jazz still managed to beat the Grizzlies in overtime in large part due to Clarkson delivering an efficient 22-point performance off the bench by shooting 7-of-13 from the floor. Clarkson also had five assists that night, matching his fourth-highest total of the season.
Trent averaged a career-high 18.3 points and shot 38.3% from 3-point range this season, giving the Raptors a third consistent offensive weapon alongside Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — all while being a solid defender and playing 35 minutes a night.
Case in point: April 7 vs. 76ers
In Toronto’s final meeting with Philadelphia during the regular season, Trent poured in 30 points and helped the Raptors secure a win. For a team that is offensively challenged at times, a performance like that could swing a game in what is expected to be a very competitive series.
While Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were out this season, the Nuggets were in desperate need of an offensive spark whenever reigning MVP Nikola Jokic rested. They got it from their first-round pick out of VCU. Hyland averaged 10.1 points and 36.6% shooting from behind the arc, but he came on in March by averaging 14.3 points, 4.3 assists and 47.6% 3-point shooting.
Case in point: March 14 vs. 76ers
What could be bigger than Jokic vs. Joel Embiid? Look no further than when the Nuggets won at Philadelphia to see how much of an X factor Hyland can be. Hyland scored 21 points off the bench, but he was so good in the fourth quarter that he managed to overshadow the MVP showdown between Jokic and Embiid. Hyland hit four 3-pointers — three straight in the middle of the fourth — to help the Nuggets beat the Sixers. Already a fan favorite in Denver, Hyland’s inspired game in Philadelphia came in front of Delaware firefighters and first responders who helped save him from a house fire in 2018. —
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Milwaukee has allowed the most 3-pointers per game in three of the past four seasons, including 2021-22, and if there’s one Bulls player most poised to take advantage, it’s Coby White coming off the bench. White shot a career-best 38.5% from beyond the arc this season, but he has proved to be a streaky shooter in his first three NBA seasons. If he gets hot from 3, he could go on a run to swing a game in this series.
Case in point: Feb. 11 vs. Timberwolves
White was in the midst of one of the best shooting stretches of his career in February, when he shot 48.7% from 3 on seven attempts per game. He helped spark the Bulls to victory against the Timberwolves, finishing with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting (6-of-10 from 3), including hitting all four of his 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter.
Beasley quietly finished fifth in the NBA in 3-pointers this season, shattering the Timberwolves’ franchise record with 240 treys. Like many players who live behind the arc (75% of his shot attempts were 3s), Beasley ran hot and cold. He shot 40% in Minnesota wins and 35% in losses.
Case in point: Nov. 24 vs. Heat
When Patrick Beverley left with an adductor strain in the first quarter, Beasley stepped up. In a season-high 38 minutes, Beasley scored 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting. Minnesota was plus-12 with Beasley on the court in an impressive double-digit win over Miami.
— Kevin Pelton
Brown was consistent over the last two months of the season on both ends of the floor, while averaging close to 15 points a contest in March and April. Brown has proved he can knock down 3-pointers on a regular basis, providing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving some help when teams try to load up on them. Brown shot 41.9% from beyond the arc in March, and he has been open about how defenses still aren’t respecting his shot.
Case in point: Tuesday vs. Cavaliers
Brown racked up 18 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 steals in 40 minutes during the play-in win over Cleveland. He believes he can put up those kind of numbers each night, and Brown was a defensive spark for a Nets team that faded on that end of the floor down the stretch.
Murphy’s shooting is what made him attractive as a prospect when selected with the No. 17 pick in last year’s draft. He has been a mainstay in the Pelicans’ rotation since March 7, and during that time, he has made 43.8% of his 3s on 4.3 attempts per game. Murphy can come in and score in bunches to give the Pelicans a big lift, if needed.
Case in point: Friday vs. Clippers
Look no further than the contest that sent the Pelicans to the playoffs to see what kind of game-changing ability Murphy can have. He played the final 16 minutes against the Clippers in the elimination game of the play-in tournament and knocked down four 3-pointers, including one to put the Pels up seven late and help complete their comeback.
— Andrew Lopez
Okongwu will be called on to play a bigger role for Atlanta because of the knee injury to starting center Clint Capela. John Collins (finger, foot injuries) returned from a monthlong absence on Sunday against the Heat, but Okongwu will shoulder starting responsibilities. In six games as a starter this season, Okongwu averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Case in point: March 31 vs. Cavaliers
Okongwu put up 17 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes against Cleveland. As a rim runner, he fits perfectly into what Atlanta wants to do with Trae Young running the offense. Okongwu also can provide a boost on the defensive end, averaging 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes during the regular season.