— Over the course of any given NBA game, each team has somewhere in the vicinity of 95 to 100 possessions. It goes without saying that possession No. 100 (as well as quite a few others in the 75 to 100 range) are specifically drawn up for your LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul or Dirk Nowitzki — in other words, the higher the possession number gets, the more likely it is to belong to Player No. 1.
However, someone has to take the reigns on various other lower-numbered possessions throughout the game, because though the biggest moments are frequently authored by superstars, the course of the game is often determined by unsung players a quarter or two earlier. With that key distinction in mind, here is a look at some unheralded supporting players who could make a sizable impact in the first round of the playoffs and beyond:
Steve Blake, Trail Blazers
He looks more like the kid who used to wear a stocking cap to high school on warm days than a vital piece of an NBA playoff team, but the lightweight Blazers’ point guard has quietly had a career year. Granted, as career seasons go, this one hasn’t been anything mind-altering (he averaged 11.0 points and 5.1 assists per game), but Blake’s value lies in his 3-point accuracy (12th in the NBA at 42.8 percent) and efficiency. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.28 ranks fifth in the league.
With his ability to effectively get the Blazers into their offense and spot up for timely threes — not to mention that he’s one of the few veterans on a team with an average age of 24.8 years — the 29-year-old Blake has value well beyond his limited recognition.
J.R. Smith, Nuggets
Smith lives his basketball life largely by following one basic creed: “You can’t make the shots you don’t take.” And when the Nuggets’ hired gun has his rapid-fire release on target, the outcome is explosive — in his first six games of April, the 23-year-old averaged 25.3 points and an outrageous 5.3 3-point makes per game, capped by a relentless 45-point, 11-three outburst against the Kings on Monday night.
Compared to Blake, Smith has a relatively high profile for a supporting player, because whether it’s an explosive dunk or fast-paced 3-point barrage, he makes a lot of noise on his best nights. His worst nights tend to be noisy too — a rapid succession of clangs can be quite cacophonic.
Delonte West, Cavaliers
When you think of Cleveland, your immediate reaction is to focus on LeBron James. Secondly, you probably think of the team’s second-leading scorer, Mo Williams. Then you might picture Zydrunas Ilgauskas burying a baseline set shot, followed by a moment to consider Anderson Varejao’s "Sideshow Bob" hair and penchant for drawing charges.
Only after all that do you finally consider West, who is far from the most ballyhooed Cavalier but is entrenched in everything the team does. The combo guard with an unpredictable plume of red hair can play point guard (freeing up Mo Williams to spot up for his reliable jumper), he can slash to the hole, spot up for his own accurate lefty 3-pointer (39.9 percent) and play high-energy defense. Nothing in West’s statistical line screams out greatness (11.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 three-pointers per game), but everything about it declares quiet reliability.
Shane Battier, Rockets
Earlier this season, The New York Times Magazine did a lengthy exposé on what makes Battier valuable beyond his statistical productivity, and in many ways Battier’s face adorns the billboard for useful, unsung supporting parts on a successful team.
Much like a broiled steak, there is no sizzle to Battier’s game — he averages just 7.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists, and does very little in the way of one-on-one maneuvering (he last topped 20 points in a regular season game over a year ago).
However, part of Battier’s value can be measured in statistics: His 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks and 1.5 3-pointers per game put him close to select company — only five players in the NBA (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Danny Granger, Rasheed Wallace and Francisco Garcia) are averaging at least 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 threes per game. Add Battier’s willingness to pass up shots and serve as the Rockets’ designated defensive stopper, and he is in many ways the prototype for the ideal NBA role player.
Tyrus Thomas, Bulls
If Battier is the man who does all the little things correctly, Thomas is the man who has done every little thing imaginable to destroy blood vessels in his coaches’ brains. At least that was the case until this season, when something finally clicked former fourth-overall pick in his third year in the league. Thomas is averaging career-bests of 10.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, including elevated averages of 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds since Feb. 1.
Granted, the 22-year-old still has a pronounced tendency for absent-minded plays, but there’s no denying the effect his athleticism and anticipation have on a game, particularly on the defensive end (he’s averaging 1.2 steals and 1.9 blocks a night). At times, Thomas looks confused as to whether or not he wants to be a post-up threat or spot-up, mid-range shooter on offense – and in truth, he is terrific at neither. However, even a work-in-progress Thomas can mimic all the players above and have a quiet but measurable impact on his team’s chances for a surge come playoff time.