Benches making huge impact on '11 NBA playoffs
Jason Terry shot Dallas to a sweep of the Lakers. Oklahoma City played four backups in the deciding minutes to beat the Mavericks. Udonis Haslem willed Miami to its biggest win since 2006. Taj Gibson had a dunk that electrified Chicago.
Highlight moments all, and all from backups.
Starters aren't the only stars in these playoffs, where this much is clear: Second-stringers aren't playing second-fiddle.
Entering Sunday, reserves are scoring an average of 53.8 points per game in these playoffs, the most since 54.6 in 1992 - and a figure that's up a whopping 15 points from the playoffs a decade ago.
And if there's one thing the Bulls, Heat, Thunder and Mavericks can agree on, it's that without the strong play from their benches, they wouldn't even be part of the NBA's final four.
''That's the X-factor,'' Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki said of the bench play.
That's certainly true, both in the Chicago-Miami and Dallas-Oklahoma City matchups.
Whether it was Gibson's high-flying act in Game 1 of the East finals, Haslem playing extended minutes for the first time in six months and carrying Miami's offense for nearly an entire quarter in Game 2, or Terry's 32-point blitz that sent the mighty Lakers home for the summer, there's many examples of guys coming off benches and coming up big.
In the last 19 postseasons, on average, there's been 13 annual instances where a backup scores at least 20 points.
That was topped long ago in these playoffs, with about a month or so still left before someone is crowned the NBA champion.
''When you get to this point of the season, when there's four teams left, usually they're well-balanced teams and there's quality depth on those teams,'' Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Sunday. ''I think it's shown out. For a guy like Haslem to be coming off the bench, that says a lot. He's obviously very talented. There's a number of guys in this series who could be starters and come off the bench.''
Russell Westbrook's benching for the final quarter of Game 2 in the West finals gave Thunder reserves a chance to shine, and oh, did they deliver.
James Harden, Nick Collison, Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook played all but 50 seconds of the fourth quarter, when Oklahoma City dealt Dallas its first home loss of the 2011 playoffs.
''Well, we know if we want to go as far as we want to go, we're going to need our bench,'' Thunder star Kevin Durant said. ''That's a big part of this league. Dallas has a great bench, so we want to kind of offset theirs and kind of give them a battle.''
For Dallas, turnabout was fair play in Game 3 on Saturday.
Terry - who played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter and has been one of the league's top reserves for the past few seasons - made one of the biggest shots of the night, a pullup with 1:42 left that helped seal the Mavs' 93-87 win.
''If we're going to get to where we want to go, everybody plays a part,'' said Terry, who has the two highest off-the-bench scoring totals of these playoffs and is averaging 17.5 points in the 2011 postseason.
To put that in perspective, among the players left in the tournament, Terry's average is topped by only six - Durant, Derrick Rose, Nowitzki, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Westbrook.
''People know what guys are capable of doing,'' Gibson said. ''People come in and they're ready to play.''
The numbers surely support that statement.
Only midway through the conference finals, there's already been 22 instances of reserves scoring at least 20 points in this postseason. That's the most since 1992, when it happened 28 times in the entire playoffs.
''Does it surprise me? Not with the talent that's on those teams,'' Wade said. ''You look at the Western Conference, you look at their bench, you see there's a lot of talent on the benches. There's a lot of players over there who could be starters. Very talented benches, that's been the strength of their teams, obviously, the whole year.''
Bench play has been a question at times in Miami, which is built unlike perhaps any team in the league, with Wade and James serving as primary options and Chris Bosh being a so-called No. 3 option who spent seven seasons as Toronto's primary offensive weapon.
In Game 2 at Chicago, Haslem put those questions to bed - temporarily, at least.
Coming back from November surgery to repair a ruptured foot ligament, he scored 11 points in the second half, and was the only Miami player to register a field goal for nearly 12 minutes. Somehow, it was enough for Miami to post an 85-75 win.
''We view everybody as a rotation player,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ''It's not always fair. It's not always great for players' rhythm. But it's been successful for us.''
Successful for most teams on winning nights so far - a trend that very easily could continue all the way through the rest of these playoffs.
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