5 role players who starred in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs

For all of the plaudits the NBA’s marquee stars receive during the playoffs, a team’s title aspirations are often only as bright as its role players.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five players on the fringes of the limelight who performed at the highest level in Round 1:

Derrick White, Boston Celtics

5 57.7 47.7 90.0 3.6 3.2 22.4

It’s partially unfair to consider White a role player after he doubled as a star in the Celtics’ gentlemen’s sweep of the Miami Heat. After a quiet yet efficient start to the series, White exploded over the final two games, averaging a whopping 31.5 points on 52% shooting from beyond the arc in two extremely easy Boston wins.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will always have the ball more than their teammates, but the already dominant Celtics are nearly unstoppable when White becomes a flamethrower from beyond the arc. Including the playoffs, Boston is 32-3 when White makes at least half of his threes this season. The remaining Eastern Conference playoff contenders should be trembling in their shoes about facing a red-hot White.

Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets

Andrew D. Bernstein / National Basketball Association / Getty
5 52.8 10.0 85.7 9.8 4.6 13.8

Gordon’s already a proven elite role player after last year’s Nuggets title run, and he’s gotten off to another great start. His ability to catch defenses off guard in the dunker spot while the focus is on Nikola Jokic provides a much-needed wrinkle to Denver’s offense.

The swingman had a signature Game 3 versus the Lakers, going off for 29 points on 12-of-18 shooting while recording 15 boards. He made LeBron James work whenever the aging superstar tried to rest on defense, and his interior scoring opened up the floor for shooters. To that end, his 23 total assists in the series may have been as valuable as his scoring. Next up: a matchup against elite big man shooter Karl-Anthony Towns.

Josh Hart, New York Knicks

6 40.5 43.2 70.0 12.3 4.5 16.8

Hart’s never-ending hustle has made him a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden. His noticeable effort on every loose ball and every rebound hasn’t just appeased the Knicks’ diehard faithful, but it was also key in establishing New York’s edge over the 76ers with Joel Embiid limited due to his lingering knee concern.

The 6-foot-4 Hart is outdoing every single player this postseason with 1.7 offensive loose balls recovered per game. And though his defensive rate is a more modest 0.5, his combined rate of 2.3 at both ends is currently the second best in the playoffs, only behind Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Hart has been New York’s X-factor; if he can combine his hustle play with an efficient clip from distance – the Knicks were 3-1 against the 76ers when Hart shot at least 50% from deep – they’ll be a nightmare for the Indiana Pacers.

Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves

David Sherman / National Basketball Association / Getty
4 50.0 27.3 87.5 5.3 1.0 14.3

Sure, the Phoenix Suns had Kevin Durant, but the Timberwolves had Jaden McDaniels. Even though Durant had his success, McDaniels’ extreme length and physicality made things challenging for whoever was matched up with him.

McDaniels isn’t usually called upon to provide lots of offense, but his 25-point performance in Game 2 of Minnesota’s sweep showed he can step up to the plate. The wing went 10-of-17 from the field and 2-of-4 from deep, consistently beating his defenders off the drive when all the attention was paid to rising star Anthony Edwards. If McDaniels can provide elite defense and opportunistic scoring for the rest of the playoffs, the Timberwolves can bring home the franchise’s first championship.

Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers

6 5.6 45.0 66.7 3.3 4.7 13.8

Now a bona fide starter under Rick Carlisle after opening the regular season on the bench, Nembhard was sensational as the Pacers put away the hobbled Milwaukee Bucks. After a poor Game 1 in which he managed just six points on 2-of-6 shooting, Nembhard made it click for the rest of the series, beginning with a 20-point Game 2 performance in which he shot a much-improved 8-of-11 from the floor. He never shot worse than 50% afterward.

A key component of Nembhard’s success was his efficiency running the pick-and-roll. Among the 18 pick-and-rolls featuring Nembhard as the ball-handler, 61.1% of those possessions ended with at least a point scored. Only Jayson Tatum (64.3%) has a higher percentage. The secret? Nembhard’s shooting 69.2% (9-of-13) on those plays, which is far and away the best such mark this postseason. If that’s not a small-sample aberration, the Pacers have two guards that could give the Knicks serious issues in Round 2.