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Making a name

Little-known players can be big playoff stars

Posted: Tuesday May 3, 2005 1:35PM; Updated: Tuesday May 3, 2005 1:35PM
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Jerome James
Seattle's Jerome James is the latest little-known star to make a big impact in the playoffs.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

While ordering my Jerome James jersey online last night -- size XXL, just like the ludicrous free-agent contract he'll no doubt sign in the offseason -- I got to thinking about his predecessors, men like Troy Hudson, Luke Walton, Mario Elie and Matt Maloney. They belong to that rarest of NBA breeds, the mediocre player who becomes a star, or at least a catalyst, in the postseason. Sometimes it is a brief, shining moment -- think of Brian Scalabrine's 17-point performance in last year's playoffs, after which he famously said, "It feels great to be Brian Scalabrine!" Other times it is contained to one postseason, as was the case with Hudson, whose career scoring average was single-digit before he went ballistic in the 2003 playoffs, averaging 23.5 points in six games for the T-Wolves.

Such players are different than the Reggie Millers and Larry Birds of the world, who were already good and just got better during the playoffs. In the case of men such as James, it is a stunning (and usually temporary) transformation, the equivalent of showing up at Avis expecting the usual white Ford Taurus and being upgraded to a Mustang with XM Satellite radio.

It was interesting to watch James' reaction to his newfound significance. When he stepped to the media podium after Game 3 at Arco Arena following his 22-point, 9-rebound performance, he looked resplendent in a gray suit and a smile that seemed suspiciously large for a man whose team had lost 116-104. It was almost like the smile of a man who will be a free agent this summer. Fielding questions as if accustomed to the role of team spokesman, he opined about the Sonics' lapses, remained appropriately humble ("We lost, so as far as I'm concerned I had a bad night. A good night is having those numbers and winning") and spoke about the growth of his game; after averaging 4.9 points, 3 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in the regular season, he's averaged 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in the series. Some of his success can be chalked up to the Kings' undersized front line, but a lot of the credit goes to the big lug himself, who is getting deep into the paint, hitting a fallaway baseline jumpers, hustling, cutting and finishing off of high picks.

No matter how you frame it, his play is startling. Over five seasons, his career averages are 4.9 points and 2.5 rebounds, which, according to the 'similar players' feature on basketballreference.com, puts him in the company of such hardwood giants as Vladimir Stepania and Zan Tabak. He has a decent post game and can block shots, but he moves his feet about as quickly as an Imperial Walker, is prone to the occasional -- OK frequent -- mental lapses and hasn't always been team-oriented. Once charged with being selfish by Nate McMillan, James responded, "I don't have the first clue who he is talking about, because all I worry about is Jerome."

Maybe it is just the magical effect of the postseason. James is the most obvious example, but there are others who've become insta-heroes. Etan Thomas had 20 and 9 the other night for the Wizards; Andres Nocioni went for 25 and 18 in Game 1 for the Bulls; Ryan Bowen, who might have a hard time holding court at the local Y this weekend, played 31 minutes in Game 1 against Dallas in his newfound role as Dirk-irker. Nazr Mohammed looked more like Tim Duncan than Duncan did early in the Spurs series and Juan Dixon's 35-point display Monday night was positively Hudson-esque.