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The NBA Playoffs’ Surprise All-Stars

An appreciation of the role players who have exceeded expectations in the first round

Jrue Holiday drives toward the hoop Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Blasts from the past have been scattered throughout the playoffs so far. Manu Ginobili spent the weekend reminding the world that no, he still has not retired. Dwyane Wade acting as Miami’s closer at 36 years old is surprising, given that he’s 36 years old; the same can be said about Derrick Rose doing ... anything for Minnesota.

But the real revelations of these playoffs have come from the guys stanned only on local broadcasts. Or, for a few of the names below, not even there. These are the “Who are you, and what have you done with X?” players of the postseason thus far. Let’s appreciate them.

Jrue Holiday

Before we enter indefensible blog-boy territory, yes, Evan Turner, everyone knew Holiday was good. (Admittedly, I didn’t think he was five-year, $132 million good, but I’ll happily walk back my old opinions. It’s not my wallet.) After the sweep, Turner said that “people that know basketball know that it’s not a hot streak for [Jrue].” (Turner then diverged, explaining how he needs to carry a purse because his two phones, chargers, and LOADS OF CASH don’t fit into his skinny jeans. Same!)

Especially this season, and especially especially after DeMarcus Cousins went down, Holiday has been the $132 million player that New Orleans needed. This season has also been the first extended stretch (over 67 games) that he’s had on the court in five years. (Holiday missed the beginning of last season for family reasons; every other absence has been injury related.) In the playoffs, healthy Jrue has skyrocketed to another level. In three out of the Pelicans’ four wins over the Blazers, Holiday wasn’t just the ideal passenger to complement Davis, he was right there in the cockpit alongside him.

Portland entered the matchup with the clear point guard advantage. But it took only a game for Holiday to steal the spotlight away from Damian Lillard (as he has stolen the ball, often). Everyone who didn’t vote for him for All-Defense is probably still bright red with embarrassment. Holiday paired his lockdown defense with 27.8 points per game. I want Steph Curry back for New Orleans’s series against (probably) Golden State because I love basketball and greatness and 3-pointers, but also because it’s suddenly become a dream point guard showdown.

Justise Winslow

Even if Winslow weren’t playing better than usual, he would get an automatic spot on this team for stepping on Joel Embiid’s mask on live television. Entering the playoffs, the offensive expectations weren’t high for the former lottery pick, but Winslow has managed to become the best heel of the first round and Miami’s source of energy. (Winslow is averaging more points than usual [9.3], but is shooting just 36.4 percent from the field, worse than during the regular season.)

Miami has never felt like the place for Winslow—he’s been a “maybe if he just went to another team” player for two seasons. Seeing him bully Ben Simmons and heckle the Sixers, though, makes the 22-year-old seem in line with the tough Heat mentality that Pat Riley has crafted over time.

Ricky Rubio

Imagine outplaying Russell Westbrook to such a degree that he, the man who refused to even acknowledge his former teammate and friend for a good year in press conferences, said this about your 26 points:

Rubio won Game 3 with his shooting, seven words that had never been combined in a sentence before Saturday. (Rubio is not a shooter; Rubio definitely hasn’t won a game with his shooting; and before he was traded to the Jazz this season, Rubio had never made it to the playoffs.)

Thon Maker

In the first two games of Bucks-Celtics, Maker was still the 7-foot-1 question mark he’d been throughout the regular season. (He played one total minute and managed to miss two shots in that time.) Both games ended in Milwaukee losses, but in games 3 and 4, with John Henson out, Maker thundered up, totaling 10 blocks, five made 3s, and 22 total points, which helped the Bucks to two victories. His five-block game was a career high, and came out of nowhere (if you count him not getting any minutes in seven of the Bucks’ 11 games prior as nowhere).

Especially when Maker has been matched up with Aron Baynes, who has a 50-pound advantage, the 21-year-old showed surprising resilience. It’s still hard for me to call Maker a big man, since, I mean, widthwise he just isn’t, but over the past two games he’s been as imposing as any backup in the playoffs.

Terry Rozier

Scary Terry went from scaring Milwaukee on the perimeter in games 1 and 2 to scaring Brad Stevens on the perimeter in 3 and 4. He’s tasked with running the point in an offense that relies on the point guard to distribute and score.

But the series isn’t 2-2 without him, even considering Al Horford’s Game 1 and Jaylen Brown’s Game 2. A secret that only close Boston-watchers know is Rozier’s uncanny ability to save a game with a pull-up 3—even if he’s been missing all day. May I present Game 1:

Rozier blazed through the first two games of the postseason, netting seven 3s, grabbing seven boards, making 10 trips to the line, dishing out 11 assists, and scoring 46 points, all without a turnover. (In the latter two games, he’s 26.3 percent from the field; those stat lines are too graphic for print.) Still, the ground is broken for Rozier, with a chance Tuesday night to return to that form.