5 Biggest Playoff Risers In NBA History

The history of playoff underachievers was discussed a few weeks back when postseason disappointment regulars Joel Embiid and James Harden were eliminated. However, things worked out the other way with certain top names stepping up to get the reputation of being “risers” in the biggest games. Every major superstar hopes to have their big games on the grandest stage.

Unfortunately, most names will either have the same production level or witness a decline in the tougher playoff defenses slowing down the game. That just adds more excitement and respect to names that develop a reputation for having stronger play under the bright lights. True “Mount Rushmore” level names, like Michael Jordan and LeBron James, had similar results since most icons perform at the highest level all season.

Each of the names in question will be viewed in depth to see what caused them to improve in the toughest situations. Various reasons will be explored to determine why these NBA players are the best playoff risers in league history.

5 Biggest Playoff Risers In NBA History

Jimmy Butler

The legacy of Jimmy Butler is significantly stronger than the average All-Star due to his postseason success. Butler never feels like an MVP or first-team All-NBA candidate, but he was the best player on the recent Miami Heat squads that made the NBA Finals. The regular season sees Butler performing at a high level, while clearly saving some energy in his tank for the playoffs.

Butler has never averaged 24+ points per game in any regular season throughout his long NBA career. This stat stands out due to averaging 24+ points per game in eight different playoff series. Miami’s miracle 2023 NBA Finals run as the 8th seed saw Butler averaging an astonishing 37.6 points per game in the first-round upset over the #1 seed Milwaukee Bucks.

Both Heat NBA Finals runs and the Philadelphia 76ers’ closest chance at making a conference finals featured Jimmy making the big plays. Miami not getting the same production out of Butler in the regular season hurt them this season, but Butler’s playoff reputation is there for a reason. Few players step up on both sides of the court for a must-win game more than Butler.

Playoff Highlights:

  • Led Two Miami Heat teams to NBA Finals
  • Averaged above career point average 15 of 22 playoff series
  • Won 6 playoff series with the underdog team

Robert Horry

Robert Horry’s journey is a bit different from anyone else on the list. Most of the players to experience the playoff rise were already All-Stars or near the All-Star caliber. Horry stands out as a rare role player who became extremely valuable in his role-player position come playoff time for a couple of high-level teams.

The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, and San Antonio Spurs all won NBA Championships with Horry making clutch plays. Horry witnessed players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal passing to him with the game on the line out of trust for the proverbial ice in his veins.

The Lakers scoring a massive buzzer-beater from Horry in Game 1 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was the difference between extending the series or having an early elimination. San Antonio won a major Game 5 over the Detroit Pistons in the 2005 NBA Finals thanks to Horry hitting multiple clutch shots. Horry became known in the same tier as Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, and others for clutch shot makers in playoff games.

Playoff Highlights:

  • Won seven NBA Championships with three different franchises
  • Has the 4th most playoff games won by any single NBA player
  • Developed a reputation as a role player who always hit clutch shots

Jamal Murray

The biggest name to create conversations about this topic in recent memory is Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets. Murray is developing a reputation for being in the conversation for the best player never to make an All-Star Game yet. One of the reasons for this is his superb postseason play making him a name that fans compare to the top point guards in the league.

Murray averages 29.0 points per game in elimination games, to only rank behind iconic names like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, and Jerry West. The Denver Nuggets won an NBA Championship with Murray as their second-best player. Denver will be in a position to compete for more rings with Murray as the perfect complimentary piece to Nikola Jokic.

One of the greatest signs of a playoff riser is seeing Murray’s point average improve from 17.5 points per game in the regular season to 24.2 points per game in playoff games. Murray has averaged more than his 17.5 career point average in every single postseason series of his career. Denver benefits from having Murray play like one of the best players in the league come playoff time.

Playoff Highlights:

  • Currently top 10 all-time for most points averaged in elimination games
  • Averaged more than his career point average in every playoff series
  • Was second-best player on 2023 NBA Champions Denver Nuggets

Rajon Rondo

The Boston Celtics had the right point guard in Rajon Rondo when keeping him to compliment the big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce. Rondo stepped up as the perfect point guard to run the offense and help the Celtics win the 2008 NBA Championship. The big three aging saw Rondo becoming a more important player in their later deep runs.

“Playoff Rondo” became a legend since fans and media pundits noted his improved play come playoff time. The 11.8 points per game average in Rondo’s regular season career was topped in ten different playoff scenarios. Rondo even averaged a shocking 20.9 points per game in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, falling just one game short of the NBA Finals.

Boston fans will always love Rondo for stepping up in the most important games and leaving it all on the court. Future franchises witnessed some ups and downs, as Rondo struggled to find his next NBA home. Rondo played 26 minutes per game in the 2020 NBA Finals to win another ring with the Los Angeles Lakers and have his final stand contributing to a winning franchise.

Playoff Highlights:

  • Won two NBA Championships 12 years apart with Celtics and Lakers
  • Averaged above career points average in ten different postseason series
  • Almost led Boston past LeBron’s Heat by averaging 20.9 points in 2013 ECF

Kawhi Leonard

No NBA player will have a more one-sided reputation in favor of the playoffs than the regular season than Kawhi Leonard. The fascinating story sees Leonard not having many noteworthy regular season accomplishments but having multiple playoff runs that made him one of the best players in the entire league.

Leonard came out of nowhere with strong outings in back-to-back NBA Finals for the San Antonio Spurs. The 2014 NBA Championship made Kawhi arguably the most surprising NBA Finals MVP in league history. Leonard continued to put up stellar numbers in the postseason and had a new career peak by winning the 2019 NBA Championship and NBA Finals MVP for the Toronto Raptors.

It surprises many fans that Leonard has only made three All-NBA first teams and six All-NBA teams in general as one of the faces of the league. Kawhi has averaged over 25 points per game in ten postseason series, despite only averaging that in three regular seasons. Leonard’s legacy will be hard to compare to players with greater regular season track records but weaker postseason reputations than him, like James Harden.

Playoff Highlights:

  • Won two NBA Championships and two NBA Finals for two different teams
  • Scored over his career points average in 15 different postseason series
  • Hit a rare Game 7 buzzer-beater for Raptors to get past 76ers
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