In basketball, we have a special place reserved in our hearts for the unsung heroes and unlikely stars. We cling to and show consistent praise for the heralded superstars but during the NCAA Tournament and NBA Playoffs there usually emerges players who turn in star performances and earn their recognition from that point forward.
Terry Rozier and Donovan Mitchell, both Louisville products, are currently having that kind of impact on the NBA Playoffs.
The NBA covets their stars. The likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden are deservingly highlighted in these playoffs. But significant marks have been left on this postseason by players like Rozier and Mitchell. They’ve treated the NBA Playoffs like the NCAA Tournament in that it’s become their stage to put the mainstream basketball world on official notice.
Rozier, who’s making $1.9 million this season, became the starting and lead guard for the Celtics when Kyrie Irving was ruled out for the rest of the season in April after having knee surgery. The response from Rozier in this postseason has been 19 points, five rebounds and seven assists per game while shooting 43 percent from three-point range.
It's even harder not to root for Terry Rozier after learning his story. pic.twitter.com/xGXymnX9YH
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) May 1, 2018
You could see Rozier’s greatness blossoming throughout this season. His comfortability and awareness have developed significantly in his third year. He’s elusive off the dribble with the ability to create something out of nothing, a most common trait in players we consider to be offensively elite. He’s found the right pocket of pace and tempo for his cagey quickness and craftiness, and most importantly, has been able to perform at his best within Brad Stevens’ system.
Averages in their first 2 career playoff games:
27.5 PTS, 8.0 REB, 2.5 AST, 44.7 FG%, 21.4 3PT%
26.5 PTS, 4.0 REB, 11.0 AST, 44.4 FG%, 20.0 3PT% pic.twitter.com/0H0QLZjtM3
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) April 19, 2018
Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell came out gunning in his first playoff appearance. He established himself mightily in his first two games, matched up against the Oklahoma City Thunder and veteran NBA stars. Mitchell is averaging 26 points, six rebounds and four assists in the postseason. He’s the fourth rookie in history to score 200+ points in eight or fewer playoff games, via ESPN Stats & Info.
Mitchell became more dangerous as the season progressed. His play over the last couple of months of the regular season forced more passionate dialogue and debate about his argument for Rookie of the Year against Ben Simmons. In his first seven games he averaged nine points in 22 minutes per game in three starts, and by December he was a regular starter averaging over 20 points in over 30 minutes per game. The rhythm at which Mitchell has “figured it out” is frankly terrifying.
Shoutout to Donovan Mitchell for giving us the nastiest putback we'll see this postseason. Yuck. #NBAPlayoffs
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) May 3, 2018
What makes Rozier and Mitchell’s playoff performances so special, and comparable to NCAA Tournament energy, is the underdog dynamic.
Boston is without their two best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They’ve had Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown banged up. On paper, they’re not expected to be fully formidable at this point. Along with Al Horford and Jayson Tatum, Rozier has performed at such a level that led the Celtics in a first-round seven-game series against Milwaukee and now with a 2-0 series lead against Philadelphia in the conference semifinals.
Donovan Mitchell is doing his damage with a small market franchise and led the charge in upsetting the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. His presence and leadership gave Utah a chance to even up their conference semifinal series 1-1 against the top-seeded Houston Rockets.
One is a rookie and the other is a backup and they’ve been two of the best stories of the playoffs.
Mitchell’s freshman year at Louisville came right after Rozier’s final year, so they never played together in college. Both were two-year players. Rozier is more than aware of the rookie, he’s an admitted fan, per Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:
“He’s amazing. I love watching him. He’s one of my favorite players to watch in the NBA. The stuff he does is just like the stuff you work on actually working out in the gym. He applies it in the game and it”s just good to see his growth.”
We’ll see how much madness these two have in store for the playoffs. More is sure to come for the rest of their careers.