LeBron James is clearly the star in the NBA Playoffs but Kentucky basketball alums have managed to step into the spotlight in the postseason.
There’s no denying the NBA Finals are all about LeBron’s quest for a fourth NBA championship as he competes in the 10th finals of his Hall of Fame career. He’s motivated after missing the postseason last year, after being snubbed for the MVP and for the critics who question his every move and decision on and off the court.
Kentucky basketball alums make their mark on the NBA Playoffs
But beyond the main plot point are three Kentucky basketball players who have been critical to their team’s success this postseason. In fact, you can make a case that Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been one of the biggest winners of the postseason because of the play from Anthony Davis who has been a perfect sidekick to LeBron, Jamal Murray who elevated himself to superstar status with the Denver Nuggets run to the Western Conference Finals and the Miami Heat duo of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
Being LeBron’s hand-picked lieutenant comes with a certain amount of pressure, but Davis has handled it with aplomb in his first season with the Lakers. Kentucky basketball fans knew he’d be destined for superstardom after he led the Wildcats to the national championship and won every award in the process in the 2011-2012 season.
After showing flashes of that with the New Orleans Pelicans after they took him with the No. 1 pick, he got his fresh start and has looked rejuvenated with the Lakers. Getting to play alongside LeBron will do that. After battling through myriad injuries and a lack of talent to support him with the Pelicans, Davis is on the precipice of winning an NBA championship just as he did with the Cats in his one year in Lexington. His game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2 vs. the Nuggets was the biggest shot of his career and he even mouthed “Kobe” after drilling the bucket.
Murray looked like the best player in the NBA Playoffs for stretches before his Nuggets were eliminated in 5 games by LeBron and AD’s Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. He nearly single-handedly led the Nuggets back from 3-1 deficits in the first round vs. the Utah Jazz and in the quarterfinals vs. the Los Angeles Clippers. His team ran out of gas and were out-manned vs. the Lakers but perhaps no other player elevated his status more than Murray who averaged 20 points per game in his one year in Kentucky during the 2015-2016 season.
His three-game stretch vs. the Jazz when he had 50, 42 and 50 points while averaging 8 rebounds and 7 assists put the rest of the association on notice. He backed it up vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the quarterfinals when he proved it was no fluke.
He had 40 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists to win the decisive Game 7 and set up the showdown with the Lakers. I can’t wait to see how he builds on his playoff breakout next season.
Davis will matchup against Adebayo who averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds in his one season with Kentucky in 2016-2017. He was an underrated prospect coming out but has been a revelation with the Heat.
His block on Jayson Tatum to preserve a win for the Heat is one of the defining moments of the NBA Playoffs so far.
And if that wasn’t enough of an endorsement, consider Magic Johnson said it was the best defensive play he’s ever seen in the playoffs.
Jimmy Butler is the engine that drives the Heat but he called Adebayo the team’s savior. After averaging 16.9 points, 10,2 rebounds and 5.1 assists in the regular season, he’s taken his game to the next level in the postseason. He’s coming off a postseason career-high 32 points and added 14 rebounds and 5 assists in the series-clinching win vs. the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. His ability to slow Davis and control the glass while also figuring out a way to crack the Lakers’ stifling defense will be imperative to their title hopes.
The aforementioned trio of players have played well to varying degrees of excellence, but it’s not earth-shattering to see what they’ve done thus far in the postseason. However, what Herro has done in the bubble has been an experience. Herro was an All-SEC freshman last year at Kentucky and Second-Team All-SEC after averaging 14 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Cats but he’s topped all those stats in his first NBA season and first NBA postseason.
Herro is averaging 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists to provide a spark and offer support for Butler and Adebayo. No one, perhaps not even Herro himself, could have envisioned a scenario where he is the third-best player on a team in the NBA Finals — as a rookie.
He’s been a fan-favorite for NBA Twitter after a 37-point outburst off the bench in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Only Magic Johnson has scored more points in a conference final among players 20-years-old or younger and he became the first player born in the 2000s to play in the conference finals — if you wanted to feel old.
Age is just a number like the old saying goes and he’s putting up numbers much bigger than his age suggests. But while the stage has changed, Herro is still a walking bucket.
Regardless of who wins the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Heat, Kentucky basketball is guaranteed to have a champion crowned. Coach Cal will use that to his advantage when he’s on the recruiting trail to build the next champion at Kentucky.
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