The Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets hold 3-0 leads in their respective NBA Conference Finals matchups, thanks to huge contributions from key role players.
Superstars get the headlines in the NBA, especially in the conference finals. But with the Heat and Nuggets holding commanding 3-0 leads and the Lakers and Celtics just a game away from elimination, it’s been the role players who have marked the biggest difference in each matchup.
From an army of undrafted role players in Miami to key offseason additions in Denver, here are the role players who have helped tip the scales in these conference finals.
Gabe Vincent has played hero in the NBA playoffs
When Tyler Herro broke his right hand in the first game of the playoffs, the Miami Heat were forced to find some off-the-dribble verve from somewhere else in the offense. Enter Gabe Vincent, who has emerged as Miami’s third-leading scorer in these playoffs and is shooting a 60.7 percent in these conference finals.
In Sunday’s Game 2, Vincent poured in 29 points on 14 shots, including pull-up jumpers off screens, stepback 3s and driving layups.
Vincent first arrived in Miami as a score-first guard but had been nudged into being more of a 3-and-D style point guard tasked with hitting open jumpers and picking up 48 feet. His elevation into the starting lineup this year and Herro’s injury, however, have prompted the Heat to ask Vincent to return to some of his scoring ways. So far in these playoffs, he’s been exactly what they’ve needed.
“Since Tyler and (Victor Oladipo) are out, we do need Gabe’s assertiveness,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We need his aggressiveness, we need him putting his eyes on the rim and then making the right play.”
Miami Heat: Caleb Martin
Three minutes into Sunday’s Game 3, Kevin Love waived to the sidelines asking to come out of the game with leg cramps. Caleb Martin checked in, then played every minute until midway through the third quarter, when the Heat had already established a 30-point lead.
Whatever the Heat have needed from Martin this postseason, he’s given it to them. Score 25 points off the bench, as he did in Game 2? Check.
Guard Jayson Tatum down the stretches of games? Check. Martin in this series has defended Tatum more than anyone besides Jimmy Butler, and has held Tatum to 8-for-17 shooting on those possessions. More important than the production, is that he’s allowed Butler to pick up other assignments like defending Jaylen Brown or focus on creating turnovers.
Martin on Sunday put it all together, tallying 18 points, four assists, three rounds and a steal in 35 minutes while holding Tatum to 1-of-4 shooting and a turnover.
“We want those guys every single time down the floor to be aggressive,” Spoelstra said of both Martin and Vincent. “It can’t just be Jimmy and Bam. Now, they’re doing the big muscle work, but you need a lot of guys contributing.”
Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson
Having fallen out of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation for long stretches, Duncan Robinson’s restoration has been a pleasant surprise for the Heat. Robinson had seemingly lost his 3-point shooting touch, making just 32.8 percent of his 3s this season — a far cry from the 43 percent he shot from 2019-2021.
But Tyler Herro’s broken hand has thrust Robinson back into the mix, and he’s responded by shooting a team-best 44.7 percent on 5.4 3-point attempts per game in the playoffs.
This isn’t just the version of Robinson the Heat had hoped for when they signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract extension… he’s even better. Robinson has added to his shot diet and diced Boston’s defense with 3-pointers, backdoor cuts, drives, and kick-outs.
In Miami’s comeback win in Game 2 in Boston, he made a pair of key 3s in the fourth quarter. In the second quarter on Sunday’s Game 3, Robinson scored on a swooping layup, found Bam Adebayo for a lob and got Caleb Martin an open 3 on a drive and kick.
While Robinson’s minutes are still fluid based on matchups and availability, he stepped up and played 23 important minutes after Love left Game 3 with a leg injury. Robinson’s shot-making and increased productivity on both ends (he’s also averaging just 1.9 personal fouls per 36 minutes, versus 4 per 36 in the regular season) have been among the main reasons why Miami’s bench has turned into such a positive this postseason.
Denver Nuggets: Bruce Brown
The Nuggets were up by two points with just over seven minutes left in Saturday’s Game 3 when Brown delivered a critical blow to the Lakers’ chances.
Porter had the ball with a chance to score but kicked it to the corner to Brown, positioned in front of the Lakers’ bench and eager to shoot. Brown buried the jumper, turned and mimicked the Lakers’ favorite shooting celebration of the playoffs, tapping his arm as if ice were coursing through his veins.
“I did their celebration,” Brown told reporters after the game. “It felt good because they’ve been talking to me all series.”
Whether it was calling out D’Angelo Russell’s defense, making timely jumpers (40 percent from 3 in this series) or stabilizing Denver’s bench group that has had the advantage in this series, Brown has embodied the confidence these Nuggets are playing with.
When Jokic went to the bench with four fouls only minutes into the third quarter, Brown was part of the group that withstood the Lakers’ run. He had four points, a rebound and an assist in just over three minutes as the Nuggets nursed their lead with their superstar in foul trouble.
Denver Nuggets: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s last Western Conference finals appearance was in 2020, when he was the Lakers’ best perimeter defender and tasked with guarding Jamal Murray. The Lakers went on to beat the Nuggets, then won the title.
Now Caldwell-Pope plays alongside Murray in the Nuggets’ backcourt, and his contributions are a big reason why the Nuggets have an opportunity to close out the series Monday night.
In Saturday’s Game 3 win, Caldwell-Pope scored 12 points in a crucial third quarter while Denver fended off a Lakers run with Nikola Jokic in foul trouble and Murray having cooled off after a 30-point first half.
Caldwell-Pope finished with 17 points in the game, with Michael Porter Jr. adding 14 points and Bruce Brown chipping in 15. It’s been that way all series. Caldwell-Pope (51.4 percent shooting), Porter (45.5 percent) and Brown (51.5 percent) have made the most of the open shots they are getting playing off Jokic and Murray. The Nuggets are scoring 120.9 points per 100 possessions against the Lakers — which had been the postseason’s best defense before this round.
“We’re No. 1 in the West for a reason,” Caldwell-Pope told reporters Saturday. “I believed it from the jump that we could win a championship. That was everybody’s mindset. We knew how we could jell together and play together.”
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