Spencer Dinwiddie and Gabe Vincent could play huge roles in NBA conference finals

MIAMI — Twenty-five thoughts on the NBA’s conference finals, which are both packed with stars like Stephen Curry, Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler and likely will hinge on players you probably haven’t heard about that much.

1. Someone who used to watch the Brooklyn Nets practice told me about Kyrie Irving, and he mentioned Spencer Dinwiddie as a comparison. Unfavorably.

2. “One of the things that surprised me was how tough he was,” the source said about Irving. “He was like a running back, the way he’d hit the holes. At practice. I can’t say Dinwiddie was like that.”

3. The crypto king of the Western Conference finals is Curry, because he is one of the most marketable, famous and decorated players in the NBA, and he has that new commercial. But Dinwiddie, now of the Dallas Mavericks, was in on blockchain currency before Curry even knew what it was. Remember when Dinwiddie tried to convert his Nets salary into digital investments?

4. If the Mavericks win the NBA Finals, Dinwiddie gets a $1 bonus. He negotiated it into his contract with the Washington Wizards, and the Wizards traded him to Dallas.

5. Dinwiddie likes to immerse himself in whichever neighborhood he lives in. During the four seasons he played for Brooklyn, he used to take his family to Juliana’s Pizza, a famous shop on Old Fulton Street next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Once, after a big night, he left his credit card at Juliana’s, and the manager on duty dropped it off at Dinwiddie’s condo. The manager was promised some signed Dinwiddie sneakers in return from his agent (this was how the manager found out where Dinwiddie lived), but the sneakers never came.

6. But Dončić’s wingman does have some quirks. After the Mavericks’ stunning blowout of Phoenix in Game 7, in which Dinwiddie posted a playoff career high of 30 points, it became clear to me that Dinwiddie may be the most important player in determining who reaches the NBA Finals out of the West.

7. Don’t be mistaken, Dončić is the best player in this series. He is the best player remaining in the playoffs on either side of the bracket. He’s not only averaging more points per game (31.5) than any player left but also more rebounds (10.1). The Mavericks are constructed unconditionally with one star surrounded by role players. Dončić creates lots of space and can shoot from anywhere on the court, and when the passes come, his teammates need to be ready to shoot.

8. It’s a strategy that only works if the other players can handle their roles.

9. Dinwiddie showed such promise during the 2019-20 season with the Nets, starting for most of it with injuries to Irving and Caris LeVert. He averaged a career-best 20.6 points but was mostly a slasher and scorer off the dribble. He played just three games last season due to a brutal leg injury. And after signing with the Wizards, he struggled by averaging just 12.6 points per game and shooting 37.6 percent from the field.

10. Dinwiddie has been rejuvenated since the Mavericks traded Kristaps Porziņģis and Dāvis Bertāns for him. In 23 games, he averaged 15.8 points, and while the sample size is small, we should note he hit career bests in overall shooting percentage (49.8) and 3-point percentage (40.4). And, he’s still shooting at a 40 percent clip on 3-point shots in the playoffs.

11. Defensively, the Warriors will mix it up by trying to get the ball out of Dončić’s hands with Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. Dinwiddie is not the only capable reserve scorer on the Mavericks, but his 30 points in Game 7 against the Suns was the biggest game of his career.

12. In the other series, well, Butler will introduce you to Gabe Vincent and Max Strus.

13. “They’re not scared of anybody, any task, at any point in the game,” Butler said.

Gabe Vincent and Max Strus are key players for the Heat in a matchup with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. (Issac Baldizon / NBAE via Getty Images)

14. Vincent is 25. If the Heat make it to Game 6 of the NBA Finals, he will be 26 before their season ends. And he will be a key reason the Heat make it.

15. Kyle Lowry has a bum hamstring. It cost him two games in the first round and four of the six games against the Sixers, and he’s likely to be out for at least Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Vincent is undrafted and a former G League player, but he took four DNPs-coach’s decision this season. But in the playoffs, he’s averaging 24 minutes, 7.5 points and 3.5 assists. He’s dug in defensively, locking in against Trae Young, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.

16. Vincent now will face Marcus Smart, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, though it’s likely the Celtics will use Smart all over the court. Still, can Vincent, who’s never played in a game like what’s coming Tuesday night, stand up to the enormous pressure and physicality the Celtics will present?

17. Did you know it was Vincent (playing under his Nigerian name, Nnamdi), who led Team Nigeria to its stunning upset of Team USA last summer in Las Vegas? He scored a game-high 21 points, against Kevin Durant, Tatum and Bam Adebayo.

18. “He can say, our one time playing against the USA team, he was the best player on the floor,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who was at that game. “That’s pretty incredible.”

19. Strus is 26. Like Vincent, he went undrafted out of college (he started at Division II Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., before transferring to DePaul). Like Vincent, he bounced in and out of Spoelstra’s rotation this season. Unlike Vincent, he starts no matter who is healthy. Spoelstra has inserted Strus into Duncan Robinson’s spot, and Strus hasn’t looked back.

20. Strus has two career double-doubles in the NBA. They came in Game 5 and Game 6 against the Sixers.

21. “It’s one of the biggest moments in not only my career, but my life,” Strus said. “These are the moments you want to be in, being a basketball player and doing what we do for a living.”

22. Strus is averaging 12.5 points and shooting 35 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. He also will be under pressure because he is a wing, and that’s where Boston’s two best guys play. Butler and P.J. Tucker are there to handle most of the duties against Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but Strus won’t be able to exactly hide in this series. Nor does he want to.

23. “I take defense personally because people don’t think I can guard anybody, and I think I’ve been showing that that’s not true,” Strus said.

24. Boston’s Grant Williams is Steph Curry compared to Vincent and Strus. Williams was a 2019 first-round pick from Tennessee, though he’s never been more than a spot starter until these playoffs, especially with Robert Williams out with a knee injury. And as you probably heard, Grant Williams broke Curry’s record in Sunday’s game against Milwaukee with 18 3-point attempts in a Game 7. He tied Curry’s record for 3s made in a Game 7 with seven (Marcus Morris Sr. also made seven 3s in a Game 7), and yes, his 27 points were a career best. And they came in the most important game of his career … so far.

25. Who is the Warriors’ nameless, faceless savior? Could there possibly be one on a team that has so much NBA Finals pedigree, so much returning star power and so much national exposure? Jordan Poole? Nah, he was a candidate for NBA Most Improved Player this season. Juan Toscano-Anderson? Kevon Looney? No. How about Klay Thompson? He’s a superstar and household name, but with the Mavericks likely being physical with Curry, the Warriors need Thompson to attract Dallas’ attention with a hot start.

(Top photo of Spencer Dinwiddie: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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