Trojans perform under NBA Playoff limelight

Former Trojan Onyeka Okongwu is coming off the bench for the Atlanta Hawks, who fell in five games to the Miami Heat. Okongwu averaged 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game throughout the series in 21.6 minutes per game. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan file photo)

The NBA playoffs are well underway and have already given fans intense matchups in both conferences. With the objective of winning a championship in mind, former Trojans have either pitched in superstar performances or efficient contributions to win pivotal games and give their team a chance at advancing to the second round. 

Guard DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls entered the opening round of the NBA playoffs as an underdog to the reigning champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bulls’ leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, has posted inconsistent numbers as of late, and the Bucks have taken a 3-1 lead. 

In the first four games of the series, DeRozan has averaged 23.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals on 40% shooting from the field. In the Game 2 victory that temporarily tied the series, DeRozan dropped 41 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks on 51.6% shooting from the field, making 16 of his 31 shots. 

The Bulls are still fighting for passage to the second round of the postseason, and key performances from DeRozan are critical to overcome the 3-1 deficit. DeRozan averaged 31.3 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 47.4% shooting against the Bucks during the regular season, proving that he is capable of performing against the reigning champions.  

Guard Jordan McLaughlin, Minnesota Timberwolves

The No. 7 seed Minnesota Timberwolves have surprised pundits and fans with their performances against the No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies, who are spearheaded by star point guard and 2022 NBA Most Improved Player, Ja Morant. The Timberwolves are still behind 2-3 heading into Game 6, but the series has been competitive despite Minnesota winning 10 fewer games during the regular season. 

Third-year point guard Jordan McLaughlin received an increase in minutes during Game 4 and didn’t disappoint. In only 14 minutes of play, McLaughlin provided 16 points, 2 assists and 2 steals while converting all his 4 attempts from beyond the arc. McLaughlin’s gritty performance off the bench propelled the Timberwolves to a narrow 119-118 home victory over Memphis. 

Ex-USC guard Jordan McLaughlin shot 83% from the field in Minnesota’s win over Memphis in game 4 Saturday. (Deanie Chen | Daily Trojan file photo)

McLaughlin received limited playing time during the regular season, averaging only 14.5 minutes off the bench. McLaughlin’s efficient showing in Game 4 provides Minnesota another layer of depth during this year’s playoffs as the former Trojan looks to prove his worth for an increase in playing time in the future. 

Center Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks qualified as the East Conference’s No. 8 seed after defeating the Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in tournament. Despite stealing one game, the Hawks fell against the conference leaders in Miami Heat in five games. 

Second-year center Onyeka Okongwu served as a backup big man to Clint Capela during the regular season, averaging 20 minutes per game. Okongwu averaged 21.6 minutes per game and contributed as a role player. In the crucial Game 3 that landed Atlanta their first and sole win of the series, Okongwu notched 9 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal and 2 critical blocks in 24 minutes of play. 

Although the Hawks have placed faith in veteran Capela, Okongwu has proved to be a reliable role player off the bench. 

Center Dewayne Dedmon, Miami Heat

On the other side of the first-round matchup, the Eastern Conference regular-season winners Miami Heat have clinched a 4-1 win over the Hawks. The Heat have operated with a relatively small-ball roster, with their frontcourt made up of a 6-foot-5 PJ Tucker at power forward and 6-foot-9 Bam Adebayo at center. 

Nine-year veteran Dewayne Dedmon provides versatility off the bench, with his 7-foot frame and 40.4% shooting from beyond the arc during the regular season. The former Trojan contributes depth to Head Coach Eric Spoelstra’s Miami team. 

In five games of play against the Hawks, Dedmon averaged 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds on 56.3% shooting from the field in only 9.4 minutes per game. In Miami’s home victory in Game 2, Dedmon’s 9 rebounds led the Heat, and he added to his 6 points in only 13 minutes of play. 

With the Heat looking to reach the NBA Finals again after losing out in 2020, bench efficiency from the likes of Dedmon will be vital to their chances.