You probably already forgot about Meyers Leonard’s career night

Meyers Leonard, the unlikely hero of Portland.

Sports fans are fatalistic and transactional: we live, we argue on social media, and at some point, we forget. In time, the great eraser scrubs out individual moments for one overarching narrative, with the winners writing that story. I searched for Paul Richardson’s fantastic, pirouetting Super Bowl catch for the Seahawks to underscore my point, only to find that it was Jermaine Kearse, not Richardson, who pulled off one of the greatest snags in a game known now only for an interception, a decision not to run the ball, and another Patriots title.

Victory writes its story in pen, on its own terms. Fans of the losing team try to remember the small glimpses of glory in a memory mostly filled with pain.

Meyers Leonard fell into that very same trap in Portland’s game four loss to Golden State. Leonard couldn’t get past Zach Collins and the resurgent Enes Kanter on the depth chart. He barely featured in the previous series against Denver and averaged less than ten minutes in the first round win over the Thunder. However, with the season on the line, Portland turned to Leonard.

Leonard turned into the marauding stretch five that the Blazers dreamt up when they gave him $41MM in 2016. He ended the game with a career-high 30 points, adding 12 rebounds on a 75% field goal rate and 62.5% beyond the arc. 

Yet, the Blazers couldn’t hold on to another large second-half lead. Portland collapsed in the fourth and then fell in overtime to complete the Warriors’ sweep. In time, we’ll forget this game and performance. The series will likely serve more as the first indicator of a post-KD Warriors rebirth than the surprising resilience of an injury-plagued Blazers squad. 

Leonard’s game deserves a moment and monument to its unlikeliness and improbability. We should coronate this as a celebration of the soon-to-be forgotten amidst another Warriors run to the finals. All data is courtesy of Basketball Reference.

Just how Unlikely was this?

Let the trending players on Basketball Reference show you the incongruity of the company Leonard keeps.

Leonard posted his career-best performance in arguably the biggest game of his life, but hearing career-high does little justice to the sheer impossibility of this result. He’s been in the NBA since 2012, spending the vast majority as a rotation big with reluctant three-point range. In the playoffs, Leonard often failed to see the court for the Blazers and posted only 5.4 points when he did.

I charted all of his career playoff games, looking at his minutes played against his total scoring output. Any coaching DNP became a zero for both, and I removed any games where he had been declared inactive pre-game. You quickly see the insane outlier.

It’s the red one.

Leonard’s output was nearly six times higher than his playoff average, and a full seven standard deviations above his mean. For fun, I wanted to see what that scoring output would be for other key players in the playoffs if they too had such a statistically improbable leap in production against their playoff scoring average. This takes into account no probability considerations or scientific analysis, but purely hilarious math.

I doubt anyone would forget if LeBron dropped 160 in a playoff game.

Has anyone else pulled this off?

To find this out, I pulled every playoff performance since 2010 with more than 20 points scored and 10 minutes played. Anyone with only one appearance in the dataset fits our Meyers Leonard qualifier.

The Meyers Multiple looks at this one night of glory against that player’s career playoff scoring average.

This hodgepodge collection of backup bigs will make any NBA fan smile, but, like Leonard, all of their eruptions have fallen out of favor and memory.

Ian Mahnimi (and George Hill) led the 2016 Pacers in scoring with 22 in a game four win over the Toronto Raptors. No one remembers because the Raptors won in seven. Timofey Mozgov dropped 28 on the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. His contributions came in a game four loss and ultimately a 4-2 series loss.

Gerald Wallace turned back the clock in 2011 and scored 32 for the Blazers, leading the team. His Blazers still lost to the Mavericks in this series-clinching game. Only Brandon Bass can claim true victory during his career night, topping all scorers with 27 points in game five win for the Boston Celtics against the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston would go on to win in seven.

Don’t let the brutal march of history wash over these special moment for the unheralded. When you can’t call on any memories of victories, let the little unexpected gems drown out the oceans of sorrow. Meyers Leonard will forever be the unlikely and unexpected hero.

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