MILWAUKEE — Thon Maker is having his biggest games at the biggest time of the year.
Not bad for a bench guy and someone who, as recently as last week, was a roster afterthought.
Maker had never blocked five shots in any NBA game before this postseason began — and now he's blocked that many in each of the last two playoff contests for the Milwaukee Bucks. There's an old coaching adage that tells players to stay ready, because they never know when their chance to make an impact has arrived.
Maker is proving that axiom to be correct.
"Just trying to be there for my teammates, playing aggressive," said Maker, the Bucks' backup center. "It's the playoffs. These are the moments everybody plays for. You've got to find a way to win, you've got to find a way to impact the game. I try to do that every single time."
Maker is almost an out-of-nowhere story for the Bucks, who've pulled even with the Boston Celtics four games into their Eastern Conference first-round series in large part because of a defensive resurgence by the bench. His offense has helped, too: Maker scored 14 points in a Game 3 victory, his highest total since a 16-point effort on New Year's Day.
There have been some big games from reserve players in these playoffs already: Miami has gotten games of 28 and 25 points from Dwyane Wade and a 26-point effort from Kelly Olynyk, Philadelphia has seen Marco Belinelli reach 21 points twice so far, and Boston saw Greg Monroe get a double-double against the Bucks in only 23 minutes.
Backups can find themselves in the spotlight quickly if they get hot.
"When we step on the floor, we need to be assertive with what we do," Bucks coach Joe Prunty said. "We can't be a step behind."
Even the greatest players need help.
LeBron James said everyone on the Cavaliers' roster — himself included — needed to play better after falling behind Indiana 2-1 in their series. So in Game 4, James was great with 32 points, and Jordan Clarkson had 12 of the bench's 32 points to help Cleveland tie the series .
"I'm supposed to come and give a spark off the bench," said Clarkson, who scored just two points in Game 3. "That's what I'm supposed to do, change the game in that way."
Toronto had one of the top bench units in the NBA during the regular season, ranking fifth in the league with a combined 41.8 scoring average. But in the East's No. 1 seed's first-round series, the Raptors' reserve scoring down to 34.5 points.
They're tied at 2 in the series with the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards, whose bench scoring is up in the series by about the same margin to 34.3 points. The Wizards were just 16th in bench scoring this season.
A big reason for Toronto's problems has been the absence of backup point guard Fred VanVleet, who has an injured right shoulder and played just three minutes so far, sitting out three of the four games entirely. Raptors coach Dwane Casey blamed his team's high turnover totals — 37 over Games 3 and 4, both losses — in large part on his reserves, who he also thought were not as productive with the ball as they could have been.
"The second unit turned down some shots that they normally take," Casey said. "I thought that group started the turnovers. The levee broke on those guys. I've got to do a better job of putting them in the right situation where they don't turn it over."
The Wizards tinkered with their rotations to try to keep the Raptors' reserves in check.
"Our bench has done a good job and we've kind of tried to change things up and throw maybe a starter or two with our bench," Washington coach Scott Brooks said.
As for the Celtics, they're back in Boston to get ready to host the Bucks on Tuesday night for Game 5. Their frontcourt reserves of Monroe and Marcus Morris were dominant in the series' second game last week, when it looked as if Boston might pull off a sweep.
Milwaukee's reserves have pushed back with active, physical play — matching Boston's intensity.
"As soon as (we) see that," Maker said, "we start to get aggressive as well on the defensive end."