Originally coined by ESPN senior writer J.A. Adande in 2012 after a superlative postseason performance by Steve Blake, the "podium game" belongs to the no-names, the unsung players who step up and earn themselves a trip to the postgame podium in the playoffs.
The Wizards are familiar with the podium game. Last season, Jose Calderon of the Hawks earned himself a podium invite after coming off the bench for 10 points and five assists in 20 minutes in a first-round win against Washington. Kelly Olynyk of the Celtics was an unlikely Game 7 playoff hero in the second round, eliminating the Wizards with 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
Ian Mahinmi is a reserve center for the Wizards. Two seasons ago, as a member of the Indiana Pacers, he had his own podium moment. In a Game 4 win over the Raptors in the first round, Mahinmi helped even the series at two apiece by scoring a career-high 22 points. He also added 10 rebounds and five assists.
A box score is handed out to players and coaches after each game, and Mahinmi remembers checking it afterwards that evening. "It was crazy," Mahinmi told theScore. "I was leading the team in all the categories. Points, rebounds, assists." At his locker, Mahinmi got the message from Pacers Public Relations director David Brenner: He was headed to the podium.
Mahinmi's performance was the epitome of the podium game. Heading into the game, he had appeared in 52 career playoff games, and scored in double figures just once. His previous playoff career high was seven points.
As he walked to the podium, Mahinmi conjured up images of previous podium interviews he had seen on television of other players: a rectangular table with a microphone, with an NBA logo curtain as the backdrop. And one important detail. "You usually see a bunch of Gatorade bottles on the table," Mahinmi said.
When Mahinmi arrived at the podium, he took his seat, faced the reporters in the audience, but found a bottle of water in front of him instead. He made an off-the-cuff remark about how he wasn't good enough to get a Gatorade bottle at the podium.
The power of the podium game and its increased television exposure worked its magic powers. Someone at Gatorade heard about Mahinmi's comment and reached out to the Pacers center.
"They sent me so much Gatorade," Mahinmi said, laughing. "I drank Gatorade all summer."
Another important detail for players at the podium is how they dress. Mahinmi showed up to his podium game in a suit and a white dress shirt from his own brand, French Deal. Mahinmi said it wasn't a special outfit reserved for a podium game, but just the result of following two-time NBA All-Star Michael Finley's advice when he first came into the league.
"When I was with the Spurs, Finley told me, 'You look good, you play good,'" Mahinmi said. "That stuck with me. I dress for success. You always have to dress well, especially during the playoffs. You don't do that just for the podium."
Mahinmi had the podium all to himself that evening, unlike Norman Powell last season after he scored a playoff career-high 25 points in a Game 5 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Powell was asked whether he wanted to go to the podium by himself. "I said I wanted to go up with Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan)," Powell told theScore.
The three-man podium is nothing new. Throughout the first round, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony have conducted their postgame podium interviews together. Four Jazz players shared the podium together after a recent victory over the Thunder.
The superstars take the podium after every playoff game, whether it's a thrilling victory or a heartbreaking defeat. As the old mantra goes: The players being paid the big bucks have to answer all the hard questions. When Powell found himself sandwiched between Lowry and DeRozan on the podium, most of the questions were directed at the Raptors' starting backcourt. But like any good role player, Powell was there to support them.
In the middle of the postgame podium, Lowry point outed to the media that Powell was also available and was in fact, the star of the game. "They weren't going to let me leave until I answered a few questions," Powell said. Reporters eventually asked Powell some questions.
On Monday, after Sunday's Game 4 loss to the Wizards, DeRozan - who finished with 35 points, six assists, and six rebounds - took sole responsibility for the team's late-game execution on offense. And the emphasis for the Raptors heading into Game 5 will be about finding a balance on offense, and letting their depth be their strength. It also means the potential for one of the many role players on the team to have a podium game.
Thanks to their depth, the Raptors have arguably the most intriguing set of potential podium-game stars, from rookie OG Anunoby, who uses the least amount of words possible to answer most of the media's queries, to Lucas Nogueira, one of the best personalities in the league.
Jakob Poeltl is another podium-game candidate.
"I imagine it's going to be similar to going to the podium in college," Poeltl said. "You just might have to look a little fancier."
Powell, VanVleet's closest friend on the team, said he would wear a hat from his own brand, Understand The Grind, paired with one of VanVleet's signature shirts. "It'll be a collaboration," he said.
Before VanVleet's shoulder injury which has kept him out for all but three minutes of this entire series, and could potentially sideline him for the entire playoffs, he seemed like the prime candidate for a podium game, even his penchant for fourth-quarter heroics this season.
It's why Poeltl didn't even give much thought to helping his teammate promoting his clothing line. "I think Fred will be there soon anyways," Poeltl said after the Game 1 win against the Wizards. "He can promote himself."
Unfortunately, VanVleet will have to wait a little longer, but if an unexpected face joins DeRozan and Lowry on the podium after Wednesday's Game 5 against the Wizards, it will probably be a good sign for the Raptors.
Even though it's a place for standard postgame interviews with head coaches and star players, there's still something wonderful about seeing role players like Mahinmi and Powell get their special moment in the postseason. It can also be bittersweet.
"I had a playoff career high that day, but a week later I was still out of the playoffs and at home watching the other teams play," Mahinmi said. "But I'll remember that day. Once I retire, I can always go back to it."
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)