The X-factor guys are the ones who make it fun.
Everybody knows what the Pierces, Garnetts, Allens, and Bryants can, and probably will, do. That's why they get the eight-figure paychecks. But winning teams always, always, always need more than that. Yeah, you knew David Tyree would make The Catch in Super Bowl XLII, right?
Leon Powe is an X-factor for the Boston Celtics. That's when he's even given a chance to be the "X." In the 10 games leading up to the NBA Finals, the 6-foot-8-inch kid from Cal played a total of 36 minutes, including three DNPs.
But last night he was needed, and boy, did he deliver.
Powe was the one-man energy source off Doc Rivers's bench, powering his way to 21 points in a mere 14:39 of playing time as the Celtics took a 2-0 lead with that roller coasterish 108-102 triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Long before the Lakers staged a sensational finish that almost stole the game from the home side, Powe had punished them inside with his relentless play.
Powe left the game after picking up his fourth foul with 5:56 to go, the Celtics leading, 96-80. And it was a bogus exit, too, since replays showed that referee Ken Mauer had completely blown the call. Powe had reached in to strip the ball from Derek Fisher, making no contact whatsoever.
This was his coming-out party for the national audience, but Celtics fans have known for two years now what an exciting, if still somewhat raw, talent he is. Powe can get a lot done, and it really doesn't matter who the foe is. He plays with a healthy disrespect, no matter who's on the other team.
Powe was the focal point of a Boston bench effort that turned a 22-20 deficit coming out of the first period into a 10-point (36-26) lead in the first four minutes and change of the second quarter. He actually made his presence known by getting himself to the line late in the first period (missing both), but once the second quarter began, the game seemed to revolve around Powe.
He got himself to the line three times in the first two minutes of Period 2, the third time the result of being fouled on one of his beautiful spin moves. He made five of those six freebies. And it was his traffic layup 3-point play that created the aforementioned 36-26 lead.
"Leon was terrific," said Rivers. "I thought he was terrific in Game 1, too. We made a concerted effort to get him the ball. We needed to start out the game that way. In the first six minutes, we established no post game. We actually had to go to Leon to establish a post game. So I was happy that Leon could do it."
Powe was on the floor for the game's most crucial sequence, a dazzling 11-0 blitz (consuming just 2:18) emanating from a timeout after the Lakers chopped a 16-point lead (65-49) to 9 at 68-59, his contribution an alley-oop layup from Rajon Rondo that made it 79-59.
He followed that with two soaring dunks, the first on a fast break (81-59) and the second with 0.8 seconds remaining on a Rondo penetration feed. This one was in serious traffic.
That was all prelude to the "Leon Powe Show" in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter. Powe brought the crowd to its feet on the first Boston possession when he beat the shot clock with an artful, running righthand hook off the glass.
Then came two more hard-earned free throws, and then came the showstopper.
Taking a pass from Rondo in the backcourt, he headed straight for the basket against a Laker team that was supposed to be trapping. With just three dribbles he took it to the hoop, flew past Sasha Vujacic and Pau Gasol, and threw it down for points 19 and 20.
Phil Jackson was not pleased.
"Vladi [Vladimir Radmanovic] had a trap in the backcourt and opened it up and Gasol was afraid to leave Kevin Garnett for an easy basket," said Jackson. "But it was a poor play, an awful play."
The Zen master wasn't too pleased about a whopping free throw discrepancy (38-10 FTAs in favor of Boston), submitting Powe as a reference point.
"I'm more struck at the fact that Leon Powe gets more foul shots than our whole team does in 14 minutes of playing time," he said. "That's ridiculous."
Phil can argue that his team should have gotten to the line more often, but he can't begrudge Powe his 13 free throws. As his old mentor Red Holzman would say, "Phil saw the game. He knows Powe earned every one of them."
Powe was Exhibit A of what effort, plus strong inside moves, can do for someone. There are times you look at him and say, "If only he were 6-11, he would be a monster," but it doesn't always work out that way. In all likelihood, he plays harder at 6-8 than he would at 6-11 or 7 feet. He has developed a game that suits Leon Powe, and it will keep him gainfully employed in the NBA for the next 10 or 12 years.
"He was huge for us," said Paul Pierce. "He was aggressive; we got him the ball. We feel like we can go to the guy. He's proven during the course of the year, once he posts up, get him the ball. And we've developed confidence that he can get the job done."
His resilience is amazing. He has stretches when he plays and stretches when he doesn't play, but he always keeps his spirits up and he is always ready when his number is called. This was the biggest game of his life, but he made it look like a January game against Charlotte.
He was last night's X-factor, and you can't win a title without them.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.