5. Gregg Popovich vs Scott Brooks
This is a matchup of great minds, both who have received the Coach of the Year award, Brooks in 2009-2010 and Popovich in 2002-2003 as well as this season. Brooks represents a fast-paced young team ready to take over the NBA while Popovich is the wily veteran who has managed to get his veteran players to buy into a system that values the team over any single player. What amazes me about the Spurs are their ability to rotate so beautifully on defense and their knack for passing up a good shot for a great shot, they always seem to make that extra pass. The Thunder surprised me several times last night when the rotated just as well, stopping the Spurs from any good looks no matter how many passes they made. If the Thunder can keep that up all series (or at least for an entire game) this series is going to be even better than anyone anticipated.
4. Tim Duncan vs Kendrick Perkins
Perkins brought to the Thunder a defensive minded post player with championship experience and toughness in the paint. He has been very important in their rise to the top, but unfortunately his counterpart in this matchup exceeds his pedigree by a longshot. Duncan has receded from his super-stardom with great dignity, taking a reduced scoring role all while maintaining solid interior defense, rebounding, and passing out of the post. Perkins may be able to stop Duncan from scoring inside (Duncan was 6 for 15 in game one) but Duncan’s vision from the post frequently leads to an assist or a pass leading to an assist. Watch for Duncan to hit those open midrange shots when Perkins is slow to rotate.
3. Kevin Durant vs Kawhi Leonard/Stephen Jackson
Last night we saw Popovich throw the combination of Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson at the scoring king Kevin Durant in an effort to at least slow him down. That strategy didn’t work so well as Durant scored 27 points on 42% shooting and was 11 for 12 from the free throw line. Leonard was struggling offensively and Jackson wasn’t a detriment on that end so the Spurs’ coach opted for the veteran late in the game. Personally, I think Leonard has a better chance at stopping Durant if you keep him out there most of the game. He has the length and athleticism to stay on him and contest those difficult shots that KD is known to make so frequently. Obviously you can’t expect anyone to shut Durant down, but if you play defense well enough on him he’ll be forced to pass it to Westbrook who has the unseemly talent of putting up terrible shots, especially late in the game. If the Spurs can figure this out they’ll have no problem in this series, but if Durant continues to produce at this level expect every game to be as competitive as last night.
2. Manu Ginobili vs James Harden
James Harden may have won 6th Man of the Year, but Ginobili has long been one of the greatest bench scorers in the NBA. Manu easily won the matchup in game one, scoring 26 points on 9 of 14 shooting while Harden struggled, going 7 for 17 with 19 points, but Harden will come out on top over the course of the series. Ginobili really stepped up his game last night, but he has struggled throughout the playoffs, which we delve deeper into here, shooting 30% from beyond the arc and 43.8% from the field. Meanwhile Harden has slipped a little in shooting from the field (41.8%) but has maintained his 3-point shooting (38.1%) and has gotten to the line almost twice as much as Ginobili (7.1 times per game compared to 3.6) while shooting 90.1% from the line. Harden’s youth, consistency, and ability to get to the line really give the Thunder an outstanding option off the bench that will surely pay dividends throughout the series.
1. Russell Westbrook vs Tony Parker
Westbrook is the epitome of what teams look for in a young point guard. He’s incredibly quick and athletic, gets to the lane with ease, has a developing jumper, and rebounds well for his position. Parker, on the other hand, is a coach’s dream of what a point guard can become. He creates his own shots as well as setting up others for shots. He always seems to know whether he should take the jumper, drive the lane, or pass up the shot and make the key extra pass to a wide open teammate. In Game One of the series this wasn’t much of a competition. Parker had 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, not to mention some key buckets towards the end of the game to extend San Antonio’s late run. Westbrook, however, went 7 for 21 from the field while accumulating 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. His shot selection towards the end of the game was a momentum killer and he could not seem to contain Parker. If the Thunder are going to win this series they will need their star point guard to step up, put that athleticism to use on defense, and work on being much more choosey with his shots.
LeBron or Durant? That’s been the question all season. While other names have come and gone these two have consistently been the front runners in the MVP race all season. But who really deserves it more? The two contributors to the Original NBA lay out their cases for their MVP candidates.
The Case for Kevin Durant, by C.M.
People go on and on about the historic regular season that LeBron James had this year. Hell, at one point in the season I heard some people calling it the greatest season of all time. But just compare his numbers to those of Kevin Durant and you will be a lot less floored. This year, Durant averaged 28 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks, while James posted averages of 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.9 steals.
Fans (myself included) and members of the media are astonished by the fact that LeBron posted significant numbers in several different categories. I mean, seriously, how many guys in the league can put up 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.9 steals a night? But Durant’s numbers are equally as impressive.
The difference here is that Durant puts up great numbers in the “big man” categories (rebounds and blocks) but does not excel in the guard categories (assists and steals). However, his numbers down low are pretty damn impressive for a wing player as wiry as he is.
The reality is that people think of Durant as simply a scorer, whereas LeBron gets credit as the one guy in the league who can effect a game in every way imaginable. Admittedly, Durant will not penetrate and dish like James, he won’t run an offense like LeBron can, and he isn’t going to shut down the other team’s best player like LeBron can. But Durant doesn’t need to do those things for his team to win like LeBron does. Durant has other guys on his team who can run a pick and roll, who can create for others, and who can shut down the opposition. Instead, KD excels as a scorer (where his input is needed most) and as a rebounder and shot blocker (areas where others on his team specialize).
The Heat need LeBron’s efforts to maintain the delicate balance they have on their roster; the Thunder use Durant’s extra efforts all over the court to put them over the top in several categories.
If you replace Durant with another scorer who would put up those same exact 28 points a game while shooting 49.6% from the field, 86% from the line, and 38.7% from beyond the three-point line, the Thunder become a team struggling for home court advantage. But with Durant on their side, they continue to score the ball at the third highest rate in the league while also standing out as the best shot blocking team and the sixth best rebounding team. For all LeBron’s efforts,Miami still ranks No. 21 overall in both rebounding and assists.
Simply put, Durant puts his team over the top while LeBron is the keeping his team afloat in many different areas.
Lastly, Durant deserves credit for taking a team full of youngsters and delivering them to the third best record in the league; whereas James’ team is stacked with proven veterans. Oddly enough, it is the young Thunder squad who is known around the league for having laser-like focus and the Heat who have a reputation for going through lulls throughout the season. Durant, as the unquestioned leader of his team, deserves a ton of credit for that. He has done everything for this team from leading, to deferring when needed, to sacrificing his body. And for that, he is the MVP.
The Case for LeBron James, by J.M.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. I am not a fan of LeBron. I disliked him when he came into the league and dubbed himself “King James” and that disdain grew when he pulled off “The Decision.” I cheer for almost any opponent he faces and gain sustenance from his 4th quarter meltdowns. With that said, LeBron is easily the best player in the NBA and my vote for the regular season MVP.
After an MVP-caliber 2010-2011 season that was only out-shown by the “anybody but LeBron” MVP race, LeBron took to the offseason aiming to improve his game and take this Miami Heat team to an NBA Championship. With the way he has played this team doesn’t look too far away from that goal. He improved in almost every category including: field goal percentage (53.1%), three point percentage (36.2%), rebounds (7.9 per game), and points (27.1 per game), all while playing less minutes, taking the same number of shots, and greatly improving his post game and defense.
While the argument can be made for Kevin Durant as MVP it is not nearly as strong. Yes, Durant is the better scorer and in all likelihood I would choose him over LeBron in a late game scenario, but his advantage ends there. LeBron is the better rebounder, passer, and defender and a more valuable asset to his team. Some people may argue that because LeBron has one of the best wing players in the league on his side (Wade) along with faux-star Chris Bosh he cannot possibly be the most valuable player. The issue with this argument is that while LeBron may have the better superstar sidekicks, Durant has a team built around him. Surrounding Durant are Westbrook, a young star point guard, Harden, a young wing scorer off the bench, Ibaka, a young dominant defensive presence, and Perkins, a veteran, championship-winning, hard-nosed, post player.
The key difference is that the Thunder were assembled to work as a team, each player knows their role and they almost always defer to Durant (at least this season after the whole “Durant or Westbrook” debacle last playoffs). LeBron, however, is burdened with the task of keeping the Heat afloat without any key role players and two sidekicks who are accustomed to being ball-dominant players. The fact that LeBron distributed the ball well enough to keep both Wade and Bosh scoring frequently and efficiently (22.1 ppg 49.7% FG and 18 ppg 48.7% FG respectively) is reason in itself to hand him this award. I haven’t even mentioned that LeBron was far and away the most efficient player in the league with a PER of 30.8, three points higher than the man in second, Chris Paul, and nearly four points ahead of Durant who placed in fourth.
I know it’s hard to place yourself objectively off the anti-LeBron bandwagon, I struggle with it plenty of times, but when it comes down to it, we all know LeBron is going to win the MVP, and rightfully so. Now if only he could work on that hairline.
5. Ramon Sessions vs. Ty Lawson
Down the stretch, Sessions’ play dropped off a bit. Over the Lakers’ last 7 games, he still posted solid averages of 10.7 points per game on 41.4% shooting with 4 assists per game. However, during that span, he shot 40% or lower in four of those contests. Sessions will have to step up his offensive production as well as his ability to distribute the ball effectively to the three stars on that team. Lawson, on the other hand, has been consistent all year long, leading the team in scoring with 16.4 points a game while shooting an extremely efficient 48.8% from the floor. Lawson is going to want to push the ball up the court and try to influence the pace of play in the Nuggets’ favor. It will be Sessions’ job to slow it down; although he alone is certainly capable of running with Lawson, the rest of his team does not operate that way. This may not be the most important matchup of this series (as you will see below), but the pace of play will be crucial in this series and it begins with these two.
4. Tim Duncan vs. Al Jefferson
The Jazz have little chance at pulling off an upset here, but if it’s going to happen, Jefferson is going to have to carry the load. With San Antonio ranking 2nd in the league in scoring and Utah 4th, while both teams are in the lower half of the league in opponents’ scoring, offense will decide this series. Jefferson represents Utah’s most consistent scoring threat and thus their most important piece if they want to win this offensively loaded series. In his four games against the Spurs this season, Jefferson put up 21, 20, 19, and 12 points respectively and the Jazz went 1-3 in those games. Clearly, for these Jazz to have any chance at pulling a Memphis-sized upset in these series, Jefferson is going to have to produce more than what he has given Utah in their previous games against the Spurs this year.
3. Kobe Bryant vs. Arron Afflalo
Bryant struggled in his three games against the Nuggets this year, shooting only 27.5% from the floor. OK, that’s a small sample size, but how about last year? He was a little bit better, but still Bryant only managed to convert on 39.2% of his field goal attempts. This is no coincidence; Arron Afflalo clearly gives Kobe problems. Surely, George Karl will turn to other players to help out on Kobe, namely Corey Brewer, but Afflalo figures to be crucial in defending Bryant. Offensively, Afflalo really turned a corner in April. During that span, he has put up 18.7 points a game, while shooting 52.1% from the field and 44.9% from beyond the arch. On both ends of the floor, this has the makings of a great matchup, which will certainly have a large bearing on the outcome of the series.
2. Shawn Marion vs. Kevin Durant
Key in the Mavericks’ 2011 run to the Finals was Marion’s defense on any opposing player that Coach Rick Carlisle assigned him. In the Western Conference Finals against these same Thunder, Durant averaged 28 points a game on 42.9% shooting. Marion, not known for his offensive skills, put up 18 and 26 in games 3 and 5, respectively. If Dallas wants to make a run at upsetting the Thunder, Marion is going to have to disrupt Durant during key stretches like he did last postseason. Moreover, with Tyson Chandler gone Marion will be the one spearheading this defensive attack.
1. Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph
I know that Zach Randolph has not played like the 2011 version of Z-Bo as of late. And I know Griffin isn’t the most important player in determining the outcome for his team, but I still see this as the most crucial matchup in what is the most evenly matched series out West. The Grizzlies have slowly been working Randolph back into the rotation, which can partly explain why he hasn’t reached 20 points in a game since March 16. But the fact of the matter is that if Memphis wants to make a deep run, they need the Randolph of old to show up. Griffin, not the most adept defender in the league, might be a good place to start. Defensively, you know that Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies are not going to allow Griffin to simply jump over them; they will gladly send him to the line before allowing him easy buckets. If Memphis’ offense is sputtering at any point, don’t be surprised if you see them throw the ball down low to Randolph to get them going. Only if he shows up like he did last season can the Grizzlies make a deep run.