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.
Some players thrive in the playoff atmosphere, the pressure ignites something within and they call upon every ounce of talent they have to give it their all when it matters most. On the flip side some players just can’t handle the spotlight of the NBA playoffs and end up withering when their team needs them the most. These are the 5 players who improved the most from the regular season and the 5 players who saw the biggest drop offs in the 2012 playoffs.
The 5 Up
We all knew Rondo was a triple-double waiting to happen when the playoffs started, but his performance so far in the playoffs has been ridiculous nonetheless. Over the course of the Celtics’ seven playoff games Rondo has averaged 15 points, 12.7 assists, and 6.7 rebounds. That’s an increase from 11.9, 11.7, and 4.8 respectively from the regular season, all while maintaining a shooting percentage around 44%. The Celtics will need his consistent play and ability to improve the veterans around him if they hope to advance past the Sixers.
Yes, the Nuggets eventually lost to the Lakers, but the series would have never made it to seven games if it weren’t for Lawson’s play. Lawson increased his scoring from 16.4 per game in the regular season to 19 in the series against the Lakers, playing almost the exact same minutes per game and meanwhile improving his shooting percentage from 48.8% to 51.4%. Lawson’s performance in game 6 and 7 are reason enough to include him on this list. In those two games he averaged 28 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds while shooting 64.9% from the field and 58.3% from beyond the arc.
Garnett has re-emerged as the KG of old in the playoffs, scoring, rebounding, and bringing the swagger that won him defensive player of the year in 2008. After averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1 block on 50.3% shooting in the regular season the 2004 season MVP has improved to 19.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks while shooting 52.9% and giving Rondo a reliable scoring option. Look no further than Game 6 against the Hawks for proof, when he scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and garnered 3 steals and 5 blocks.
In 22 games for the Clippers during the season Young provided a solid but streaky scorer off the bench. So far the former reigning “Not Top Play” champion has excelled in the playoffs. Despite seeing less minutes per game Young has averaged 8.8 points on 45.8% shooting, 59.1% from three, making the most of the 6 shots he sees per game. Considering he shot 39.4% (35.3% from three) during the regular season it’s great to see him pick up his play in the postseason. I guess it takes a little while to scrub the musk of the Wizards off you.
Hill contributed 9.6 points per game off the bench for the Pacers after they took a risky move trading Kawhi Leonard for the former Spurs guard. That move is now paying off with Hill stepping into the starting lineup and providing a reliable scorer while Darren Collison comes off the bench. The guard out of IUPUI has contributed 13.7 points per game during the playoffs and has more than doubled his trips to the free throw line where he has improved from 77.8% in the regular season to 85.3% in the playoffs.
Honorable Mention: Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, Roy Hibbert, Reggie Evans, and David West
The 5 Down
Gasol’s strength and resolve have been questioned in previous years when it came playoff time, and this postseason does nothing to refute those claims. While his counterpart in the post has maintained his performance, Pau has experienced a significant drop in a number of major statistical categories. Throughout the regular season he averaged 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and shot 50.1% despite the continued emergence of Andrew Bynum. Unfortunately during the playoffs he has regressed to 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds while only shooting 43%. The last time the Lakers won the championship Pau averaged 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds while shooting 53.9%, what a difference two years make.
Ginobili struggled to stay on the court during the regular season due to injuries, but he still provided a reliable and efficient scorer off the bench that was a threat from anywhere on the floor. The Spurs have succeeded in the postseason so far despite Ginobli’s significant decline in production. After posting 12.9 points on 52.6% shooting, including 41.3% from three, Manu has been struggling to find his shot. He is averaging more shots per game (9.2 compared to 8.4) while scoring less (11.2, down from 12.9) thanks to his 41.4% field goal percentage and 27.3% from beyond the arc. The Jazz weren’t even a speed bump on the Spurs path to the championship, but the Clippers are a significantly better team. If the Spurs hope to put away good teams Ginobli is going to have to step up his production.
Bradley impressed Celtics and NBA fans alike when he stepped into the starting lineup for Ray Allen and produced spectacularly. He averaged 15.1 points while shooting 52% from the field and 54.5% from three during the month of April, a promising performance knowing Allen may have to miss some games during the playoffs. Despite his regular season burst in production Bradley has fallen hard back down to Earth after Allen returned. During the postseason Bradley is averaging 7.4 points on 38.3% shooting from the field and 23.5% from three.
Rarely does the leading scorer of a playoff team happen to be a bench player, but the Sixers put together an impressive season that led to a playoff berth with Lou Williams leading the charge with 14.9 points per game off the bench. He wasn’t the most efficient scorer (40.7% from the field and 36.2% from three) but he brought life to the second unit and proved to be a valuable asset. During the Sixers playoff run Williams has seen a drastic drop in his already not-so-efficient play. The runner up for the 2012 6th Man of the Year is currently shooting 34.8% from the field and 15.2% from three point land, making the already difficult task of taking down the Celtics that much tougher. Fortunately the Sixers have enough players that can contribute scoring that it may not be too detrimental to their playoff hopes.
The Jazz were late in joining the playoff picture and early leaving it. The young team was no match for the top-seeded Spurs and were easily taken care of in four games. I’m sure there are plenty of startling bad stats from that series, but Hayward’s performance stands out among them all. The former Butler phenom enjoyed an impressive improvement from his rookie year this season, averaging 11.8 points on 45.6% from the field and 34.6% from three. Those numbers seemed to indicate progress made on his jump shot, but they took an unfortunate turn for the worse once the playoffs started. Hayward made 6 out of his 33 shots during the series, 1 out of 12 from three, which translates to 18.2% from the field and 8.3% from three. The only player who averaged more than 10 minutes per game and had a worse shooting percentage was Iman Shumpert. However, Shumpert gets a free pass since he played 19 minutes of one game and then tore his ACL. Hayward averaged over 30 minutes per game in that series. I don’t know who to feel worse for, the guy that got injured or the one who had everyone watch him shoot slightly better than Jared Jeffries (16.7% in 6.8 minutes per game).
Honorable Mention: J.R. Smith, Deandre Jordan, C.J. Watson, O.J. Mayo, and Elton Brand