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
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.