The OKC Thunder-Miami Heat matchup on Wednesday was an iconic contest. It was a clash of the titans and one of the most hard-working games in the league so far this season. James showed up in the fourth quarter in more than one way and Kevin Durant had his clutch moment air-ball right in front of him.
Fans can only wish that NBA Finals matchup can mirror Wednesday night, but these two squads are not the only teams in the 2012 NBA playoffs that we have to pay attention to.
There are also other players in the playoffs that can change the tempo of the postseason. These are the top 22 players predicted to be in the 2012 NBA playoffs.
If you didn’t know the one-two punch of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph before their series against both the San Antonio Spurs and the OKC Thunder in last year’s playoffs, you know them now and Randolph’s injury earlier in the season meant more to the Grizzlies’ playoff hopes than it ever would have beforehand.
He had Kevin Durant calling him the best power forward in the league and while his stint this season may not have lived up to the title, Randolph is still Memphis’ X-factor.
He has yet to get a firm grip on his game since returning from injury and Rudy Gay’s absence from Grizzlies greatness only puts more of a spotlight on what Randolph has been unable to do. His influence on the game is strong and he has everything it takes to be the Grizzlies most efficient player.
Manu Ginobili may not give you a triple-double night in and out, but he will give you the most unselfish 15-30 minutes of productive basketball you have ever seen on any given night. Ginobili’s game has warped into something that the Spurs need more now than they ever have.
With their roster growing in depth and scoring potential, Ginobili doesn’t shoulder the offense like he has had to in the past and as a veteran player he recognizes where he is needed.
His defense, as underrated as it has always been, has gained more attention because of the fact he is not so concentrated on scoring and he is one of the most creative and effective distributors in the game today.
Ginobili can change the game in the Spurs’ favor in a seven-game series. Maybe even two if the Spurs’ luck is better than it was against the Grizzlies last year.
The Big Boston Four (Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) may have seen the last of each other loaded on the same squad, but that does not mean their individual dominance has hit a complete wall.
This is unequivocally not the case when it comes to Kevin Garnett as coach Doc Rivers has switched him off to the center to make his time with Boston more fruitful than he has been all season.
Going into the playoffs, Garnett’s role will become vital to the any Celtics advance in the Eastern Conference. He has become to franchise’s second most important player behind Rajon Rondo.
Joakim Noah has silently been propelling himself in NBA power rankings and has also become the hardest-working player on Chicago’s roster. Yes, Derrick Rose is a great athlete, scorer and everything else he has proven to coach Tom Thibodeau and Chicago’s working fanbase.
He recognizes his role in the organization in the low post and battles for every rebound. It is no secret that his offense is not the strongest part of his game, still, he manages to average 10.0 on the season and grabs 15 plus frequently.
The Chicago Bulls thrive off of his emotional leadership and rightfully so. Noah is often the loudest man on the sidelines next to Thibodeau, with or without Derrick Rose suited up. As one of the scrappiest players in the league, Noah works on every inch of the floor. The hustle never ends.
Is he arrogant?
Is he immature?
Is he tied for the second-most influential member of the LA Lakers roster?
The answer is still yes.
Bynum is the second-best center in the league, behind the confused and often drama-riddled Dwight Howard, and he has worked himself into an offensive frenzy by becoming one of the Lakers’ most solid scorers. Bynum’s health has consistently been a worry for the Lakers and their playoff hopes, but as of recently it has become less and less of an issue. Unfortunately, Bynum’s immaturity has taken precedent.
Despite the fact that his giggle-face after Blake Griffin "posterized" fellow teammate Pau Gasol has been swarming headlines, the Lakers still have a gem in Bynum.
Tim Duncan is defying logic as his age and weakened joints have left San Antonio fans in awe of what he has been able to accomplish in such a shortened season.
Sure, with some help from coach Gregg Popovich’s random benching, Duncan has been able to achieve some rest in ways that other players fundamentally involved in their franchise’s success haven’t had the chance to.
Still, it is admirable that Duncan has maintained such an elite status throughout a time where the Spurs have been the forgotten contender. They may not fight their way to the Western Conference Finals, but Duncan will have everything to do with how deep the Spurs make it in the playoffs.
Pau Gasol’s emotions tend to cloud how effective he can be in a game, but even after the trade rejection that kept him in the Lakers camp, Gasol has tried to prove to the organization that he is a better on-court asset than a piece in a trade. Gasol has made it clear that Laker-ville is where he wants to stay and he has allowed his performance to reflect that.
Let’s forget the two dunks Blake Griffin plastered all over Gasol in the Clippers-Lakers meeting on Wednesday. Put that aside for just a second. What was a bit more interesting to see was Gasol’s lack of willingness to knock Griffin out of the sky after the first time he was smashed on and over.
He controlled his emotions a little better than I expected him to, which is more than can be said about most veteran players that have faced Griffin previously (i.e. Andre Miller).
Gasol’s best point is his offensive range. This is what is going to be money for the LA Lakers in the 2012 NBA playoffs. He is a solid passer and has a fluid mid-range jumper that separates him from a lot of big men in the league.
Gasol needs to become a little tougher, however. Maybe we’ll see that if the Lakers and the Clippers meet again in the playoffs.
Paul Pierce is the leader of the Boston Celtics even though he is not the most governing body on the court in a Celtics uniform. That authority is designated to Boston’s athletically-inclined guard, Rajon Rondo. Pierce’s role is as the perimeter enforcer and the bona fide last shot taker, despite his botched attempt against the San Antonio Spurs.
Besides satisfying the box score, Pierce’s most fascinating attribute is his passion for the game and the men he plays with. Garnett may be the Celtics’ most vocal player with his shouting and game-starting head-banging. Still, Pierce shows up as the heart and soul of the Celtics.
How else do you think they have the mentality that in a league stacked with younger, more able stars, they can still contend?
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, we may be watching how influential Stoudemire is out of game play than how strong he can be. It’s just funny how fans can be so quick to think that the Knicks are a stronger team with him out of the lineup. Before there was Linsanity and before there was “Melo-Drama”, Stoudemire was putting in the work in Madison Square Garden to redeem the Knicks’ relevance.
Stoudemire has been criticized for his lack of defense, even by me, and the criticism has been well warranted. He has never been a defensive guru. However, what he lacks defensively, he makes up with stellar offense that has obviously been altered by him playing injured.
The numbers don’t lie. The Knicks missed Stoudemire’s paint presence tremendously in last year’s playoffs and hopefully will not have to endure that same reality this year.
The fiery installment of San Antonio’s playoffs contention this season is and always has been Tony Parker.
From the discussions of his inclusion in the league’s regular season MVP award to 19.1 points and 7.8 assists average on the season, Parker is ridiculously under-appreciated.
Parker’s control alone sets him in a league of his own and his decision making among a bevy of old and new players only shows how swiftly the veteran guard can adapt to his surroundings.
He also manages these types of numbers under the watchful eye of defenses every game he plays. Being the most dangerous person on the roster comes with added attention and closed lanes, which forces Parker into elaborate schemes to keep possessions alive and productive.
Blake Griffin can be extremely overrated at times. Then again, he has absolutely no ceiling. Griffin could improve whenever he wants to, which is what puts him at No. 12.
It is also what pushes him out of the top 10. Griffin needs to become more than a highlight machine in order to be his team’s MVP.
Otherwise he could relinquish that role to Chris Paul for the duration of his career, because his dunks will never be enough in the playoffs. Hell, they are barely enough in the regular season. He had two monstrous highlights against LA Lakers Pau Gasol, and Gasol still was able to walk off with the victory and a lock on a higher seeding than the Clippers in the playoffs.
Griffin is very athletic which makes what he does that much more intriguing. However, his lack of a jump shot or any true post moves keeps him from breaking the ceiling of mediocrity that the Clippers sit beneath right now.
They are not festering in illegitimacy as they have in previous seasons, but they are not striking the fear of the basketball gods in the hearts of their opponents either.
Call him Bosh Spice all you want, but Chris Bosh is a huge factor in Miami’s stroll to the 2012 NBA Finals this year. When he’s in the dumps, there is a heightened sense of urgency put on LeBron James’ shoulders as defending the post becomes another one of his many responsibilities to the franchise (as seen against Pau Gasol).
When Bosh is on, Miami is unstoppable. Miami’s other two superstars feed off of his energy and they have absolutely no problem facilitating his shots and focusing their energy on other facets of the game. Pat Riley did not grant Bosh a huge payday just for his health.
He knew exactly what he had in Bosh. As much as Miami gets exposed for not having a true center, Bosh does what he can to fill that gap.
With his rebounding slipping, Miami will never be capable of reaching or exceeding their potential.
Until recently, Knicks fans said that he has not had the space to shine. With Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin out with injury, Carmelo Anthony has the opportunity to excel beautifully. Either that or he can fail under the scrutiny of everyone watching.
The eyes are directly on him now. The ball is in his court. If the Anthony of the past is anything like the Anthony of the Knicks’ early future, then things will be just fine. Or will they?
Anthony is a pure scorer if this league has ever seen one. However, we have seen multiple sides of Melo’s personality that could be a bit of a worry to the Knicks in the playoffs. With Stoudemire and Lin playing at 100 percent, Carmelo questions himself. He questions his role on the team, he questions his potential as New York’s leading scorer and he questions how successful NY can be with him in the driver’s seat.
Now that these players are out of the picture, at least for the moment being, Carmelo is ready to strike while the iron is hot. The problem is that this theory did not work in Denver and it will not work in New York.
Anthony traveled to Madison Square Garden to return home and win, not to concede to the exact same inefficient mentality he saw with the Nuggets where just enough was never good enough.
If you’ve been a Boston Celtics fan throughout Paul Pierce’s failures, disappointments and triumphs, then this fact may be hard for you to swallow.
Rajon Rondo is the Boston Celtics’ Most Valuable Player.
Trading Rondo would not only have killed Boston’s chances in the postseason and pulled them out of contention, it would have also made it that much harder to recruit any more talent to the roster.
A move like that would have shown that no matter the contributions to the success of the franchise, the Big Three would always take precedent, no matter how nonexistent their influence had become.
Rondo has a strong hold on his position in Boston’s franchise and it only plays into Boston’s hands that he hops into 2K mode when it comes to performing in a nationally televised game. Rajon’s need to prove will always provide the Celtics with an edge over their competition as Rondo’s triple-doubles always sprout up unexpectedly.
Dwight Howard is in a never-ending saga. Yes, he is the best center in the league right now, but his drama consistently clouds fans’ judgment of his role in Orlando. The Magic are in turmoil and it is because of Howard’s tendency to shout his desire to the mountaintops even when his demands are at the perfectly wrong time of the season, which is during the season.
His latest comments about removing Stan Van Gundy from the Orlando coaching staff have fueled a fire that will only be put out when Howard gets everything exactly his way and then books out of town of course, but that is only a prediction of course.
Howard is still Orlando’s most solid line of offense. His big body forces many defenders to overstep their boundaries and become physical enough to draw contact and send him to the line. Howard is important to the Orlando franchise, but the question is whether or not he has become more of a cancer to their future than an asset.
Derrick Rose has been out of game play for 10-plus games for the Chicago Bulls, but that does not mean that he has lost any luster in his reputation around the league.
When Rose steps back into Thibodeau’s rotation, he will be just as defended as he ever was, especially at such a critical time in the season when teams are attempting to make their playoff appearances official.
Rose is a threat to anyone guarding him and his contortions will not disappear just because of his time out of the game, at least Chicago better hope not. Rose has never been a player to miss so much time and the extension of his absence has highlighted everything else right about the Bulls.
Yet, one cannot help but realize that Chicago will not go far in the playoffs against the Eastern Conference’s best if Rose is not his regular, dominant self through the series they will play.
Ever since Chauncey Billups was tossed out of the Clippers rotation by injury, Chris Paul has become the Clippers’ stand-in closer. Not to say that Paul was any less of a player with Billups in the lineup, but CP3 has become that much more important in the avenue of leadership and clutch ability as the Clippers search for their identity as they have become slightly virtuous in the lane of winning.
The Clippers have sucked for so long, it seems that now that they have begun to win they don’t know what to do with themselves. No worries. Chris Paul is there ready and willing to take on the leadership role that Blake Griffin is obviously unprepared for.
Paul has the true guard abilities to rival even Derrick Rose, a shoot-first guard who often gets tossed into the same category even though their roles with their franchises are nothing alike.
Can we stop degrading Russell Westbrook’s talent just because he plays beside Kevin Durant? The line, “He’s not even a point guard” is becoming a bit brash and redundant given all that Westbrook has done when Durant’s hot-hand grows cold.
It may not be conventional to shoot 20-plus shots in a game for the run-of-the-mill guard, but it is what works for the OKC Thunder. They are not riding on Durant’s stroke and slightly improved post-game alone.
Westbrook’s agility is something that creates mismatches almost every night he plays. The only time you can expect to see his athleticism consistently challenged is against the likes of the Miami Heat where he is contested by multiple defenders of Miami’s rotation. It’s what would make the matchup in the NBA Finals so intense.
Dwyane Wade may be cruising through this season without an inch of criticism parading through the headlines, individually, but that does not mean he will not feel the pinch in the playoffs, as he should. Wade had been Miami’s closer up until lately when it seems LeBron has gotten a stretch of confidence in the fourth quarter a bit more consistently.
He is also the team captain, alongside co-captain Udonis Haslem, and neither has been showing up in the way they should.
Wade needs to step it up when it comes to the playoffs, because he has been playing distracted and James and Bosh do not need anyone coming up short in the postseason. This is probably the most critical point in Miami’s history as it could determine if the Heat are going to set the pace for the next five years or if they are going to come up short in a head-scratching fashion again.
Wade is the second-key to winning a championship for the Heat and he has got to act like it all the time for the Miami to exhaust their potential.
Kevin Durant is the most prolific scorer in the NBA right now. Yes, I said it! The most prolific scorer in the entire league! However, scoring is not the entire scope of the game which lands the scoring title holder at No. 3 on this list.
Durant is leading the charge of one of the youngest and most dominant franchises in the league and it makes everything so much more interesting that he allows shared spotlight with his Robin, Westbrook.
What makes Durant so great is that he is a great player, but still considers himself a student of the game. He continues to want to improve himself in areas where he is lacking such as defense and in the low post.
Durant has become more powerful around the rim and that is solely due to the fact that he recognizes his faults and plans to correct them, no matter how long the process may take. At the same time, he understands his role with the Thunder and creates a dynamic amongst youngsters that can only be applauded.
There are no words to explain how amazing this man is and how amazing he still has the energy and ambition to be. Bryant has reached his peak of greatness so there is nothing that he can do that we have not seen, unless he goes backwards.
Even then, the past creates zero limitations for his performance in this year’s playoffs. From what we have been exposed to in the last several games that have featured Kobe, nothing has changed.
His determination surpasses any amount of pain the game has forced him to reckon with and he propels the Lakers above and beyond what predictions scripted coming into the season after a botched CP3 trade.
Bryant has notched five 40-plus point games this season, four of which were within a five-game stretch. Not to mention, lately he has reintroduced the public to his clutch gene. Not that we assumed it had been filtered out to adjust to any schemes coach Mike Brown had in mind, but Kobe is in rare form right now.
He has tunnel vision and we know what he sees at the end of that tunnel.
LeBron James is the best player in the league right now. Not in the entire history of the NBA. Not in how many championships he hasn’t won. However, he is the unofficial league MVP. He has played the best basketball of his career this season and is not pumping the brakes to appease anyone searching for a late-season disqualifier.
It appears as if James took the offseason to study his game and to figure out exactly what he needed to do to become the player this team needed. He does not play this game to satisfy the needs of those comparing him to Michael Jordan or making the heir to his glory or atmosphere.
James continues to play at his own pace, blocking out what everyone says about how he should operate Miami’s offense.
He has minimized his shot selection beyond the arc and has increased his efficiency by using his size and power to clear driving lanes and work in the paint. James has been playing multiple positions and taking the responsibility of defending multiple elite offensive players this season and both ends of his game have yet to suffer.
Call it what you want. LeBron James is already great. He just needs to make it official.