NBA Playoffs 2012: Russell Westbrook and the 15 Most Influential Players

Joye Pruitt@joyethewarSenior Analyst IApril 20, 2012

NBA Playoffs 2012: Russell Westbrook and the 15 Most Influential Players

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    The NBA's Jeremy Lin made the list of Time’s 100 “Most Influential People in the World."

    It may have come as a shock because Lin only blasted onto the scene as an influential basketball player this season for the New York Knicks under Coach Mike D’Antoni.

    With D’Antoni out and Lin benched with injury, his influence with the Knicks has been inevitably curbed and forced into a once-upon-a-time tale of success. Still, the impact Lin has had on the hopes and dreams of the underdog in life seems to trump the credit of time.

    As the 2012 NBA playoffs approach, the league becomes less about the individual pace of the players and more focused on the collective efforts of their franchise, at least when it comes to winning a series. However, after that series is won, or lost, there is an individual spotlighted for his accomplishments during the game that ultimately turned the tide.

    As we look into the vast predictions of the NBA playoffs, there are 15 players that stand out as the most influential of every round. Predicting the winners and losers of every round leading up to the 2012 NBA Finals, here is a composed list of each series' most influential player.

Eastern Conference Playoffs First Round: No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 8 Philly 76ers

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    Andre Iguodala

    The Philadelphia 76ers are not exactly stacked with a lot of offensive options, so they have to make up for it with calculated scoring and tough defense.

    At the head of that defensive charge will be Andre Iguodala, and his presence will have to echo that of a true leader in order to give the Sixers a fighting chance against the Miami Heat.

    In last year’s first round against Miami, Philly played a solid series and could have definitely forced the Heat’s hand deeper than five games had its designated leader been playing like one.

    Iguodala started the series off with two blasphemous games, only scoring nine points combined. “Iggy” only turned up the heat in the third game with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double.

    This year needs to be totally different. Iguodala need to focus on good shot selection and defense to give the Sixers the offensive boost they need to be in contention. 

No. 2 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 7 New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony

    The New York Knicks are everything with Carmelo Anthony, with a little dash of nothing with him as well.

    Anthony is about as much of a pure scorer as they come in the league. He can score from all angles and from a variety of distances, as seen in the early quarters against the Miami Heat in their last meeting.

    He hit for 42 points, as he showed off an unguardable jumper that neither Dwyane Wade nor Shane Battier could curve.

    However, with Amar'e Stoudemire as the prodigal son of the franchise and Anthony as the king of Madison Square Garden, ‘Melo may be forced to carry the weight of the responsibility alone.

    He is most productive without either Jeremy Lin or Stoudemire, but that leaves him with streaky offensive options like J.R. Smith to Robin his presence.

    Anthony needs to figure out a way to be a premiere scorer with anyone beside him and share the scoring load before the Knicks are embarrassed by teams more willing and able to make a group effort. 

No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Orlando Magic

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    Dwight Howard

    Dwight Howard’s absence is going to mean more than any single member of Orlando’s roster.

    After Howard announced that he would be going through a surgery that would make his benching permanent for the remainder of the season, Magic players and fans simultaneously said goodbye to their hopes of pushing past any franchise in the first round.

    Their exit will probably be much more embarrassing than last year’s first-round exit at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks, despite Howard’s efforts. Yet, the Magic didn’t really have a chance with Howard in the lineup either.

    The team is just not good enough to contend against the better teams in the Eastern Conference, and if you haven’t noticed, Howard doesn’t really make the men around him of higher quality.

No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks

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    Josh Smith

    The Atlanta Hawks are a marvelous-jumper squad. Their fatal weakness is that they eat off of that jumper, and when it does not fall, the Hawks’ chances of pushing past their opposition become slim to none.

    Josh Smith, although he seems massively underappreciated around the league as Atlanta’s front man, is going to be crucial in a series that includes the heightened center-guided performance of a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett.

    Garnett has been extremely consistent this season, and Smith will have his hands full attempting to battle the intensity of Beantown’s finest around the bucket. 

Western Conference Playoffs: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Phoenix Suns

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    Tony Parker

    It is no secret that the Phoenix Suns’ most valuable asset is Steve Nash. San Antonio’s most valuable asset just so happens to fill the same point position—Tony Parker.

    There were silenced shouts of Parker’s running in the MVP race, which were quickly debunked by the regular-season performances of both LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

    It will not take a remarkable effort to knock off the Phoenix Suns, but the realization of the importance of a Western Conference berth will undoubtedly make them a solid feat.

    What’s scary about the Suns is that they can be boosted by the most random moments of a game, as exhibited against the Los Angeles Clippers after Robin Lopez was ejected after a hard foul on Blake Griffin—as if those are any surprise this deep into the forward’s career.

    Nash can find ways to bring his team back to life in the last quarter of a game, so Parker will assuredly be required. Parker is the Spurs' most influential player not only in this round, but he has been throughout the entire season. He can match Nash score for score, and Coach Popovich will unleash Parker to epic proportions in the playoffs.

    What did you think he was resting him for?

No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Denver Nuggets

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    Serge Ibaka

    Serge Ibaka is a shot-blocking machine, and George Karl touts his new, young center as a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reincarnate. The only problem is one of those statements is true, and one is the most incredible exaggeration of talent in the league.

    Ibaka is a force around the rim for the Thunder and has become something of a defensive superior in a franchise piled with offensive threats.

    He may not receive the attention that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or James Harden do, but his defense is admittedly a core fraction of why the Thunder have been able to take claim to the second-best record in the Western Conference.

    Battling under the rim with a less-than-able JaVale McGee will be light work for Ibaka, as he has a higher basketball IQ than McGee and is simply better than the struggling, yet athletic center.

    Ibaka trumps a lot of the forwards in the league because of the skill development he has achieved at such an early stage in his career.

    Ibaka is not a player whose level of immaturity or lack of work ethic concerns a coach. He is a complete talent not to be questioned or confused. 

No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 6 Dallas Mavericks

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    Kobe Bryant

    Last year’s second-round sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks had to be one of the most embarrassing moments of Kobe Bryant’s career.

    It does not take the title because of the lack of intention or drive from Bryant. It was disconcerting to the 16-year Lakers veteran because there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop the barreling train from colliding in Staples Center.

    As players around him exposed their frustrations with overly physical play, Bryant found himself unable to will his troops to victory or take over the game as he has done so many times before and has shown he still has a knack to do this season.

    This year’s playoffs will not present such a meek Bryant. He is surrounded by the fresh-faced offense of Andrew Bynum and the renewed performance of Pau Gasol, he who flopped in last year’s series.

    The Dallas Mavericks are not the same monster they were, without Tyson Chandler in the low post.

    Kobe Bryant will be this series' highlight, and he will not be stopped under any circumstances, as his time in playoff contention is on its last legs. Just as it is for Boston’s Big Three, Bryant is watching his last dominant moments in the league.

    It’s now or never—and with any say from Bryant, it will be now. 

No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies

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    Zach Randolph

    Zach Randolph was last year’s MVP in the playoffs for the Memphis Grizzlies. He was not able to push Memphis past the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he and Marc Gasol booted the Spurs out of contention and gave the Thunder a run for every dollar they earned.

    Randolph is going to be just as necessary in the first round of the playoffs against the L.A. Clippers, as the best player on one of the most dangerous teams in the entire playoffs—the Giant Killers.

    Randolph has struggled in the games he’s started after a long hiatus and is now playing in a reserve role that will not last into the playoffs.

    Right now, Marreese Speights has taken over Randolph’s starting role, but the postseason presents a much different atmosphere than the regular season.

    Coach Lionel Hollins recognized what Randolph’s immediate starting role was doing to the team’s chemistry, yet he will not be able to live with himself if the Grizzlies were to go down in flames because of a lapse in judgment in personnel.

    Randolph is the Grizzlies’ answer. He was then, and he is now. 

Eastern Conference Playoffs Second Round: No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics

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    Rajon Rondo

    Rajon Rondo injured himself in Game 3 of the second-round series against the Miami Heat last year, and the rest was determined by his lack of intensity and LeBron James' sense of clutch.

    Boston needed him, and Coach Doc Rivers counted on his star point guard to play through a ridiculous amount of pain against the most raw-talented team in the Eastern Conference.

    The Celtics lost both Game 1 and Game 2 to the Heat, but with Rondo at 100 percent, the franchise could have pushed the series a bit further.

    This year, Rondo is playing lights-out on nationally syndicated stages, and Miami is set to be just such a stage.

    Miami will be faced with Rondo’s best, and his facilitation to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will spotlight any runs the Celtics are able to put together or any victories they can rack up.

    Rondo will be his usual triple-double self, and Mario Chalmers will have his hands full. 

No. 2 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 3 Indiana Pacers

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    Darren Collison

    Darren Collison is a solid player for the Indiana Pacers and no ounce of criticism will provide a different outlook. Collison just has stretches where he becomes lost in his role as the facilitator, the pass-first guard and the scorer that Indiana needs him to be.

    George Hill has been starting in Collison’s place, and there are reports that he could possibly lose his starting job to Hill as well. Collison may not be at full health for the playoffs, but he needs to be, because in last year’s playoffs, he proved that he was on his way to becoming one of Rose’s worst nightmares.

    Collison has pushed this Pacers team to where it is now. Not to say that he is the sole reason as to why Indiana landed such a high seed this season, but he has played an instrumental role in getting the Pacers to this point.

    While Hill may make the grass look greener on the other side, Indiana should stick with Collison if he is healthy enough to start the playoffs, immediately. 

Western Conference Playoffs Second Round: No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 5 Grizzlies

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    Rudy Gay

    When Rudy Gay was inserted back into the Grizzlies lineup, he was supposed to make immaculate waves that would only translate into an unstoppable Memphis force.

    They had already exposed half of the league last season with the two-headed monster of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. With Gay’s inclusion, it would only be a matter of time before their record battled that of the Spurs, Thunder and Lakers.

    Unfortunately, Gay was in, and for a majority of the season, Randolph was out.

    Memphis was led to find other options on offense, as the most important man on its team became an onlooker. As the Grizzlies venture back into Spurs territory, they are facing a much different team than they did in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and they are a different team as well.

    Gay’s influence will either be reminiscent of last year’s series, or it will force Memphis to question whether its current makeup can survive the beasts of the West. 

No. 2 OKC Thunder vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers

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    Russell Westbrook

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant at the head of the scoring drive. Then there is Russell Westbrook.

    Westbrook has scored 23.9 points, 5.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds on the season and has put up 13 30-plus-point games, in which the Thunder have only lost three.

    Durant is the first scoring option for Oklahoma City, but Westbrook is unmistakably the second-hugest asset the Thunder have on the floor.

    Durant doesn’t always have the hot hand. As a matter of fact, the month of April has not treated the Thunder kindly, as Durant’s points per average has increased, and Westbrook’s has decreased by 5.1 points, leaving Oklahoma City with a 6-5 record.

    It may not have a direct correlation on the Thunder’s landing spot, however this franchise depends heavily upon what Westbrook can do offensively, despite the consistent criticism to force Russell into a more traditional role with the team or force him out.

    This series will be a tough battle won in the low post, and Westbrook is a consistent mismatch for virtually every team in the playoffs, with the mild exception of the Miami Heat.

    The L.A. Lakers will have the usual perimeter threat of Durant, but the maximum effort of Westbrook is what they should be primarily afraid of. 

Eastern Conference Finals: No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 2 Chicago Bulls

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    LeBron James

    LeBron James has turned into everything Miami needs this season.

    He is a bit more selfish than we have seen him in previous seasons, but has done so without detriment to his production at the point next to Mario Chalmers and backup Norris Cole.

    James, in the past few games, has boosted himself in MVP rankings ahead of contenders like Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

    With his 17-point fourth quarter against the New Jersey Nets, James is renewing himself as the true leader of the Miami Heat without taking heed to the constant criticism from analysts who think that his size, strength, court vision, etc. are not enough to take the Heat all the way.

    LBJ is more importantly Miami’s best defender and will be subjected to guarding Derrick Rose once again while keeping his own offensive responsibilities firmly intact. James values the task of taking on multiple positions and assignments while not allowing his box scores to suffer.

    James is Chicago’s kryptonite in the playoffs, and that buck doesn’t stop here. 

Western Conference Finals: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 2 OKC Thunder

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    Tim Duncan

    Tim Duncan was just not enough for the Spurs to make noise in last year’s playoffs. They were stopped as the No. 1 seed in the first round by the No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies.

    This year is so different.

    What we are seeing from Duncan is a rebirth that has left his opponents confused about who the real Duncan really is. In the postseason, will he be who he has been throughout the regular season: more movement, solid one-on-one offense, quicker, durable?

    Or will he be who he was in last year’s playoffs: slow, old, on his way out?

    Both environments are entirely different and incredibly physical. The spacing of the playoff games should work in Duncan’s favor, as there will be scheduled moments of rest.

    However, can he withstand the double-barreled attack of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka in the low post?

    That question will almost directly lead to the accurate prediction of who will be left standing after this series. 

2012 NBA Finals: No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 2 OKC Thunder

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    Dwyane Wade

    The Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade have developed an interesting relationship in the 2011-12 season.

    Miami is no longer Wade’s squad. It’s LeBron James' team, and Wade is just fine with that adjustment.

    After being out for a clump of the season due to injury and coach Erik Spoelstra’s maintenance policy, Wade has relinquished the rights to being the team’s most vocal and influential leader in South Beach to James, and the results have been desirable to say the least.

    James has found his role at the top of the totem pole, and Wade is playing a supporting role, one that a lot of fans thought they would never see him take on, especially in places like the fourth quarter of a close game.

    However, Wade is going to have to be all-in in the Thunder series.

    Expect LeBron to be at the height of his potential the entire postseason to close out an MVP-merited regular season. Still, Wade needs to play as James' equal defensively and offensively in order for Miami to snag a seven-game series win from the clutch of a young, athletic and fast-paced Thunder team with more power in the low post than Miami has on its entire bench.

    This is the moment in which Wade shines. He has been here and succeeded before. It’s time to remember those times.