It's almost put-up-or-shut-up time for the NBA's elite. The playoffs tend to bring the best out of those superstars fortunate enough to participate, and the 2012-13 edition doesn't figure to be any different.
But, if there's anything we've learned over the last few weeks, it's that transcendent play among superstars is hardly restricted to the postseason. Some of the biggest names in basketball have used (and are currently using) these final moments of the regular season to showcase their games and warm themselves up for what figures to be a thrilling postseason.
Carmelo Anthony's on fire. Kobe Bryant's soaking up every possible minute. Russell Westbrook's soaring to new heights on what feels like a nightly basis. LeBron James is, well, LeBron James, whenever his hamstrings "allow" him to be.
Those upticks in play (among others) have served to shake up the superstar grades considerably since last we convened. Read on to find out who rose the highest, and who fell as a result.
Stats from the Week that Was: 2.0 points, 1.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, .167 from the field, .000 from three in 25.5 minutes (one game)
Another injury—this time to his shin—has landed Tony Parker back on the shelf. His All-Star services will be sorely missed, especially if the San Antonio Spurs have to embark upon their latest playoff run without Parker and Manu Ginobili at the outset.
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A (No. 6)
Stats from the Week that Was: 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.0 blocks, .452 from the field, .222 from three, 1.7 free throw attempts, and 1.3 turnovers in 29.1 minutes (three games)
The Dallas Mavericks needed Dirk Nowitzki at his best to keep themselves in the mix for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Instead, Nowitzki wound up with a pair of duds in crushing losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.
As a result, the Mavs will miss the playoffs for the first time since Dirk's sophomore season as a pro.
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): B+ (No. 10)
Stats from the Week that Was: 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 0.5 steals, .480 from the field, .333 from three, 5.5 free-throw attempts, 1.5 turnovers in 31.9 minutes (two games)
Blake Griffin played his way back into the top 10 with his best game in over a month. Griffin came through in a big way with 24 points, 12 rebounds and five assists with just one turnover to help the Los Angeles Clippers close out a season sweep of the rival Los Angeles Lakers in a 109-95 flattening.
As inconsistent as Griffin's been all season, he's flashed plenty of improvement as a shooter to render himself something other than a total liability in crunch time.
And it's not as though the Clips have suffered without Blake playing his best night in and night out. Their win over the Lakers secured the franchise's first-ever division title and only added to the team's first 50-win campaign.
Current Grade: B+ (88 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): N/A (NR)
Stats from the Week that Was: 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.3 blocks, .511 from the field, 5.3 free-throw attempts, 2.0 turnovers in 27.1 minutes (three games)
This past week featured two more entries into the "Tim Duncan: Ageless Wonder" file.
After playing less than 14 minutes in an easy win over the Orlando Magic, Duncan came through with massive double-doubles in each of his next two games. His 24 points and 11 rebounds against the Oklahoma City Thunder weren't quite enough to elevate the San Antonio Spurs, what with Manu Ginobili completely out of commission and Tony Parker joining him on the bench with a shin injury.
Luckily for the Spurs, Timmy's 31 and 14 with three assists and three blocks proved more than effective enough to squash the Atlanta Hawks. Chances are, San Antonio will need the Big Fundamental to continue to carry a load like this in order to survive in the playoffs, assuming Parker and Ginobili aren't fit in time for the first round.
Current Grade: A- (91 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): B+ (No. 9)
Stats from the Week that Was: 21.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 9.8 assists,1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, .420 from the field, .361 from three, 3.5 free-throw attempts, 3.5 turnovers in 40.3 minutes (four games)
So much for Stephen Curry's ankle impeding the shooting star's progress this season. Curry's missed just four games this season while leading the Golden State Warriors to their first playoff appearance since the days of "We Believe" in 2007—and just their second in the last 19 years.
Curry was particularly effective in the clincher. He dropped 24 points and dished out 10 dimes for his 10th 20-10 game of the 2012-13 campaign in a 105-89 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
As a result, the basketball world will finally (and officially) have the privilege of seeing Steph shoot, shimmy and shake in the playoffs.
Current Grade: A- (92 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A- (No. 8)
Stats from the Week that Was: 25.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, .408 from the field, .286 from three, 9.5 free-throw attempts, 5.3 turnovers in 37.0 minutes (four games)
James Harden spent last week among the "dropouts" on account of a foot injury, but he appears to be just fine now.
To say the least.
Since returning to the lineup, Harden has twice dropped 33 points and once fallen three rebounds and an assist shy of a triple-double. The latest of those 33-pointers came in a nail-biter over the Phoenix Suns, which ended on a goaltending call against Jermaine O'Neal that singlehandedly transformed Harden's buzzer-beating three from a brick into a basket.
And pushed the Rockets back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Current Grade: A (93 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): N/A (NR)
Stats from the Week that Was: 28.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.0 steals, .452 from the field, .333 from three, 6.8 free-throw attempts, 1.8 turnovers in 34.9 minutes (four games)
After watching Russ Smith help to lead Louisville to the NCAA title this week, I couldn't help but wonder why we haven't been referring to Russell Westbrook as "Russ-diculous?" If there's any Russell in this world whose game is worthy of such a nickname, it'd have to be Westbrook, right?
I mean, what more does a guy have to do to add a catch moniker to his resume? Drop 37 points on 15-of-27 shooting, with 11 rebounds and eight assists (against only one turnover) in a single game?
Because this Russ did just that, albeit in a loss to the New York Knicks.
If nothing else, Westbrook certainly has the...ummm..."fashion sense" to make "Russ-diculous" all his own.
Current Grade: A (95 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A- (No. 7)
Stats from the Week that Was: 26.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, .417 from the field, .176 from three, 9.7 free-throw attempts, 4.3 turnovers in 43.7 minutes (three games).
The Los Angeles Lakers got a glimpse at some Vintage Kobe Bryant on Steroids during their 104-96 win over the New Orleans Hornets. Bryant spent the first three quarters rebounding, getting his teammates involved and generally doing everything other than scoring...and, well, defending.
Then, with the Lakers in desperate need of a lift to pull back ahead of the Utah Jazz in the race for the eighth seed in the West, the Mamba exploded for 23 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter. It was precisely the sort of game that makes you wonder to what sort of futuristic medical technology Kobe has access to that everyone else in the NBA doesn't.
Keep in mind, too, this was the same night that saw Metta World Peace return to action just 12 days after undergoing knee surgery.
Current Grade: A (96 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A (No. 4)
Stats from the Week that Was: 19.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 12.0 assists, 3.5 steals, .500 from the field, .333 from three, 5.0 free-throw attempts, 1.5 turnovers in 33.4 minutes (two games)
The Clippers appear to be back on track after a bit of a hiccup, with Chris Paul leading the way. The superstar point guard has been an ace on both ends of the floor in leading LA to two wins to wrap up its first Pacific Division title in franchise history.
Paul was particularly brilliant against the Lakers, with 24 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and three steals to help the Clips wrap up their first-ever season sweep of their Staples Center co-tenants.
Current Grade: A (98 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A (No. 3)
Stats from the Week that Was: 26.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.0 blocks, .529 from the field, .500 from three, 8.5 free-throw attempts, 3.8 turnovers in 41.3 minutes (three games)
Kevin Durant slips out of the No. 2 spot for the first time all season, though by no fault of his own.
He's regained the scorching-hot shooting touch that seemed to escape him after the All-Star break to help the Thunder close the gap on the Spurs in pursuit of the top seed in the West. He's been active in every facet of the game, as epitomized by his 21-point, 12-rebound, nine-assist, three-steal, one-block virtuoso performance against the Utah Jazz.
But Durant's not leading the league in scoring anymore, and the man who's supplanted him is playing so well that it'd be almost criminal not to have Kevin clear the way for him...
Current Grade: A+ (103 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A+ (No. 2)
Stats from the Week that Was: 38.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, .590 from the field, .526 from three, 5.8 free-throw attempts, 1.5 turnovers in 36.4 minutes (four games)
It's tough to pick out just one aspect of Carmelo Anthony's recent scoring run that's the most remarkable.
Is it that he's topped the 30-point plateau in each of his last five games? Is it that these spurts have propelled 'Melo to the front of the pack in the race for the scoring title? Is it that he's shot over 60 percent from the field and nearly as well from three in those games? Is it that 'Melo, he of the high usage rates and ball dominance, has turned the ball over just six times total in that span?
Or, is it that 'Melo is playing well enough not only to propel the New York Knicks to a 13-game winning streak, but also to knock Kevin Durant from the No. 2 spot on this list, if only for a moment?
I'll let you decide.
Current Grade: A+ (104 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A (No. 5)
Stats from the Week that Was: 27.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, .697 from the field, .333 from three, 4.0 free-throw attempts, 2.0 turnovers in 29.9 minutes (two games)
If his last two games are any indication, LeBron James's hamstring is just fine. James returned from his three-game hiatus by shooting nearly 70 percent from the field in leading the Miami Heat to consecutive victories.
Granted, those efforts came against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks, neither of whom are at all well-equipped to handle LeBron.
Then again, who is?
Current Grade: A++ (108 Percent)
Last Week's Grade (and Ranking): A++ (No. 1)