After a wild night of full-scale NBA action, the playoff picture has finally been resolved. Now that the field is officially set for pro basketball's postseason, it's time to examine some of the stars that will erupt with sensational performances in the first round.
Some in particular will have to shoulder the heavy scoring load against favored opponents in order to give their teams a chance at advancing, while others are simply too good to not capitalize on playing an inferior foe.
Here is a breakdown of the world-class players that will shine brightest to start the playoffs.
LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat
Likely on his way to a fourth league Most Valuable Player award, there should be nothing stopping James in the opening round against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Entering the season finale, the Bucks had been giving up 100.8 points per game—20th in the NBA. Other than the strong presence of Larry Sanders in the paint, the Bucks have no answers for James.
Unfortunately for the heavy underdogs, the outside shot that frequently let James down in recent years is no longer a problem. In his 10th pro campaign, James finally found a consistent groove, shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc in 2012-13.
Combine that with his more polished post game, sensational rebounding and second-to-none passing for his position, and there isn't much the Bucks can do to thwart the game's best player.
Anyone who is still criticizing James for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers should look no further than this statistic provided by NBA Legion:
The Heat have now won 66 games, and should cruise to a sweep thanks to James playing extremely efficient basketball and driving the team to multiple double-digit victories.
James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
Since leaving his sixth man role with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the explosive scorer has proven to be a legitimate superstar.
Harden has benefited somewhat from the solid play of backcourt teammate Jeremy Lin, but at times he simply takes over the game. The Rockets' shooting guard leads the league with 780 free-throw attempts, and shoots at an 85.1 percent clip from the charity stripe.
Houston leads the NBA with an average of 106 points per game, yet that fast-paced style of play lends itself to poor defense.
It's an entertaining brand of basketball, and one that Harden thrives in due to his high basketball IQ and uncanny instincts. He also averages nearly five rebounds per game and six assists, so his frequent isolation to take opponents to the rack don't stagnate ball movement.
Defense is usually one of Harden's strengths. However, the scoring burden he's had to shoulder has taken away from his prowess on that end. The playoffs may be a different story, as the intensity and effort level will inevitably go up.
Especially in facing his old Oklahoma City Thunder teammates, expect to see Harden coming at them with a full head of steam to put on a stellar show.
Deron Williams, PG, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets' catalyst has stepped his game up significantly since the All-Star break.
Williams is asserting himself more on offense, hitting 48 percent of his shots from the field and better than 42 percent from three-point range. He was shooting just 41.2 percent before then. His 11 three-pointers against the Washington Wizards back in March were particularly impressive:
With an unprecedentedly strong supporting cast at his disposal in Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez, there is no reason that Williams shouldn't thrive in his fifth postseason appearance.
Not only is his outside shot fantastic, but Williams can also slash his way into the lane and always makes the right decision. He is of the new mold of the NBA point guard—one who can score just as well as he can distribute, or even better.
There isn't a shortage of talent around him, and that should help Williams put on a stunning show even against the stout defense of the Chicago Bulls.
It would have been wonderful to see Derrick Rose and Williams do battle. Unfortunately, that won't happen, and Williams will have a substantial advantage matched up with Kirk Hinrich or Nate Robinson.
Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
Curry broke the single-season record for three-point field goals made, and he also has the ability to take opponents off the dribble and finish at the rim craftily despite his relatively slim frame.
This is the first time Curry will experience the playoff stage in the pros, but he was under immense pressure as the go-to guy when playing at Davidson. He guided the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, and lived up to the immense hype surrounding him.
The attention didn't waver after Curry was taken early in the lottery, but he has continued to develop into one of the most exciting young players in the game.
The Warriors have sharpshooter Klay Thompson, sixth man extraordinaire Jarrett Jack and David Lee on the inside. They all provide plenty of distractions to free up space for Curry. Also, when he does things like this, it isn't even fair:
If Golden State is meant to advance past the West quarterfinals against a deep Denver Nuggets squad, it will take a monster performance from Curry to get it done.
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