NBA Stars Poised for Breakout Performances in the Playoffs
Stars are created in the playoffs.
It's where reputations and names are forged in cement—with a harsh spotlight, heightened possessions that require a precise level of execution and coaches who have the time and energy to focus all their efforts against stopping a single team (as opposed to the regular season, where practice is rare and general philosophies regarding preparation for an upcoming opponent are constrained due to time limitations).
These are players who've either never made an All-Star team or have only cracked the midseason extravaganza once. They're all young, with only a few years in the league under their belt, and their best days are assuredly ahead of them as opposed to behind.
All five of these players are looking to elevate themselves to a higher level, and they're ranked here by the value they currently have on their respective teams. All are on their way to making a name for themselves, if they haven't already.
All statistics used in this article are from NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.
5. Kawhi Leonard
Playing for a team that's loaded with Hall of Fame talent at three key positions, and beneath an ingenious system overseen by the best head coach of his era, Kawhi Leonard doesn't need to overtly flex any muscles in these playoffs.
But that doesn't mean he hasn't. Leonard's numbers are unspectacular, but his play on both ends has had an undeniably positive impact on San Antonio. He's young, long, athletic, can knock down open shots and create his own offensive opportunities, and he showcased all of these attributes as the Spurs dominated the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-game sweep.
As the playoffs go on, however, Leonard's ability to defend the opposing team's best player on an island (whether it be Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul or even LeBron James for brief stretches) could push his name toward the forefront as a legitimate star in this league.
4. Serge Ibaka
He's gone up against Dirk Nowitzki (and lost) and Tim Duncan (and won) in the previous two Western Conference Finals, but Serge Ibaka has yet to be recognized as a "been there, done that" impact player, partly because two of his teammates (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) happen to be two of the 10 best basketball players in the world. There's only one ball, after all.
Ibaka's primary impact can be found on the defensive end, where less attention is paid by the general basketball-watching public. But once it was announced that Westbrook would miss the rest of the playoffs with a knee injury, a light was directed on Ibaka for his play at both ends of the court.
Primarily used as a spot-up shooter, Ibaka will likely see his name called more than ever before in scoring situations. So far in these playoffs he's averaging 13.5 points on 56.4 percent shooting. He's only attempting 9.8 shots per game and less than one three-pointer (he shot 36.5 percent on 52 corner threes during the regular season).
Unfortunately for Ibaka, 50.1 percent of all his baskets that were assisted during the regular season came from Russell Westbrook. If he's to step his profile up to the next level and become a more balanced player, Ibaka will need to rebound, pass and defend at an even better rate than he did during last year's run to the NBA Finals.
And if the Thunder are to see more success as a team, he'll need to score more, too, especially while playing the center position.
3. Paul George
The Indiana Pacers scored 101.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, making them the fourth-worst offensive team entering the playoffs.
The only way they'd be able to advance further than last year would be if their league-best defense grew even more stout, and if Paul George elevated his offensive ingenious to a higher floor. So far George is averaging 21.8 points against an Atlanta Hawks team that's decided to stick their best defensive player (Josh Smith) on him and hope for the best.
George is making less than 40 percent of his shots (while shooting an atrocious 27.8 percent from behind the three-point line), but he's getting to the free-throw line (10.3 attempts per game) creating for others (4.5 assists per game), and attacking the glass (10.0 per game).
(He might be the best triple-double threat in the postseason behind LeBron James.)
George's next step is becoming an efficient scorer, but with Indiana depending on him to do just about everything else right now, it could be another season before we see that happen.
2. Brook Lopez
The best player in the opening round's Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls series hasn't been Deron Williams, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah or Joe Johnson. It's Brook Lopez, a player who qualified for his first All-Star Game this past February only because the Eastern Conference needed to replace Rajon Rondo.
Lopez has used his first foray into the playoffs to show he's as dependable a scorer as any center in basketball, averaging 23.6 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting. He's also taking advantage of a weakened Chicago front line, grabbing eight rebounds per game (four offensive).
But much more shocking than everything he's done on offense has been his work on the other side of the court, the side he's hardly known for. When Lopez sits on the bench in these playoffs, the Bulls score 118.9 points per 100 possessions. When he plays, that figure drops down to 95.5. Lopez is also blocking 3.4 shots per game, a noticeable improvement from his 2.1 blocks during the regular season.
The "Best Center Alive" mantle is temporarily empty heading into the summer, and if Lopez continues to play as well as he has, he just might fill the void.
1. Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry was the best three-point shooter in basketball this year, putting together one of the most impressive (if not THE most impressive) single-season campaigns in NBA history.
But the way he makes three-pointers is just as impressive as how many go in. Curry seemingly attempts (and makes) just as many off the dribble as he does in spot-up situations, with the former method being universally accepted as far more difficult.
So far, his first postseason has been an eye-popping fireworks display of the likes we've never seen before. In four games against the heavily favored Denver Nuggets, he's averaging 27.3 points per game while sinking 47.4 percent of his three-pointers.
That average is obviously insane, but what makes his performance even more impressive is the incredible volume. Curry is attempting 9.5 threes per game and making 4.5! (To put that number in perspective, the Memphis Grizzlies—an entire team—made 4.7 three-pointers per game during the regular season.)
He's as unstoppable an offensive force as any player in the league this side of LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and watching him pull up 30 feet from the basket has quickly become one of the most thrilling sequences in these playoffs.