What We've Learned About NBA's Top Superstars in Playoffs
The stars have come out in the 2013 NBA playoffs, though not necessarily to play.
Some (Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook) have been sidelined by injuries, others (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker) by quick work in the first round. Some (Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden) have stepped up their respective games, while others (Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony at times) have...well, not.
With half the field dispatched, it's become clearer than ever that superstars still rule the postseason and will continue to do so right up until one team lifts the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
That being said, let's take a moment to reflect on what else we've learned about the NBA's best and brightest since pro basketball's Big Dance began.
Good Luck Stopping LeBron James
Congratulations, Chicago Bulls! You managed to outlast the Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series, despite a rash of injuries and illnesses that might've forced Tom Thibodeau to enlist the team's water boy and/or towel boy to sop up minutes in the backcourt.
Your reward? No, you're not going to Disneyworld, though you will be in Florida for a bit. Rather, you'll be spending the next week (or two, depending on how tough things get) battling LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who've been resting up since finishing off the Milwaukee Bucks on April 28th.
Good luck! You're going to need it, especially against James.
The near-unanimous MVP mauled Milwaukee all on his own in the first round. That series saw LeBron score 24.5 points on just 14.8 shots (thanks to astronomical 62.3 percent shooting from the field), rip down 7.8 rebounds and dish 6.8 assists in a modest 36.8 minutes per game.
It'd be reasonable to expect that the Bulls would do a better job on James than the Bucks just did. After all, Chicago is renowned for its toughness, intensity and smart scheming on the defensive end, with Thibs serving as the mastermind behind it all.
But, if the regular season is any indication, the Bulls might be in store for a stomping at King James' coronation. In four games against Chicago this season, LeBron averaged 28 points (on 63.8 percent shooting), eight rebounds and 4.5 assists in 37.6 minutes.
The Bulls managed to win two of those meetings, including one that snapped Miami's 27-game winning streak.
Chicago, then, has the chops to steal a game or two from the Heat, though only if LeBron doesn't continue to set the court ablaze with every step, NBA Jam style.
Derrick Rose Isn't Coming Back, Even If He Says He Might
The Chicago Bulls' immediate cause would certainly be boosted by the return of a healthy Derrick Rose. The 2010-11 NBA MVP, though, remains decked out in his finest street clothes, despite mounting pressure from fans in the Windy City for their superstar to gut it out like his teammates have in this postseason.
And good on him for not bowing to that pressure. Rose is the caliber of player whose talents deserve championship contention, and these Bulls, for all of their admirable efforts, aren't in that conversation.
As such, there's no point in unduly risking Rose's health—and, in turn, that of the franchise's future prospects—if he doesn't feel he's ready to play just yet.
Nonetheless, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports has a point in criticizing Rose and his brother Reggie for lending false hope to the people of the Windy City.
Why pretend that Derrick might come back now, during a series against the defending champs, when he hasn't played a single minute all season? Why say that you don't want to risk anything, on the one hand, and leave open the possibility of jeopardizing Rose's well-being against the Heat on the other?
Why toy with peoples' emotions and drag around the same old media circus when you could just as easily put an end to all of this silly speculation with a simple proclamation: "I'm not playing this season"?
Rose still insists that there's a chance he'll play this postseason (per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today), even if every other indicator suggests otherwise.
Missing a full year at the peak of his athletic powers is bad enough for Derrick's career. The last thing he needs to do is compound matters by turning himself into a PR-poor villain in his own hometown with an ongoing campaign of false hope.
Kevin Durant Is NOT Nice...Er
Kevin Durant appears to be getting the hang of this whole "No Russell Westbrook" thing.
Statistically speaking, Durant has been superb in these playoffs sans his superstar sidekick. In five games since Westbrook was Patrick Beverley'd, Durant has averaged 35.4 points (on 50.8 percent shooting), 10.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 44.2 minutes per game.
Not that KD's been perfect, by any stretch. He's averaged an unsightly 4.2 turnovers, including seven giveaways in Game 4 against the Houston Rockets, and shot a less-than-stellar 30 percent from three, dragged down by a 1-of-8 performance in Game 5.
So far, though, he's been good enough, to say the least. His performance in Game 1 was precisely what you'd expect from a super-duper-star doing everything within his power to will his team to victory. Durant outscored the Memphis Grizzlies all by himself (12-10) over the final 7:30 of the Oklahoma City Thunder's 93-91 win on Sunday.
If Durant can maintain his "God Mode" shtick for, say, another three-to-four weeks, he may well have OKC back in the NBA Finals, Westbrook or no. That, in itself, would be vindication enough for KD as...well, still No. 2.
Carmelo Anthony Should Dance with the Ones Who Brought Him
Carmelo Anthony could certainly use some of whatever it is that's gotten into Kevin Durant lately. The shots aren't dropping for Anthony quite like they were down the stretch of the 2012-13 regular season, when he blazed his way to his first-ever scoring title while carrying the New York Knicks to their first Atlantic Division crown since 1993-94.
'Melo's shot just 37.8 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from three in these playoffs. Those numbers have dropped considerably—to 31.8 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively—in the four games since the Knicks took a 3-0 series lead on the Boston Celtics.
Part of this drop-off can be chalked up to a shift in fortunes. Anthony's long made hay by nailing difficult, low-percentage, low-value shots (i.e. contested long twos). Sometimes they go down, sometimes they don't, and the latter has been the case more often than not of late.
Part of this is due to the typical increase in defensive pressure that accompanies playoff basketball. The Celtics and now the Indiana Pacers have gone out of their way to take 'Melo out of his comfort zone by pestering him with physical play and multiple defenders nearly every time he touches the ball.
But that was bound to happen, regardless of what 'Melo tried to do.
The bigger concern here is how he and the Knicks have reacted to it. Rather than sticking to what made their offense so good during the regular season (spread pick-and-roll, moving the ball around the perimeter, lots of threes, spreading the wealth, fewer dribbles for Anthony and JR Smith), the Knicks have resorted back to the worst of their offensive habits: a dangerous reliance on isolation ball.
New York has been far too content far too often to let 'Melo and J.R. run clock with the ball in their hands before jacking up bad shots.
Such an approach makes the Knicks' offense one-dimensional and, thus, easy to defend—just as it does for 'Melo himself—while dampening New York's prospects of putting together a deep playoff push.
Tony Parker: Somehow, Still Underrated
You remember Tony Parker, don't you? All-Star point guard, sixth in the MVP voting (way too low), the centerpiece of a San Antonio Spurs squad that now looks like the favorite to win the Western Conference.
Ring a bell?
To some extent, it's understandable if it doesn't. Parker's Spurs haven't set foot in an NBA game since their last throttling of the Los Angeles Lakers on April 28th. That game saw Tony tally 23 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals in just over 26 minutes.
Parker averaged 22.3 points and 6.5 assists in 31.8 minutes during that series, albeit against a Lakers backcourt for which the term "depleted" would be a euphemism.
He'll have every opportunity to school the Golden State Warriors' young, mistake-prone guards with his quickness and skill off the bounce.
Of some concern, though, is Tony's defense, or lack thereof. The Spurs will need Parker to make Stephen Curry and company work for their looks and points. Otherwise, the Warriors are liable to catch fire and (perhaps) put a crimp in San Antonio's playoff plans, just as they did to the Denver Nuggets in Round 1.
Welcome to the Club, Stephen Curry
Speaking of Stephen Curry, he did plenty in the first round to prove that he belongs in the conversation as one of the most exciting (and unique) superstars in the NBA today.
Curry's sharpshooting played a huge part in propelling the Golden State Warriors to a six-game series victory over the three-seed Denver Nuggets, even more so with David Lee incapacitated after Game 1.
In his team's four wins, Curry averaged 28 points on 52.9 percent shooting (50 percent from three), with 9.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals. In the two losses, those numbers dropped to 17 points on 35.9 percent shooting (29.4 percent from three), with 8.5 assists, four rebounds and one steal.
Which is to say, when Steph plays well, the Warriors win. When he doesn't, they lose.
You don't need to be a particle physicist to figure that out. Whether Curry can keep it up against the San Antonio Spurs' stout defense while matched up (presumably) with Tony Parker on the other end will go a long way toward determining to which echelon of superstars he's best suited.
And, of course, how far Golden State ends up going in its first playoffs since 2007.
Same Goes for You, James Harden
The Houston Rockets didn't enjoy nearly the success into which Curry's Warriors stumbled, though James Harden did plenty to suggest that superstardom is right around the bend.
Assuming he hasn't achieved it already.
Harden stuffed the stat sheet with 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 11.0 free-throw attempts across six games against his old Oklahoma City Thunder 'mates, including a 31-8-3 while battling the flu in Game 5.
The series itself provided an intriguing glimpse into the Rockets' future with Harden as the team's primary perimeter scorer.
A Game 1 blowout aside, Houston did well to blitz OKC's slumping defense with a small-ball lineup that featured Patrick Beverley at the point. According to NBA.com, the five-man unit of Harden, Beverley, Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia and Omer Asik (i.e. Houston's starting lineup after Jeremy Lin's chest injury) outscored the Thunder by 28 points in 78 minutes over the final four games of the series.
Granted, Russell Westbrook's absence may have contributed to some of that success, though the Rockets' smaller, quicker arrangement showed plenty of promise in Game 2, even before Westbrook went down.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey will have all manner of machinations at his disposal—between cap space, draft considerations, cheap assets and movable contracts—with which to add another key piece to the puzzle this summer.
The fact that he has a bona fide All-Star and scoring savant around which to organize everything makes Houston that much more likely to leap into the upper crust of the Western Conference before long.
No, the Lakers Aren't Better off Without Kobe Bryant
I'll admit, even I considered whether the Los Angeles Lakers might be better off without Kobe Bryant.
After all, the Lakers had played with so much heart and hustle while sharing the ball on offense and hunkering down on defense during the last two games of the regular season after Kobe went down with a torn Achilles.
Then came the playoffs, and the crumbling of LA's backcourt in Kobe's absence, and the San Antonio Spurs' efforts to jam Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the middle, and Bryant hobbling into a courtside seat with the help of crutches during Game 4 after Dwight was ejected with a second technical foul.
By that point, it became all too clear to anyone with eyes and a brain that the Lakers were not, in fact, better off without Kobe Bryant.
Not that the Lakers' brass won't (or shouldn't) at least consider amnestying Kobe's onerous contract, contrary to Mitch Kupchak's public proclamations.
At this point, though, LA would probably do just as well to keep Kobe, Pau and Steve Nash, do their darndest to re-sign Dwight, try to restock the roster with inexpensive perimeter players who can defend and/or shoot and give it another go in 2013-14 with the hope that this past season's injury-plagued disaster will prove more fluke that trend.
That is, assuming the Buss family doesn't mind taking a massive hit to its pocketbook before the salary situation clears up in the summer of 2014.
Chris Paul Needs More Help
The 2012-13 Los Angeles Clippers were supposed to be the best team with which Chris Paul had ever played—on paper, anyway.
As it happens, the Clips finished with a record (56-26) identical to that of the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets, which cracked the second round of the playoffs that year and stood as CP3's most successful pro outfit.
And still does, after LA's untimely flameout in the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies. Paul did nearly all he could to keep the Clips afloat, with 22.8 points (on 53.3 percent shooting) and 6.3 assists to his credit.
But his supporting cast turned out to be far shallower than had previously been anticipated.
Blake Griffin barely showed up after first quarters before succumbing to a high ankle sprain. DeAndre Jordan was as much of an offensive liability as ever, thereby hamstringing the Clips' crunch-time rotation. Jamal Crawford couldn't stay hot, Chauncey Billups looked old and Eric Bledsoe probably should've played more.
However you apportion blame (his name starts with a "V" and rhymes with "Inny Del Negro"), the fact remains that the Clippers underachieved relative to their talent, expectations and collective ceiling.
The onus now shifts back to LA's front office to figure out how best to retool its coaching staff and roster to prepare for another postseason push.
And, more importantly, to bring back Chris Paul, who'll be an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. His decision will serve as arguably the biggest and most nerve-wracking litmus test of the "Clippers Curse" that the team has ever seen.
A Farewell to the Truth and the Big Ticket?
Chris Paul isn't the only superstar who might be bidding farewell to his current city this summer. The same could be true for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, though for them, whatever happens could be far more final.
Pierce and Garnett did well to carry the Boston Celtics back into the playoffs—and within striking distance of a comeback from down 0-3 in a series to the New York Knicks—without the aid of Rajon Rondo.
Pierce anchored the offense (with help from Jeff Green and Jason Terry) while Garnett captained the defense, as had so often been the case during their six seasons together in Beantown.
But the truth is that the Truth, who will be 36 by the start of next season, can no longer serve as the fulcrum of an offense on a nightly basis.
As for the Big Ticket, whose 37th birthday is just around the corner, he battled valiantly through all manner of injuries this season, as he has during the last few, but seems likely to opt for retirement if Pierce isn't around (per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports).
Those two did remarkably well to bring excitement, quality basketball and championship expectations back to Boston for the first time since the 1980s. But now may be the time to start over.
Jeff Green showed that he deserves a chance to be an offensive cornerstone for a significant stretch. Rondo figures to return from his torn ACL at some point in 2013-14. Even if Pierce and KG come back, it's tough to imagine the C's competing at an elite level in the Eastern Conference while leaning so heavily on two near-retirees.
So, if Game 6 against the Knicks was, indeed, the last hurrah for Pierce and Garnett in Celtics green, then they deserve every shred of nostalgia and hagiography that's headed their way. They represented Boston on a basketball court better than any tandem in years.
And, for that, C's fans should be eternally grateful.