The 2013 NBA playoffs have morphed into a war of attrition among the league's most prominent superstars.
Russell Westbrook is out on account of knee surgery suffered in his second postseason contest. David Lee went down with a hip injury in his first. Derrick Rose remains sidelined by his own ongoing recovery from a torn ACL, while the Chicago Bulls scrape by with a hobbled Joakim Noah and without Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng. Dwyane Wade remains plagued by his bad knee, Tim Duncan can't seem to keep his food down and Amar'e Stoudemire is working his way back from yet another knee procedure.
And that's to say nothing of all the other big names (Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari, Joe Johnson, etc.) whose injuries contributed to their respective teams' first-round exits.
As such, you'd have an easier time winning a game of "Operation" than you would predicting who's healthy, who's not, and what that all means for each team from game to game—much less how the best of the best stack up against one another.
"Luckily" for you, we're foolhardy enough to tease out superstar power rankings from this mess, as you'll see.
Team: Miami Heat
Regular-Season Stats: 21.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 24.0 PER
Postseason Stats: 14.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, 17.7 PER
Dwyane Wade's gimpy knee came back to haunt him in Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks and didn't appear to heal in time for the start of Miami's series against the Chicago Bulls. Wade hit just 7-of-16 attempts for 14 points (with three turnovers) in the Heat's surprising 93-86 loss.
To Wade's credit, he impacted the game in other ways (four assists, three steals, two rebounds, one block). And, like most of Miami's players, he was much more effective in Game 2, with 15 points (on 7-of-11 from the field), three rebounds, and five assists in 28 minutes.
Clearly, Miami is much more menacing when its superstar shooting guard is scoring in bunches in support of LeBron James and playing lockdown defense on the other end. The Heat, then, had better hope that D-Wade can turn in efficient efforts on a more consistent basis while dealing with a bad wheel, lest they find themselves in a bigger hole against a healthier opponent later on in these playoffs.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Regular-Season Stats: 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.7 blocks, 24.4 PER
Postseason Stats: 18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 20.9 PER
It's no mystery that Tim Duncan is no longer the singular player on whose success or failure the Spurs' fortunes ultimately ride. That much was made clear in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors, when San Antonio erased a 16-point deficit and went on to win in double overtime after Duncan left for the locker room on account of a stomach bug.
But that didn't stop Duncan from leaving his stamp on the proceedings, with 19 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes. Nor has Timmy's relegation, from leader of three champions to Hall of Fame helping hand, done anything to diminish how impressive he's been all year for the Spurs—at the age of 37, in his 16th NBA season, no less. He was similarly productive in Game 2 (23 points, nine rebounds, two assists, and one block), albeit in a 100-91 defeat for his Spurs.
As much as San Antonio likes to push the pace and run pick-and-roll with Tony Parker, the Spurs still lean on Duncan to serve as an offensive hub in half-court sets.
Which makes Timmy's health and longevity all the more important now, as San Antonio seeks to capitalize on Russell Westbrook's injury to sneak into the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
Team: Chicago Bulls
Regular-Season Stats: 11.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.1 blocks, 18.1 PER
Postseason Stats: 11.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.6 blocks, 19.3 PER
You don't have to score points in bunches or rack up highlight after highlight to have a monumental impact on your team's fortunes in the playoffs.
Joakim Noah should know. He's never averaged more than 12 points per game during a full regular season or more than 15 during a playoff stint that lasted more than five games. He's also yet to lead the NBA in any major statistical category.
And yet, the All-Star center has carried the Chicago Bulls into the second round of the playoffs—on a bad wheel, no less. Noah's skills as a rebounder, shot-blocker and passer out of the post are—and have been—bested only by his toughness, tenacity and ability to get under the skin of the opposition with regularity.
In essence, he's the glue that's held together the Bulls so far through the 2013 postseason, as his teammates succumb to injury and illness left and right.
Most impressively, Noah doesn't seem the least bit resentful of any of it. For instance, rather than chide Derrick Rose for continuing to sit out long after he'd been cleared by doctors, Noah recently went out of his way to scold those who would criticize Rose for taking his time returning from a torn ACL (per Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com).
Noah's the consummate "Guy You'd Love to Have on Your Team But Would Hate to Play Against," and he's helped to propel Chicago through its surprising journey as a result. Unfortunately, Noah's on-court passion got the best of him in Game 2, when the boiling-over of his frustration yielded two technical fouls and a subsequent ejection in the fourth quarter.
Team: Indiana Pacers
Regular-Season Stats: 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 16.8 PER
Postseason Stats: 18.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 17.4 PER
Twenty points seem like a reasonable output for Paul George, right? I mean, you could hardly fault the guy for the Pacers' 105-79 loss in Game 2 against the Knicks, considering he led his team in scoring.
That is, until you consider he scored the last of those points with eight minutes to go...in the third quarter. From that point on, George missed three shots—all from beyond the arc—and turned the ball over four times as the game turned from surprisingly competitive to laughably one-sided.
Of course, that second-half slide doesn't and can't entirely counteract all the good that George has done for Indy so far in these playoffs. He's led the Pacers in scoring five times while doing a bang-up job defensively, crashing the boards and spicing up the offense with his passing from time to time.
On the whole, though, George still has a ways to go before he can be rightly considered a bona fide superstar. Consistency wasn't exactly his forte during the regular season, and his ability to produce at an elite level on a nightly basis has come into question again since then. Paul figures to find his footing again at home, where he's been dynamite to this point.
But if the Pacers are to make a legitimate run at the Eastern Conference crown, they'll need Paul George to play at an All-Star level every time he takes the floor.
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Position: C (Gasol), PG (Conley)
Age: 28 (Gasol), 25 (Conley)
Regular-Season Stats: 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.7 blocks, 19.5 PER (Gasol); 14.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 18.3 PER (Conley)
Postseason Stats: 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.6 blocks, 22.1 PER (Gasol); 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.9 PER (Conley)
It's difficult (if not downright impossible) to tease the success of Marc Gasol apart from that of Mike Conley in these playoffs. Gasol has stepped up his productivity on both ends while continuing to quarterback Memphis' stifling defense and lubricate the team's inside-out offense.
But any praise of Gasol (or Zach Randolph, for that matter) is incomplete without a considerable nod to Conley. The 25-year-old point guard has come into his own in these playoffs and made the five-year, $40 million deal to which the Grizzlies signed him in 2010 look like an absolute steal. He's stepped up as just the sort of slashing-and-shooting perimeter threat that Memphis needed after shipping Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors back in January. Conley has come through in the clutch on many an occasion in the 2013 postseason alone.
And, well, his line of 26-10-9 in Game 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder was pretty darn impressive in its own right.
Admittedly, including Gasol and Conley as a tandem is something of a cop-out; a way to duck the tough decision as to whom to leave out of this particular top 10. Still, it's tough to imagine that Gasol would be operating with the same ease and efficiency with which he has so far without Conley's evolution into a star at the point.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Regular-Season Stats: 20.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 23.0 PER
Postseason Stats: 22.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.7 PER
Apparently, Tony Parker didn't mind spending more than a week away from live NBA action. After helping his Spurs sweep the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, Parker came back with a robust line of 28-8-8 in just under 48 minutes during San Antonio's double-overtime win against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1.
Granted, that performance was hardly Parker's most efficient. He missed 15-of-26 shots, including seven misfires in the paint.
But, to Tony's credit, he scored 16 of his 28 points after the third quarter, including six crucial points during the second overtime period. Parker will be hard-pressed to slow down Stephen Curry, given his own defensive shortcomings.
However, so long as Tony can carry his squad on the offensive end, the Spurs shouldn't have too much trouble dispatching Golden State by the end of this series.
That is, unless Parker keeps getting burned on the defensive end, as was the case in Game 2, when Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry combined to score 56 points for the Warriors in a 100-91 Golden State win.
Team: New York Knicks
Regular-Season Stats: 28.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.8 PER
Postseason Stats: 29.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 21.3 PER
Carmelo Anthony finally snapped out of his shooting "slump" with a 32-point, 13-of-26 performance during the Knicks' 105-79 Game 2 beatdown of the Indiana Pacers.
"Slump" might not be the best word with which to describe 'Melo's woes, though. Anthony's sore shoulder probably played a part in his missing 75-of-110 shots between Game 4 against the Boston Celtics and Game 1 opposite the Pacers.
The Knicks' iso-heavy recidivism couldn't have helped his accuracy much, either. So much of 'Melo's success during his scoring-title campaign came from his work off the ball and the improved quality of the shots with which he wound up.
If New York is to regain control of this series, the team must make a concerted effort to diversify its offense, particularly via the pick-and-roll and passing around the perimeter—if for no other reason than to ease the burden on Anthony to dominate possession every time down the floor.
Team: Golden State Warriors
Regular-Season Stats: 22.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 21.3 PER
Postseason Stats: 26.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 23.5 PER
At this point, the biggest threat to Stephen Curry's success may well be Stephen Curry.
Curry was nothing short of brilliant on the whole in Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs. He piled up 44 points—half of which came in another thrilling third quarter—and 11 assists in the Warriors' 129-127 loss in double overtime.
But that brilliance, and Mark Jackson's attempt to ride it to the finish line, may well have cost Curry and the Warriors in the end. Curry played all but four seconds out of a possible 58 minutes in San Antonio and admitted after the game that his "legs weren't there" (per Fran Blinebury of NBA.com). That much was evident during the game, as Steph missed his last seven jump shots while the Spurs whittled away at what had been a 16-point fourth-quarter lead for Golden State.
(Why Curry couldn't get a rest with the Dubs up double digits is another mystery entirely.)
It would behoove the Warriors, then, to sit Steph a wee bit more liberally from here on out. Otherwise, they run the risk of tiring out their rising superstar prior to crunch time.
Or, worse, of suffering a wear-and-tear injury from which there would be no return for Golden State's postseason hopes.
To Curry's credit, he stayed true to his newfound "ironman" status in Game 2, with 22 points, four rebounds, and four assists in 43 massive minutes.
Which, compared to the nearly 58 minutes he played in Game 1, was practically a walk in the park.
Team: Miami Heat
Regular-Season Stats: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 31.6 PER
Postseason Stats: 23.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 27.8 PER
If LeBron James can survive a week away from the court, methinks he'd be fine relinquishing the top spot among NBA superstars who are still active in the postseason—especially with that prime real estate going to a certain workout buddy/rival of his for the time being.
By his lofty standards, James was far from otherworldly during the Heat's 93-86 loss in Game 1 to the Chicago Bulls. He scored two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, marking the worst half of his playoff career, and missed two shots (and a free throw) down the stretch as Miami went cold on the offensive end.
That being said, the fact that a line of 24-8-7 with two steals, a block and just three turnovers could come across as "ordinary" or "subpar" speaks to just how "next level" this guy is. For Pete's sake, the guy almost had a triple-double, and some folks wondered afterward what was wrong with him!
Hopefully, his critics all found comfortable places in which to hide after seeing LeBron and Heat eviscerate Chicago in Game 2. James scored all 19 of his points in the first half and used the second half to rack up five of his nine assists, with three rebounds and three steals scattered thereabouts.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Regular-Season Stats: 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks, 28.3 PER
Postseason Stats: 33.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks, 30.5 PER
So long as everyone still knows that LeBron James is the best player in the game (and definitely deserved to be the NBA's first unanimous MVP, right Zach Lowe?), I think it's safe to use this space to recognize how superbly Kevin Durant has played in Russell Westbrook's absence.
Simply put, Durant has done more of everything without his trusty sidekick on whom to lean on. Since Westbrook's incapacitation against the Houston Rockets, Durant has averaged 35.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and racking up 11.3 free-throw attempts per game.
Not that KD has been perfect, by any stretch. He turned the ball over seven times in the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 5 loss to Houston, missed 7-of-8 three-point attempts in Game 5 and, most recently, misfired on his last three shots as the Thunder fell to the Memphis Grizzlies at home in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
On the whole, though, it's tough to ask more of Durant's first foray into Three Dog Night-style superstardom. He knows that his team's odds of success depend almost entirely on his own transcendence, and so far, he's delivered.