The NBA playoffs have finally arrived, and with them comes opportunity.
Opportunity for stars to crumble under the pressure.
Opportunity for role players to step up and become heroes (Danny Green last year, anyone?)
Opportunity for veterans to remind us all that experience does matter.
And most importantly, opportunity to witness some of the world's best players playing their best basketball at the most important time.
Who will be at their best when the lights are the brightest?
Point Guard: John Wall
The Wizards won't get out of the first round, but John Wall will put on such a spectacular performance against the Bulls that we'll still be talking about him when the playoffs are over.
J-Wall has quietly become a star in this league. He's no longer just an incredible athlete blessed with blazing speed and tremendous finishing ability. Now, he's a true point guard who understands the nuances of how to distribute the ball and attack defenses.
|NBA Assists Leaders 2014|
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If Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin are able to contain him, then they belong here instead.
They won't be able to, though.
This is Wall's time.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler
Joakim Noah has been given the majority of the credit for the Chicago Bulls' second-half surge, but Jimmy Butler deserves just as much.
Not only has he filled the Luol Deng-sized void in the Bulls' lineup, but he's also led the team in minutes (38.7 per game) and his defense on opposing teams' top perimeter player every night has been spectacular.
The Bulls will only go as far as Butler takes them, and since I'm anticipating a fairly deep playoff run for Chicago (they could easily force game seven against Indiana) that means I'm also anticipating great things from Jimmy.
Small Forward: LeBron James
LeBron is simply incredible. He's one of those players who requires very little explanation when included in an article like this.
So yeah, I don't really feel like I'm going too far out on a limb here. He'll play his best basketball in May and June.
Power Forward: David West
David West and Roy Hibbert will be the beneficiaries of a much smaller and weaker Hawks frontcourt in their first-round series.
Then in the second round—assuming the Pacers can figure out their recent problems—West gets to go up against Carlos Boozer, who hasn't played a lick of defense since he entered the league.
If the Pacers are able to take care of business against Chicago and advance to play the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row, David West will have yet another great matchup.
Lost in the Paul George vs. Lebron James battle and the overarching Pacers-Heat rivalry has been West's production against this small-ball Miami team.
Here are his points and rebound totals from the four games against Miami this season:
|David West vs. Miami|
Compared to his season averages of 14 and 6.8, it's clear West loves bullying Chris Bosh in the paint.
Center: Joakim Noah
When Derrick Rose was lost to injury earlier this season, many people believed the Bulls' championship hopes—perhaps even their playoff hopes—were lost with him.
Joakim Noah was not one of those people.
Noah has been an absolute beast all year in leading an undermanned Bulls team to the fourth overall seed. And if you think Marcin Gortat can handle this guy—or score on him—in the first round, you are mistaken.
More importantly—and since Chicago should be able to advance past Washington—how's Roy Hibbert going to handle Noah?
Can Hibbert defend him out on the elbow? Can he run the floor with him? Can he match his intensity?
The answer to all of the above questions is no.
The matchup with Hibbert might not seem like one where Noah holds a strong advantage, but he most definitely does. And if he can capitalize on his superior speed and perimeter play, Noah will garner plenty of headlines throughout that series.
Point Guard: Chris Paul
CP3 is the best point guard in the NBA and just so happens to be on a team surrounded by players who rely on him to get them the ball in the right spots.
Oh wait, maybe the Clippers brought those types of players in on purpose.
Los Angeles needs Paul to orchestrate its high-flying, dangerous attack flawlessly if it wants to make it to the Western Conference Finals.
Seeing as how the Clippers have built their entire team around his skill set, they must be pretty confident in his ability to do so.
Shooting Guard: J.J. Redick
This is by far the most unlikely candidate out of all the players listed here, but Redick is poised to have a fantastic month of May—and possibly June.
The Warriors series is going to be incredibly fast-paced with both teams looking to push the tempo and get up and down the court.
A faster game means more three-point opportunities in transition for Redick. For his career, he's a 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc, so he's going to hit those with some regularity.
While defenses focus their attention on stopping the penetration ability of Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, Redick could benefit from being the forgotten man during the playoffs.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant
Remember what I said about LeBron not really needing much explanation? The same goes for Durant.
There's just no way he was being left off of this list.
Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge
The Rockets had an extremely difficult time containing Aldridge this season, so there's no reason to believe that won't continue in the first round of the playoffs.
Sure, teams have more time to game-plan around opposing players, but all the strategy in the world can't make up for the fact that the 6'9" Terrence Jones will be trying to contain the 6'11" Aldridge.
This is a guy who was an MVP candidate for much of the season. He's also a guy who went for 31 points and 25 rebounds against the Rockets back in December.
A great matchup in the first round will lead to some great statistics, and if Portland is able to knock off Houston and advance to play the Spurs (we assume), that's another great matchup for him.
Watch out, Western Conference.
Center: Tim Duncan
Compare Duncan's career regular-season averages to his career playoff averages:
|Tim Duncan Regular Season vs. Postseason Averages|
He gets better.
Judging by some of the incredible regular-season numbers he's put up over the course of his career, this is pretty remarkable.
Timmy plays his best basketball when his team needs him most. Remember when he scored 25 points in the first half of Game 6 of the NBA Finals last year? If you forgot, here you go:
The NBA regular season always enters a bit of a lull towards the back end when half the teams aren't really playing for much more than their slot in the upcoming draft lottery.
However, once that lull ends, the playoffs arrive with a tremendous amount of fanfare and excitement.
Enjoy the games!
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