Ranking the Best 1-2 Punches in the 2014 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 25, 2014

Ranking the Best 1-2 Punches in the 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    It's by far the least threatening, easily the most entertaining arms race you'll ever see.

    NBA teams have filled their ranks with dynamic duos, because in a superstars league, it takes two (at least) to tango with the Larry O'Brien championship trophy.

    The star power in the 2014 playoff picture is awe-inspiring, even without those familiar faces left behind by the basketball gods (Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant). The parity in this field is incredible. Only three teams still own an unblemished postseason record, and only one of those three is a top-four seed.

    There's depth among the elites, and it trickles all the way down to the last teams to collect their tickets to the second season. Those supporting casts will have their moments, but it's these tremendous twosomes that will consistently shine in this 16-win trek to the top.

    From the decorated (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) to the newcomers (Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker), each playoff team packs a wicked one-two punch. But which ones are best equipped to throw (and land) a knockout blow?

    It's that question we'll attempt to answer here, as we take a numerical look at the best two-man combos in the game.

    These rankings are statistically based.

    Each pair was judged on its average game score (an all-encompassing formula developed by former ESPN analyst and current Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger) and its average rank across three efficiency metrics: player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage and defensive rating. Stats were measured for both regular season and playoff performance to determine the NBA's top two-man tandems of this NBA postseason.

    The combined total of those four averages gave each group its "tandem score" (the lower the better) and decided its place among the top one-two punches in this playoff field.

    All statistics obtained via Basketball-Reference and accurate as of April 24, 2014.

The Best of the Rest

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    Honorable mention didn't feel like the right way to describe these prolific pairings. Not with the name recognition and All-Star accolades these players carry.

    Statistically, these six combos fell just short of securing a spot inside the top 10. Just try explaining that to the teams that have face them on a nightly basis.

    16. Washington Wizards: John Wall, PG, and Bradley Beal, SG

    Tandem Score: 11.83

    The bad news for Wizards fans is that their incendiary backcourt claimed the bottom spot in these rankings. The good news? Washington has a deep arsenal of contributors (Nene, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, to name a few), and the knowledge that either John Wall or Bradley Beal (or both) could erupt at any minute.

    15. Chicago Bulls: Joakim Noah, C, and D.J. Augustin, PG

    Tandem Score: 11.67

    You won't find a bigger outlier name on this list than D.J. Augustin. The guy got cut by the Toronto Raptors early in the 2013-14 campaign. But the Bulls have simplified his to-do list (see three, make three) and wound up with a really productive player in the process. Joakim Noah, the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year, deserves some legitimate MVP consideration for his two-way contributions.

    14. Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams, PG, and Joe Johnson, SG

    Tandem Score: 11.42

    Shouldering $190 million expectations and led by a first-year coach (Jason Kidd), who many thought was in over his head, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson still found a way to keep the Brooklyn sky from falling. "Joe Jesus" has ice water in his veins during crunch time, and D-Will (despite nagging ankle injuries) still possesses a lethal mix of Yo-Yo handles, court vision and a combustible three-point stroke.

    13. Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki, PF, and Monta Ellis, SG

    Tandem Score: 11.33

    Dirk Nowitzki's been around long enough where his box scores are now chiseled into the game's historical archives. The man who doesn't age has been climbing the all-time scoring ranks all season (he's 10th for now) and shows no signs of slowing down. Monta Ellis has enjoyed his best shooting campaign in three seasons (45.1 field-goal percentage) and flashed a selflessness (5.7 assists a night) that defies his "gunner" reputation.

    12. Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry, PG, and DeMar DeRozan, SG

    Tandem Score: 10.92

    Behind a career-best 22.7 scoring average, DeMar DeRozan gave the Toronto Raptors their first All-Star representative since Chris Bosh took his final trip north of the border in 2010. Kyle Lowry (17.9 points, 7.4 assists) should have been their second. Instead, the bulldog point guard has shifted his focus to guiding the franchise's first playoff berth since 2008.

    11. Charlotte Bobcats: Al Jefferson, C, and Kemba Walker, PG

    Tandem Score: 10.75

    It's OK, Charlotte Bobcat fans, you can blame the basketball gods for this. If Al Jefferson wasn't hobbling around on one leg (torn plantar fascia), this group might have claimed a higher spot on the list. Playoff pain aside, credit the franchise for correctly tabbing Big Al as a capable leader (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds in the regular season) and building a defense that makes Kemba Walker's volume scoring a significant lift.

10. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley, PG, and Zach Randolph, PF

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    Tandem Score: 9.92

    It's hard to say if the cliche saying "Defense wins championships" applies to today's NBA. It's tempting to make that claim, though, when the Memphis Grizzlies are grit-and-grinding their way through a treacherous opening round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Good guy Mike Conley, one of six regional winners of the league's 2013-14 NBA Sportsmanship Award, might seem like a curious leader for the fearsome Grizzlies. He seems a bit too nice to be heading such a fearsome group.

    See him on the court, though, and it's obvious: He's perfectly equipped to handle the job. Whether slicing up a defense himself (17.2 points) or setting up his teammates (6.0 assists), he scratches some of Memphis' biggest itches.

    He's upped the ante in the postseason (18.3 points, 8.7 assists) and played a major role in Memphis stealing home-court advantage from the second-seeded Thunder.

    Marc Gasol could have held this spot, as the former Defensive Player of the Year sets the tempo for the Grizzlies' lockdown defense. Zach Randolph got the nod, though, as his team-leading 17.4 points a game will be needed for Memphis to traverse through the high-powered Western Conference field.

9. San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker, PG, and Tim Duncan, PF

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    Tandem Score: 9.5

    We're past the point of absurdity with San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan. If Father Time hadn't closed the door on the 37-year-old, then the changing face of his position should have bolted it shut.

    Somehow, that's just what should have happened, though. What has actually transpired is another year of near nightly double-doubles (15.1 points, 9.7 assists) and further proof that coach Gregg Popovich knows the true location of the Fountain of Youth.

    So, what's the secret to Duncan's longevity?

    "It's his length and his hands," a Western Conference general manager told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. "It doesn't matter if his knees slow him down. It's his hands, more than anything."

    Skills, savvy and a decade-plus of service under a brilliant mind like Popovich have certainly helped too. Duncan is all of one game removed from his most recent 20-plus-point playoff performance, and he'll have perhaps the loudest say in San Antonio's climb back to the NBA Finals.

    Tony Parker felt the grip of Pop's preservation plan tighten this season (29.4 minutes a night, tied for the fewest of his career), but he still filled the stat sheet enough to make the sixth All-Star trip of his career (16.7 points, 5.7 assists).

    If he finds a crease into the paint—he doesn't need a lot of room—then the Spurs' machine keeps plugging along: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

8. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, PG, and David Lee, PF

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    Tandem Score: 9.25

    The picture says it all. David Lee knows he wouldn't be sniffing this spot if not for the work of his sharpshooting teammate Stephen Curry.

    Lee's a great fit in a secondary role. He's a willing and able passer, a scorer (with either hand) when he's needed and, by all accounts, a great locker-room presence.

    Complimentary skills wouldn't claim a ranking this high, though. Enter Curry: the man with a three-point cannon (42.4 percent) and an underappreciated playmaking game (career-high 8.5 assists).

    "He's not just the purest, greatest shooter to ever play the game," Charlotte Bobcats director of international scouting Adam Filippi told ESPN The Magazine's David Fleming. "His elevation-type shot is redefining and revolutionizing the art of shooting."

    Curry's had a relatively quiet start to Golden State's playoff run (18.0 points, 10 assists). That hasn't happened by coincidence. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding explained, "[Los Angeles] Clippers coach Doc Rivers isn’t going to let Curry beat him."

    Curry has seen a steady diet of double-teams, and they won't go away until this series is finished. If Lee (or Splash Brother Klay Thompson) can shine in a starring role, Curry might get his chance to work some magic further down the playoff bracket.

    If not, he'll remain a one-man force capable of elevating a lop-sided two-man tandem higher than it should be.

7. Atlanta Hawks: Jeff Teague, PG, and Paul Millsap, PF

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    Team Score: 8.92

    Lost amid the flames from the Indiana Pacers' tire fire is the source of their latest burns: an Atlanta Hawks offense shredding the league's toughest defense.

    If the 2014 postseason catapults a player into superstardom, Hawks point guard Jeff Teague might be the one taking that flight. Lightning quick off the dribble with a three-point shot that's there when he needs it (five of 12 through three games), the fifth-year guard has built on a breakout season (16.5 points, 6.7 assists) with an even stronger playoff showing (21.3 points, 6.3 assists).

    "He's the head of the snake for us, for sure," Hawks swingman Kyle Korver said, via ESPN's Israel Gutierrez. "If he's putting pressure on the basket, it frees up the rest of us."

    The rest of them being Atlanta's unfairly deep collection of shooters. Nine different Hawks have already lit the lamp from beyond the arc, and seven of them have buried at least three triples.

    Matchup nightmares exist up and down the roster—particularly for the super-sized, plodding Pacers—but few have spawned more migraines than versatile forward Paul Millsap.

    He has a blue-collar mentality with white-collar skills. A 6'8", 245-pound package of ability, he can rip nets from deep (35.8 three-point percentage this season), take slower defenders off the dribble or overpower smaller ones on the low block.

    Top seeds have lost just five of 60 NBA postseason series since 1984. If Millsap and Teague keep hitting on all cylinders, that number could soon climb to six.

6. Indiana Pacers: Paul George, SF, and David West, PF

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    Tandem Score: 7.75

    Wait, didn't we just say ominously foreshadow the demise of the Circle City? Aren't the Indiana Pacers in serious jeopardy of a premature postseason exit?

    Well, yes to both. After watching the Pacers get backed up to the ropes and fall flat on the canvas during Thursday's 98-85 Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, it's impossible to place any kind of faith in Larry Bird's team.

    This collapse, though, is not for a lack of talent. The individual pieces might not paint a collective picture (at least not one women and children should have to see), but there's still some really good pieces on the roster.

    Surprisingly, the inclusion of regular-season stats actually hurt this duo more than it helped. Paul George and David West ranked outside the top 10 in three of the four regular-season categories measured (defensive rating being the lone exception), but they've posted top-seven or better marks since the start of the playoffs.

    George's field-goal percentage is down from the regular season (40.0 from 42.4), but his scoring is almost identical (21.0 from 21.7). He's made serious strides in three-point shooting (47.4 from 36.4), rebounding (11.3, 6.8) and distributing (5.0 assists, 3.5), as well.

    David West has been quiet (10.7 points, 4.0 rebounds), but he's made the most of his chances (53.6 percent shooting) and created others for his teammates (5.0 assists).

    This team is still trapped in a downward spiral, but we should do what the Pacers won't: blame Roy Hibbert.

5. Houston Rockets: Dwight Howard, C, and James Harden, SG

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    Tandem Score: 6.17

    Two things could send the Houston Rockets' duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard plummeting down these rankings: increasing the weight of Harden's playoff shooting woes (14 of 47) and making defending LaMarcus Aldridge its own category (more on that in a minute).

    Viewed under a macro lens, though, Harden and Howard remain one of the league's most talented twosomes.

    Harden hasn't looked the same since the start of the second season, but that can't entirely erase his remarkable 2013-14 campaign. Two players averaged at least 25 points, six assists and four rebounds this season: four-time MVP LeBron James...and Harden.

    Shifty with the basketball, deadly from distance (career 36.9 three-point percentage) and a scoring threat from anywhere inside the arc, Houston's bearded baller is an elite offensive talent. He gives back some of what he gets at the opposite end (OK, a lot of it), but if he's engaged in a point-production battle, he'll win more than he loses.

    As for Howard, he's broken the Superman cape out of his closet and done everything he can to play the hero role for Houston (29.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks through two games). That hasn't helped in the win column (Houston's down 2-0 in its first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers), but that could change if Harden finds his form.

    "We dug a hole but we can always get out of it," Howard said, per Sean Meagher of The Oregonian.

    Maybe that's wishful thinking on the big man's part. Or maybe it's a simple recognition of how much talent these Rockets have in their ranks.

4. Portland Trail Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, and Damian Lillard, PG

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    Tandem Score: 5.67

    If you don't have a shooting sleeve in your closet, you might want to consider buying one now. That might be the most logical explanation for the cheat-code-aided video game numbers LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have posted this postseason.

    Aldridge is on another planet right now, probably outside of our universe. According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN.com's Rachel Stern), the sweet-shooting big man is just the "third player in NBA postseason history with at least 40 points in Games 1 and 2 of a series on the road."

    "His mind has left his body and it has been replaced by the will of some sort of astral being whose religion is the mid-range jumper," Deadspin's Tom Ley wrote.

    Aldridge is scorching right now. If his you've-gotta-be-kidding-me 44.5-point scoring average didn't already boggle the mind enough, it's the way he's piled in those points that's truly astounding. He's shooting 59.3 percent from the field, while taking a higher percentage of his shots from the mid-range (37.3 percent) than anywhere else on the floor, via Basketball-Reference.

    Lillard, meanwhile, has been good for a ho-hum 24.5 points a night. Oh, he's also corralled 8.5 rebounds and dished out 8.0 assists.

    If you're doing the math, Portland has a walking 50 point threat in the post and a triple-double candidate on the perimeter. Go ahead and put down an order for those shooting sleeves, I'll wait.

    You got them? Good, let's keep it moving.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul, PG, and Blake Griffin, PF

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    Tandem Score: 3.17

    The difference between the No. 3 ranking and the top spot is wafer-thin. Check the tandem scores on the upcoming slides if you don't believe me.

    The fact that a star-studded duo like the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is occupying just the third rung on this ladder probably gave that away on its own. You could argue these two aren't the top players at their respective positions, but it'd be a hard one to win.

    If LaMarcus Aldridge wasn't rewriting the history books, we might all be gushing about the awesome power of the Griffin Force. If the Clippers' star forward hadn't been plagued by foul trouble in the series opener, we might be talking about his game regardless of what Aldridge has done. Griffin has logged 93 minutes through the first three games of L.A.'s playoff run and walked away with 83 points.

    "He's everything to our team right now,'' reserve guard Darren Collison said, via Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "He's playing with so much enthusiasm and focus and power and mental toughness."

    Griffin shares a locker room with CP3, and Collison drops a line like that: everything to our team. That's impressive.

    Paul is playing through a nagging hamstring issue. His numbers, as strange as this will sound given their quantity, reflect that: 18.3 points, 9.3 assists. There's room to grow in both categories (he averaged 19.1 and 10.7, respectively, in the regular season), and if he can up the ante, it won't be easy leaving him and Griffin out of the top spot.

    It's tough to do that now.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant, SF, and Russell Westbrook, PG

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    Tandem Score: 3.08

    If you're looking for an explanation as to why Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook aren't sitting in the No. 1 spot, look no further than the Memphis Grizzlies defense. No duo had more No. 1 rankings in regular-season categories than these two.

    Westbrook has been an injury concern all season. He's had three separate knee surgeries since last April and was on a minutes restriction up until the start of the playoffs. You would have never guessed that based on his sizzling stat sheets: 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

    Durant recently wrapped up the fourth scoring crown of his seven-year career (32.0 points a night). He's a shoe-in to snatch the MVP award away from LeBron James, and that's entirely due to KD's growth—not a decline from the King.

    Talent-wise, this might be the best two-man show in the business.

    But the pair has looked a bit human through its first three meetings with Memphis. Well, human by its lofty standards.

    "They didn't have 40," Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said after Memphis' 98-95 overtime win Thursday night, via USA Today's Scott Gleeson. "I thought we did OK. We contained them."

    That containment meant both players finished with 30 points. While they needed a combined 53 shots to tally those 60 points, they still put 60 points in the books for OKC.

    Not bad for an off night. But it's "struggles" like these that kept the Thunder's one-two punch from dethroning the two-time defending champs.

1. Miami Heat: LeBron James, SF, and Dwyane Wade, SG

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    Tandem Score: 3.00

    Shocker, right? In a way, you might actually call it a mild surprise considering how poorly the Miami Heat masked their disinterest in that 82-game dress rehearsal.

    "They didn't care about this regular season, not seriously, not sufficiently, not consistently," Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick wrote. "They never saw it as anything other than parsley before the prime rib."

    That's not the least bit hyperbolic either. Miami seemed strangely mortal. Its .659 winning percentage was the lowest of the Big Three era, and you couldn't help but wonder if the Heat had bigger problems than a faulty on-off switch.

    Well, they didn't. At least, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade never did. Their statistical grades were strikingly consistent. Of the eight categories examined for these rankings, James and Wade had a top-three finish in all but one (regular-season defensive efficiency). The Thunder and the Clippers were the only other teams with five top-three standings.

    This pair makes quantity and quality notches in the box score on a nightly basis. James tallied 27.1 points on 56.7 percent shooting in the regular season. Wade put up 19.0 with a 54.5 percent success rate.

    Through two playoff games, the pair has launched a total of 59 shots. It has 97 points to show for those attempts, 15 of which have come from beyond the arc.

    Miami remains the most dangerous team in the playoff field. Not because of those two banners flying from the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters, but because this group is overly equipped to add a third to the collection.

    Numbers never lie, as they say, but I think the eye test would have put these same two players on the top of the food chain.