10) Dwight Howard
The Orlando Magic may have been a disappointment this postseason, but you can’t put that weight on Dwight Howard’s larger-than-life shoulders. This man averaged great numbers at 27 points, 15.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
In game one versus the Atlanta Hawks, Dwight posted 46 points and 19 rebounds in a losing effort. Dwight lacked any assistance from his teammates, and with next year being his last season under contract with the Magic, Dwight may have already played his last game for Orlando. The most dominant big man in the league may choose to go somewhere else in search of his first NBA title.
9) Rajon Rondo
Rondo’s numbers during these playoffs were impressive at 14 points, 5.4 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game.
The reason that Rondo makes this list is not because of how he filled the stat sheet, but for his incredible comeback in Game 3 of the Miami series, in which he inspired the Celtics to their only victory against a team that ended up two wins shy of an NBA title.
He was able to tally an impressive 11 assists and make a couple of clutch baskets in the fourth to avoid a sweep at the hand of Miami’s “Heatles”.
8) Joe Johnson
After signing JJ to a max contract this past offseason, many criticized the Hawks for overpaying someone who couldn’t be a cornerstone of a franchise.
This postseason, Joe answered the call, and got Atlanta out of the first round by defeating a Magic team that swept them just one season prior.
Johnson ended his 2011 playoffs with averages of 18.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. The Hawks eventually fell to the Chicago bulls and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, but with Johnson staying put for years to come, along with a core of Al Horford, Josh Smith and a promising young point guard in Jeff Teague, the Hawks’ future looks bright.
7) Brandon Roy
Brandon Roy has been plagued by injuries over the past two NBA Playoffs, and has not been able to come close to his great playoff numbers from 2009, when he averaged almost 27 points per game.
These playoffs, though, Roy was able to remind the entire basketball world how great he can be when healthy. In Game 4 of the first-round matchup with the eventual NBA champs, the Dallas Mavericks, Roy produced one of the most clutch playoff performances in NBA history.
Going into the fourth quarter, the Mavs had built an impressive 18-point lead, and seemed well on their way to 3-1 series lead. Roy had other plans; he dominated the quarter, scoring 18 points in the final 12 minutes of play, hitting impossible shot after impossible shot.
With 39.2 seconds left, Roy gave the Blazers the lead for good and knotted the series at two apiece. If Roy is able to get healthy for next season, with the addition of Gerald Wallace and the All-Star play of LaMarcus Aldridge, the sky could be the limit for Portland.
6) Kevin Durant
The Durantula finds himself on this list for proving that he was truly the leader of this young up-and-coming OKC Thunder team. In the first round, due to his stellar play, he was able to finish their series versus the Nuggets in five games when it was expected to go at least six.
In that series alone, he had two 40-point games; first in the opener to set the tone for the series, and again in game five to clinch the series.
In the conference semis, Durant led his team past the Memphis Grizzlies, who had just eliminated the No. 1 seed Spurs in one of the biggest upsets in NBA Playoff history. Durant was able to score while being matched up with two of the league’s top perimeter defenders in Tony Allen and Shane Battier.
They fell to the eventual champion Mavericks in the conference finals, but Durant and the OKC Thunder proved to the world that they will be a force in the West for years to come.
5) Chris Paul
After being absent from last year’s NBA Playoffs, Chris Paul was a man on a mission, wanting to prove to the world that he still is in fact the best point guard the NBA has to offer.
Chris Paul opened the series by stealing a win in the Staples Center, posting video game-like numbers of 33 points, 14 assists and 7 rebounds.
Paul dazzled the NBA world when, in Game 4, he again led his Hornets to a victory over the Lakers with an incredible triple double of 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds.
They would eventually fall in six games, but Chris Paul, much like Brandon Roy, showed the world that he wasn’t ready just yet to be regarded as anything less than the best this game has to offer.
The Hornets’ management needs to prove to Paul that they are dedicated to winning a title in the near future, or Paul may look elsewhere for the opportunity to compete for a title after next season.
4) Derrick Rose
D-Rose had an outstanding season this year, being named the youngest MVP in NBA history while leading his Bulls to the league’s best record. The Bulls’ opening-round series versus the Pacers reminded many of Jordan’s early battles versus the Bad Boy Pistons of the 90’s, with Indiana punishing Rose every time he dared drive to the basket.
Although it was a five-game series, the Pacers proved to be a much bigger challenge than expected, with the first four games being decided by just five, six, four and five points.
In the second round, the Bulls faced off with the Atlanta Hawks, and once again, Rose was up to the challenge, taking advantage of Kirk Hinrich’s absence and shredding Atlanta’s defense for huge offensive games throughout the series.
The Bulls would fall in the conference finals, where D-Rose just wasn’t enough to take on Miami’s Big Three. The Miami series proved that the Bulls still need some personnel changes, but if those tweaks are made, look for the Bulls to come back charging next season.
3) LeBron James
OK, many of you will disagree with me even having LeBron on this list, nonetheless putting him as high as third, but hear me out.
The Miami Heat, in their first season together, were just a mere two wins away from being crowned champions of the basketball world. LeBron is the number one reason Miami got as far as it did.
In the first two rounds, versus Philly and then the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics, LeBron did more than hold his own on the court, and no one was questioning the fact that the Miami Heat had the most intense defense in the league and were the most feared team.
In the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Bulls, LeBron James was nothing short of phenomenal, closing out the games with tough defense on the league’s MVP and having an answer to every Bulls defense on the other end.
LeBron James was so spectacular during that series that a witnessing (no pun intended) Scottie Pippen said “I may go so far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game”.
This is a man the saw first-hand how great Jordan was, and had no problem putting James even higher than that. You don’t have to agree with Scottie, but you do need to acknowledge that even though LeBron had a forgettable finals, during the playoffs he was the leader of this Miami Heat team, impressing even the LeBron haters, especially in the conference finals.
2) Zach Randolph
Few NBA players have been criticized and condemned more than Zach Randolph. This man bounced around the league from Portland to New York to L.A.
In 2009, Z-Bo joined the Grizzlies and was welcomed by the Memphis community while being selected to his first All-Star team and named team captain.
This year, Randolph became even more of a leader for this young Memphis team, leading them to a playoff spot in a highly competitive Western Conference.
They entered the playoffs without Rudy Gay, and were up against the top seeded San Antonio Spurs, who turned back the clock with a great regular season, finishing first in the West.
Z-Bo led the Grizzlies to one of the biggest upsets in playoff history, eliminating the highly favored Spurs in six games. Randolph had memorable performances versus the Spurs, but he wasn’t done there.
In the conference semis, the Grizzlies squared off with another up-and-coming force in the West, the OKC Thunder. They would eventually fall in what would be the only seven-game series of the playoffs.
Randolph finished the playoffs with averages of 22 points and just under 11 rebounds per game. With Randolph playing at this superb level, and with the expected return of Rudy Gay and the further development of Marc Gasol, O.J. Mayo, and Mike Conley, the OKC Thunder may not get the same results if they match up with the Grizzlies next season.
1) Dirk Nowitzki
Everyone knew Dirk was a great player, but people always questioned whether he was able to lead a team to a championship. This past summer we saw the formation of the Big Three in Miami, but Dallas quietly held on to Dirk, signing him to an extension and proving that they had faith in him having the ability to be the face of their franchise, even though he was older than many of the other big-name free agents that were out there.
Dirk and the Mavs made the finals in 2006, where they fell to the Miami Heat after having a 2-0 series lead. After that, both Dirk and the Mavs as a whole were never able to shake off labels of being soft and not having the mental strength needed to deliver on the biggest stage.
In 2007, the Mavs had an embarrassing playoff run, being eliminated in the first round after having the league’s best record and Dirk winning league MVP.
This past summer, Dirk faced more controversy with his relationship with Cristal Taylor, whom he had proposed to, only to learn later that she had a history of being a con artist.
Dirk, dealing with all of that had an outstanding season, and has been in MVP talks all year. During the playoffs, no one—and by that, I mean absolutely no one—was able to stop the seven-foot German sharp shooter.
Many thought the Blazers, with a mix of Batum, Wallace, Aldridge and even Marcus Camby, could be able to stop him, but Dirk, time and time again, showed that it didn’t matter who was between him and the basket, torching anyone that stood in his way.
In the second round, facing the two time defending champs, Dirk once again was too much for the Lakers to handle, shocking everyone who watched as the Mavs swept the champs in just the second round.
In the conference finals, Dirk Nowitzki went up against the OKC Thunder, who threw everything but the kitchen sink at Dirk to no avail. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, and even James Harden all had a crack at stopping the finesse with which Dirk played.
During that series, Dirk topped the 40-point mark twice, and was relentless in getting to the line and further punishing the Thunder when he got there.
In the finals, the Mavs were up against the Miami Heat and superstar names like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Still, no star shined brighter than Dirk Nowitzki.
Dirk didn’t have offensive outbursts like he did in earlier series, but he came up clutch when it mattered most. In Game 2, battling a torn tendon in his left middle finger, Dirk capped off an improbable 22-5 run with a layup that gave Dallas the lead with just 3.6 seconds left on the clock.
In Game 4, Dirk again came up huge in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of his 21 points, and again delivered a game winning layup, this time with 14.4 seconds left. He did all of this while battling a temperature of 101 degrees.
Even in the last game of the finals, after going just one of 12 in the first half, Dirk did it again in the second half, going eight for 15 and sealing the win for the Dallas Mavericks.
In this season’s NBA playoffs, Dirk swept the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers, ended Phil Jackson’s coaching career on a sour note, proved to the young OKC Thunder that age is nothing but a number, and that no lead is safe in the NBA.
His performances drew comparisons between him and Larry Legend, and he also dethroned the self-proclaimed “King”, while defeating the same Dwyane Wade that single-handedly stole the title from the Mavs five years ago.
Dirk now ranks above Ewing, Barkley, and Malone as one of the best to ever play the game of basketball, and no one will ever call him soft again.