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Who Really Is the Best Player Still Standing In the 2022 NBA Playoffs?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVMay 19, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after a missed shot against the Dallas Mavericks during the third quarter in Game One of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals at Chase Center on May 18, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Who's the best player left in the NBA playoffs?

Analysts and fans all over the internet, TV and anywhere else that takes are dispensed seemed to be asking that question ahead of the conference finals.

With each of the four remaining teams boasting a candidate, the question naturally took over the discussion. In the East, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum, respectively. In the West, 23-year-old Luka Doncic was the answer for plenty.

After the Golden State Warriors' 112-87 dismantling of the Dallas Mavericks in Wednesday's Game 1, it's time to reintroduce Stephen Curry to the topic.

In just 31 minutes, Curry had 21 points and 12 rebounds. He took over a stint of a vintage third quarter from the Warriors that put the game on ice, but that was after a shaky first half that added fodder to the debate (4-of-10 from the field, 1-of-6 from three and 3-of-6 from the stripe).

Over his 12 seasons prior to 2021-22, Curry put up 8.6 threes per game and hit an absurd 43.3 percent of those attempts. But he finished this campaign at 38 percent from deep, and he converted just 35.9 percent of his triples in the playoffs prior to Game 1. The looks weren't any different, but they just weren't going in at the same rate.

So, even though his team had returned to the conference finals behind his 26.9 points per game against the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies, Curry was suddenly an afterthought in much of the analysis of this matchup with Dallas.

Fox Sports' Shannon Sharpe declared, "Luka Doncic is the best player left in the playoffs...":

UNDISPUTED @undisputed

"Luka Dončić is the best player left in the playoffs and I don't need stats to back it up, my eyes are very good. He's made mincemeat out of the best defensive players. If he keeps this up, it'll be hard pressed for him not to be the best player in the world."<br><br>— <a href="https://twitter.com/ShannonSharpe?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ShannonSharpe</a> <a href="https://t.co/7Cd9gG0Hu5">pic.twitter.com/7Cd9gG0Hu5</a>

ESPN's JJ Redick proclaimed that he'd rather have Luka than Curry for a hypothetical late-game possession:

Complex Sports @ComplexSports

“We’re talking about right now, 2022. Who would you rather have with the ball, with the game on the line? It’s clearly Luka Doncic.” 😳<br><br>JJ Redick is taking Luka over Steph Curry with the game on the line. Do you agree? <a href="https://t.co/5DDycZhiY0">pic.twitter.com/5DDycZhiY0</a>

Those are both opinions. And they're fine. Frankly, it seemed like they were on the majority's side of the debate. But a few minutes of Curry's third quarter should at least plant a little seed of doubt in the minds of those who were so firmly in Luka's camp.

Dallas was within striking distance coming out of the break, but Curry electrified the arena and put the game out of range in a way only he can.

Just over a minute into the third, he stripped Doncic, calmly brought the ball up the floor against three backpedaling Mavericks and suddenly stepped back for a triple in semi-transition.

Less than a minute later, he got caught on the baseline, flung the ball over his shoulder to halfcourt, relocated into an above-the-break three and danced all over a demoralized Dallas squad that found itself in an onslaught.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Curry feeling himself after this 3 🔥 <a href="https://t.co/7O1iS3jnQQ">pic.twitter.com/7O1iS3jnQQ</a>

The takeover didn't last long. And relative to plenty of Curry's big performances in the past, 21 points and 12 boards doesn't sound like much. But like a boxer, Curry's knockout punches can come out of nowhere. When he lands them, the end can come in a hurry, as it did for the Mavs.

Things snowballed from there, and the debate now feels more open.

Luka was a game-worst minus-30 on Wednesday. He had 20 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there. And he almost had twice as many turnovers (seven) as assists (four).

It's way too early to declare that pundits like Sharpe and Redick were wrong, though.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 18: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks plays defense on Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals on May 18, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by  Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Plenty were lining up to shovel dirt on Doncic after Game 2 against Phoenix, when the Suns relentlessly hunted him. In that game, Second Spectrum tracking had Luka being put in 19 ball screens and the Suns scoring a whopping 1.81 points per possession out of those plays (h/t Tim MacMahon of ESPN). Dallas lost and found itself down 0-2, but the Mavericks won four of the next five while Doncic averaged 29.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.8 steals.

He isn't likely to repeat Wednesday's Game 1 performance against Golden State. Curry took the first round, but either could emerge as the best in the series.

And they'll have plenty of competition from the other side of the bracket waiting on them.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 17: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat and Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics look on during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 17, 2022 at The FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Over his last three postseasons, Jayson Tatum has averaged 27.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 3.0 threes, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 37.5 percent from three.

No one has ever averaged at least 27.0 points, 7.0 rebounds , 5.9 assists, 3.0 threes, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks over a three-playoff span, and if you remove threes from the equation, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady are the only names added to the list.

But in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tatum was thoroughly outplayed by Miami's candidate. Butler had 41 points, nine boards, five assists, four steals and three blocks. He was 12-of-19 from the field and 17-of-18 from the line.

If Butler wins this series, it's hard to imagine anyone catching him for the playoff lead in value over replacement player.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 17: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat reacts to a play during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on May 17, 2022 at FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

He, Tatum, Doncic and Curry all have very real "best player left" arguments.

Butler's tenacity on defense, in-between scoring game and playmaking makes Miami tick on both ends.

Tatum's wing defense and playmaking are starting to catch up with the top-end scoring he's brought for years. Doncic's ability to control every aspect of a possession, create for his shooters and bully guards inside has made him one of the most productive playoff performers of all time.

But all three of those stars are chasing something Curry has done three times. If his performance in Game 1 is more of a sign of things to come than a #WaybackWednesday moment, Curry could secure his fourth championship.

And as fun as the "best player left in the playoffs" conversation has been, another Warriors title on the back of vintage Curry play might reopen the "best player in the world" debate.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Stathead unless otherwise noted.