The Best 1-2 Punches in the NBA Playoffs so Far
The first round of the NBA playoffs has been strange.
Not because some series are unexpectedly competitive, but because few of the typical dynamic duos have showed up. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry haven't thrived for the Toronto Raptors. Kyrie Irving and LeBron James weren't both driving forces behind the Cleveland Cavaliers' sweep of the Indiana Pacers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin didn't both make major noise before the latter went down with a toe injury.
Instead, the opening set of matchups has largely been dominated by individuals. The MVP candidates are excelling, and we've seen impressive showings from a number of other superstars.
Alongside them, more unheralded teammates have become important parts of leading one-two punches.
In order to come up with the top 10 duos during the small sample that is the first round (limited to one entry per team), we looked at the 250 two-man lineups that have logged the most minutes during the 2017 playoffs. Each of the 250 were ranked in two different categories: net rating and the tandem's cumulative score in NBA Math's total points added (TPA). The ranks were then summed, and the top scores earned featured spots, so long as they'd logged at least 60 minutes.
This methodology ensures that we're only looking at pairings that have spent significant time together, and confounding factors such as logging major minutes next to high-quality teammates are partially negated by the TPA aspect of the rankings, which rewards individual prowess.
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Because each postseason team can only have one two-man lineup featured in the actual rankings, six playoff squads are left out. Below, you can see the one-two punch that scored best for each:
Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner, Portland Trail Blazers
Net Rating: minus-8.4 (No. 200)
Total TPA: 2.29 (No. 153)
Surprised this isn't Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? Well, the Golden State Warriors did everything in their power to eviscerate the Portland Trail Blazers' starting lineup and successfully swept them out of the postseason, leaving the backcourt with a minus-28.3 net rating—No. 245 of the 250 most-used two-man lineups.
No Portland duos fared well against the Golden State juggernaut, but Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner finishing at or close to average in NBA Math's total points added (TPA) was enough to at least partially salvage their time together.
Paul George and Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers
Net Rating: minus-8.0 (No. 198)
Total TPA: 27.39 (No. 45)
Though the Indiana Pacers often kept games close against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they were also eliminated in just four games. That makes it tough for any combination of players to thrive, and thus we turn to the team's two most successful figures.
Paul George and Thaddeus Young were still outscored by eight points per 100 possessions while sharing the floor, but they were also—by far—the team's two best and most consistent players. Jeff Teague, Glenn Robinson III, Lance Stephenson and Aaron Brooks also finished with positive TPA scores, but they did so while playing smaller roles and/or working in less advantageous groupings.
Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Net Rating: 5.2 (No. 93)
Total TPA: 17.39 (No. 76)
Whether due to struggles that come with the territory for diminutive point guards in the playoffs or mental lapses while dealing with the tragic loss of his sister in a car accident, Isaiah Thomas struggled at the beginning of the Boston Celtics' first-round series with the Chicago Bulls.
Fortunately, he's started to turn on the jets as the matchup progresses, putting together stronger offensive performances and joining Al Horford as one of the team's few game-changing players thus far. Don't be surprised when this duo continues to climb up the rankings and fully overcomes the slow start.
Otto Porter Jr. and John Wall, Washington Wizards
Net Rating: 8.5 (No. 66)
Total TPA: 15.25 (No. 83)
Otto Porter Jr. and Bradley Beal spent the 2016-17 campaign battling to be John Wall's beta dog, and it's the former who has held his own better against the Atlanta Hawks.
Both are struggling to find their shots, but Porter's defense has allowed him to move just beyond his 2-guard teammate and join the floor general as part of the team's leading duo.
Paul Millsap and Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
Net Rating: 6.0 (No. 87)
Total TPA: 21.52 (No. 61)
Through four games, the playoffs have served as a nice proving ground for Taurean Prince. The rookie forward has thrived against the Washington Wizards, averaging an impressive 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.3 steals while shooting 63.9 percent from the field, 50.0 percent from downtown and a perfect 3-of-3 at the stripe.
When he shares the court with Paul Millsap, who continues to serve as the Atlanta Hawks' best player, the Wizards can't keep up. So despite Dennis Schroder's offensive explosions and Dwight Howard's prowess on the glass, it's that duo that earns top marks in the first-round battle.
DeMar DeRozan and Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
Net Rating: 18.8 (No. 27)
Total TPA: 12.2 (No. 100)
The elephant in the room is obvious: Why aren't Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan featured here?
Even though they remain the Toronto Raptors' two best players, the team has outscored the Milwaukee Bucks by a meager 1.8 points per 100 possessions while they're both on the floor. Norman Powell has unexpectedly functioned as the Raptors' most efficient offensive contributor, as well as an effective perimeter defender, and that's pushed him and DeRozan well ahead of the starting backcourt.
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks
Net Rating: 5.6 (No. 89)
Total TPA: 31.09 (No. 34)
The versatility of this duo is staggering.
Giannis Antetokounmpo can obviously do everything on the basketball court (except shoot threes accurately) after a regular season in which he became the first player in league history to finish top 20 league-wide in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. But this isn't just about him, because Thon Maker has been a revelation during his initial postseason experience.
The rookie big man has looked the part of a future—and, oftentimes, present—stud, averaging 6.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 42.9 percent from the field, 22.2 percent from downtown and 77.8 percent from the stripe. Those numbers won't blow you away, and his points aren't even coming in efficient fashion. But his across-the-board contributions and ability to work on the interior or the perimeter have confounded the Toronto Raptors defense.
Has Maker been the Milwaukee Bucks' second-best player? That honor probably goes to Greg Monroe, who's displaying some fantastic individual efforts during his inaugural playoff campaign. But Maker's skill set is a better complement to Antetokounmpo, given his ability to exert a substantial gravitational pull.
Whereas Monroe and the All-Star small forward are posting a minus-0.1 net rating while they share the floor, Maker and Antetokounmpo are outscoring the favored Raptors by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. No pairing featuring No. 34 has been more effective while playing more than 60 minutes.
9. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Net Rating: 6.1 (No. 85)
Total TPA: 35.79 (No. 23)
The idea that the Cleveland Cavaliers featured a true one-two punch during the first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers is laughable.
Kevin Love's struggles inside the arc and turnover issues kept him from putting up celestial numbers, while Kyrie Irving managed to cancel out many of his high-scoring efforts by struggling immensely with his shot (41.9 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from three-point range), recording nearly as many turnovers as assists and playing porous defense. According to NBA Math's TPA, both members of the Big Three finished with below-average scores after the Pacers elimination.
Still, they found success alongside LeBron James, who put together yet another otherworldly set of postseason performances while almost singlehandedly willing his team through the first round. James and Love posted a 6.9 net rating, and that number dropped to 3.3 with Irving and the leading superstar—still a positive, but by no means a standout figure.
James logged more than 60 minutes alongside those two, as well as J.R. Smith (7.2 net rating) and Tristan Thompson (6.1), but it's the springy big man who gets the nod as his leading partner in crime. Thanks to his offensive rebounding exploits, efficiency around the hoop and status as one of the few defensive plusses during the first-round win, Thompson was one of the only Cleveland players whose first four games could be, in total, viewed as a success.
Deron Williams and Channing Frye join him and James in that category, but neither logged enough minutes alongside the four-time MVP to draw consideration here.
8. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Net Rating: 6.1 (No. 85)
Total TPA: 36.69 (No. 20)
Small sample sizes can be fun. They often produce wonky results, especially when rotations are solidifying and adjusting to the changing nature of the playoffs during the opening round.
As a result, the Memphis Grizzlies are the rare team for which the two best players actually comprise the leading one-two punch. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have stood head and shoulders above the rest of their teammates through four games, despite valiant efforts from James Ennis and Andrew Harrison on the defensive end.
Conley has served as the offensive spark, averaging 24.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists while shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 48.0 percent from downtown and 81.8 percent on his freebies. And the Game 4 winner in overtime notwithstanding, Gasol has managed to overcome some offensive struggles by anchoring a fearsome defense that has pestered every member of the San Antonio Spurs whose name doesn't rhyme with Lawhi Keonard.
Thriving against Gregg Popovich's crew during the postseason is no easy feat, which is why only two Memphis duos have logged more than 60 minutes and outscored the Spurs in the process: the featured pairing, and the Gasol-Wayne Selden unit.
But in terms of sheer individual ability, Selden can't come close to Conley.
7. Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson, Utah Jazz
Net Rating: 11.6 (No. 47)
Total TPA: 23.69 (No. 55)
"He's learned to use fakes, ball fakes, pass fakes, shot fakes," Utah Jazz head coach Quinn Snyder said about Joe Ingles after the Australian small forward recorded a career-high 11 assists in a Game 4 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, per Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune.
"And with his size, he's still able to see. He's able to throw a lob. He threw a bunch of really nice pocket passes to Fav [Derrick Favors] tonight on that little half roll. I like to say he's got his eyes out. He's worked at that."
With Rudy Gobert getting healthy after suffering a leg injury 17 seconds into his playoff debut and Gordon Hayward struggling (and dealing with food poisoning), the Jazz have needed to turn to other players to hang with the Clippers. Fortunately for them, a pair of not-so-average Joes have been up to the task.
Ingles has thrived in every area, whether he's knocking down triples, guarding Chris Paul in isolation or thriving as a primary facilitator. And much to the surprise of those who have followed him throughout his career, Joe Johnson has managed to balance his high-scoring efforts with work as a distributor.
The latter Johnson has even done enough to earn a spot on Michael Shapiro's All-Microwave Team for Sports Illustrated: "Twenty-two of Utah's 28 fourth–quarter points came via an assist or made basket from the 16-year vet, as the Jazz went on to tie the series at two games apiece with a 105-98 victory. At 35, Johnson's minutes may have waned, but his ability to get buckets in crunch time hasn't slowed down at all."
Hayward and Gobert should eventually reassert themselves as the team's primary standouts, but the Johnsons have allowed Utah to stay in the series.
6. Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Net Rating: 9.2 (No. 61)
Total TPA: 34.09 (No. 28)
Russell Westbrook has been a one-man show for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Try to contain your surprise.
When he's on the floor, OKC has more than hung with the Houston Rockets, outscoring them by 2.1 points per 100 possessions. But when he sits, everything falls apart for the Thunder, who are then outscored by a whopping 40.3 points over the same average stretch. To avoid any anger from the point guard himself, it's worth noting that we're not trying to split up the team, so much as state facts.
This gets more difficult when we have to pair Westbrook with someone, since no other member of the Thunder has consistently stood out in positive fashion. Victor Oladipo is a natural candidate, but he's struggled to find his shot against Houston's ever-improving defense. In fact, Andre Roberson is the only other man who joins Westbrook with a positive score in NBA Math's TPA, though he's done so with defense rather than offense.
So, why isn't the leading one-two punch comprised of Westbrook and Roberson? Well, the latter is often matched up against James Harden, which means he's forced to face a tougher opposing squad than many of the other Thunder rotation members. He and Westbrook have posted a 1.8 net rating together—respectable, but nowhere close to the 9.2 net rating the point guard and Steven Adams have earned.
There's plenty of overlap between these three players, but Roberson is disadvantaged by playing more minutes and coming back to earth in those less-than-ideal situations.
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5. Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls
Net Rating: 20.3 (No. 21)
Total TPA: 22.69 (No. 57)
Before an injured thumb knocked Rajon Rondo out of the lineup, the Chicago Bulls were forcing the Boston Celtics to sweat profusely. They made the C's look like one of the least impressive No. 1 seeds in NBA history by winning each of the first two games in convincing fashion.
And it's no coincidence the Celtics rebounded after Rondo went down.
Despite his forgettable 2016-17 campaign and the last few regression-filled years, the talented point guard became a legitimate star during Games 1 and 2. He averaged 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.0 assists while shooting 42.3 percent from the field, and his hounding defense against Isaiah Thomas was even more important than any of his offensive contributions.
Even as Jimmy Butler struggled to find his shot, he and Rondo were an unstoppable tandem, outscoring the Celtics by an eye-popping 20.3 points per 100 possessions. Among the seven other two-man lineups that have recorded more than 60 minutes for Chicago in the first-round series, only three join the Butler-Rondo tandem in the green:
|Lineup||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo||115.8||95.5||20.3|
|Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade||105.9||102.7||3.2|
|Robin Lopez and Dwyane Wade||108.2||106.5||1.7|
|Nikola Mirotic and Dwyane Wade||108.3||106.7||1.6|
Butler and Rondo didn't just thrive on one end. They played ultra-efficient offense while posting a defensive rating topped by only 13 of the 189 two-man lineups that have logged more than 60 minutes in the 2017 postseason.
4. Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Net Rating: 14.2 (No. 39)
Total TPA: 38.16 (No. 16)
Chris Paul is a wizard.
No, he didn't suddenly get traded to the Washington Wizards. He's just incredible at the whole basketball thing, often carrying the Los Angeles Clippers as they deal with injuries to key players (Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers) and ineffectiveness from too many rotation members. Through four games, he's averaging 26.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 10.8 assists and 2.3 steals while almost singlehandedly keeping them afloat against an inspired Utah Jazz squad.
If that's not enough, Paul is putting up those monstrous per-game numbers while maintaining sterling levels of efficiency. He's shooting 53.2 percent from the field, 36.8 percent percent from deep and 90.0 percent at the stripe, turning the ball over just 2.5 times per contest and pacing the field in NBA Math's TPA.
But Paul needs a partner in crime, and that's been tougher to come by.
Griffin was struggling on offense before a toe injury knocked him out of the postseason. Ditto for DeAndre Jordan, except for the part about an injury. Even J.J. Redick has failed to gain footing against Utah's stifling defense.
That leaves Jamal Crawford, who has had issues with his own shot but still drawn enough defensive attention to open lanes for his backcourt teammate. The Clippers are scoring a staggering 125.9 points per 100 possessions when both guards are playing, leaving them trailing only three duos among all 189 qualified entrants: George Hill/Joe Johnson (128.8), Hill/Rodney Hood (127.4) and Crawford/Jordan (127.2).
But unlike the other three groupings, Paul and Crawford have actually played defense as well—thanks more to the former than the latter, of course.
3. Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
Net Rating: 25.7 (No. 8)
Total TPA: 37.93 (No. 18)
If the first round of the NBA playoffs rewarded the biggest standout with an MVP award, it might be Kawhi Leonard's to lose. Even while the majority of his teammates have struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies, he's kept the San Antonio Spurs in the hunt with his fantastic two-way play. The unabashed superstar can't miss down the stretch, and it's not like he's misfiring too frequently early in the proceedings.
Leonard has spent more than 60 minutes on the floor with five different teammates, and he's outscoring the Grizz in each and every pairing:
|Lineup||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills||125.2||99.5||25.7|
|Kawhi Leonard and Pau Gasol||125.5||103.4||22.1|
|Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge||109.4||100.9||8.5|
|Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker||110.3||103.3||7.0|
|Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green||107.2||104.4||2.8|
In fact, removing the minutes restriction reveals Leonard has shared the court with 11 different teammates in the first round. Only when he plays with Dewayne Dedmon does Memphis have an edge.
None, however, have experienced more success than Patty Mills, who can capably spread the court for Leonard's dizzying assault from all angles.
2. James Harden and Nene, Houston Rockets
Net Rating: 25.1 (No. 11)
Total TPA: 40.06 (No. 14)
Believe it or not, this has been a legitimate one-two punch during the playoffs.
Nene Hilario has been fantastic for the Houston Rockets, highlighting an effective opening round with 28 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4 while shooting a flawless 12-of-12 from the field. His ability to dive to the rim and finish plays around the hoop has given the Oklahoma City Thunder fits, especially when he's able to operate without Russell Westbrook pushing the pace.
James Harden and Hilario were an effective duo during the regular season, outscoring opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions. For perspective, the Rockets' overall net rating was 5.4, and they topped foes by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with the bearded guard on the floor.
But playing with Hilario has been more than a marginal upgrade through four games that truly count.
Houston has flat-out trounced the Thunder with the two working together in the pick-and-roll, and it doesn't hurt that the big man has been able to pick up some of the defensive slack. With Clint Capela failing to assert himself offensively, Nene has seized the opportunity and doesn't look ready to slow down quite yet.
Chances are good that Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley or Trevor Ariza will replace Hilario alongside Harden by the time Houston's postseason run comes to a conclusion. But for now, it's nice to see the numbers rewarding him for his efforts.
1. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Net Rating: 27.5 (No. 6)
Total TPA: 71.29 (No. 1)
The gap between this duo and the rest of the featured tandems is gigantic. Only alternate pairings on the Golden State Warriors roster have been able to compete with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, who helped spark a first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers even while Kevin Durant missed time due to injury.
Not one combination of teammates has produced a higher combined score in NBA Math's TPA; Andre Roberson and Russell Westbrook (47.74) came closest, but they weren't even in the same ballpark. Of course, that makes sense when Green and Curry sit at Nos. 3 and 6, respectively, in the league-wide standings.
On the flip side, a whopping five pairings have produced higher net ratings. Problem is, they've—with one notable exception—done so in far fewer minutes:
|Lineup||Net Rating||Minutes Played|
|Stephen Curry and JaVale McGee||41.8||48|
|Stephen Curry and Zaza Pachulia||37.8||48|
|Zaza Pachulia and Klay Thompson||37.8||48|
|Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson||31.1||100|
|Ryan Anderson and Lou Williams||28.2||52|
|Stephen Curry and Draymond Green||27.5||102|
Hello, Warriors. Nice of you all to show up.
Only Curry/Thompson and Curry/Green are eligible here, given the minutes restrictions, and Green has been far superior to the starting 2-guard as an individual. But if you're upset about the chosen lineup for the Western Conference favorites, take solace in the fact that any combination of Curry, Thompson and Green would fall within the top five of these rankings.
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Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09. Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, ESPN.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games Tuesday, April 25.