NBA Stars Who Are Even Better in the Playoffs
Postseason NBA basketball is a whole different beast than the game we're watching right now.
Possessions often become a grind. Far more physicality is allowed from defenders. Individual superstars who can transcend the shift in style become even more important than they are in the regular season.
To make a run at the title, a team is almost required to have one of those stars. To be a favorite, it helps to have one of the exclusive few who are actually better in the playoffs than they are in the 82-game slate.
Players who exemplify that follow.
Amin Elhassan, NBA analyst for ESPN, joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the overrated Clippers, the Lakers' unexpected dominance, LeBron's stamina, the Rockets' small-ball style and the origins of The Pitino Game.
Anthony Davis doesn't have a ton of playoff minutes to his name, but he's certainly made the most of the 530 he's played.
AD's basic playoff averages for points (30.5), rebounds (12.7) and blocks (2.5) per game are all higher than his career marks in the regular season. Ditto for his true shooting percentage.
He just happened to have his two playoff runs ended by the 67-win Golden State Warriors in 2015 and the 58-win Warriors in 2018, two historically dominant teams that managed to suppress his advanced numbers.
Suppress is a relative term with AD, though. His playoff box plus/minus may be lower than his regular-season number, but it's still 22nd among players with 500-plus minutes in the three-point era.
While AD was putting up 31.5 points per game on the Warriors in his playoff debut, Draymond Green explained why he flexed after scoring a bucket on the New Orleans Pelicans big man: "If you score a bucket over Anthony Davis, you better pound your chest, too, because it ain't happening often. So, you better flex. ... Take advantage of the situation. You may not be able to flex next play down."
As Michael Lee of the Washington Post wrote: "Based on his impressive debut, the Warriors—and the rest of the league, for that matter—should take advantage of the situation while Davis navigates his ascension to becoming the game's best player. They may not be able to flex for much longer."
Davis could complete that ascent in the summer. By just about every measure, he's LeBron James' No. 2 for the Los Angeles Lakers, but if he raises his level of play for the postseason again, it could lead to a title and passing of the torch.
Kevin Durant isn't just one of the greatest postseason performers of all time, his dominance in the Finals is also almost unparalleled.
Over the course of 15 games, KD has averaged 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.9 threes, 1.5 blocks and one steal with a 67.4 true shooting percentage. Roll all that into a game score, and Durant's 24.7 ranks first all-time, just ahead of Michael Jordan's 24.5 (in 35 Finals games).
Over the course of his career, Durant has averaged a game score of 20.6 in the regular season. The difference in his regular-season (7.1) and playoff (8.3) box plus/minus over the last three seasons paints a similar picture.
And that picture leaps off the screen when you fill in the details on how he produced those numbers. Go back and watch the highlight reels of KD in the 2017 and 2018 Finals. He scored from anywhere. Mid-range pull-ups, drives, post moves, threes, you name it. He showed it all with a laser-like focus.
"You can tell he knows this is his moment," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Durant on the verge of their first title together. "He's been an amazing player in this league for a long time, and I think he's—he senses this is his time, his moment, his team."
Durant won the title and his first of two Finals MVPs that season. Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal are the only players in NBA history who have more.
The "Playoff P" moniker took a bit of a beating with back-to-back first-round exits by the Oklahoma City Thunder, but on balance, Paul George's career playoff box plus/minus still tops his regular-season mark. He did enough with the Indiana Pacers to warrant inclusion.
Over his last four postseasons with Indy, George averaged 22.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 38.4 percent from three. In that same stretch, the Pacers were plus-2.6 points per 100 possessions with PG on the floor and minus-13.7 with him off.
He did indeed get his first MVP award share the next season, but the postseason was where he made the most noise.
In 13 Eastern Conference Finals games against Miami, George put up 21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He helped push the most famous and intimidating basketball team in the world—the LeBron James-era Heat—to the brink.
Draymond Green has received plenty of praise and adoration for his regular-season play, including five All-Defensive selections, three All-Star nods, two All-NBA honors and one Defensive Player of the Year award.
His career averages of 9.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game provide a good illustration of his well-rounded contributions to the Warriors dynasty. They pale in comparison, however, to what he's done in the playoffs.
The averages bump up moderately to 12.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks, but his box plus/minus goes from 2.8 to 4.9. That's a leap. And that 4.9 ranks in the top 40 all-time, tied with those of legends Rick Barry and Scottie Pippen.
What's more, Green has felt like the last man standing for the Warriors on more than one occasion. These performances may be lost to history because of the outcomes of the contests, but Green deserves credit for the fight he showed in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals as well as in the entirety of the 2019 Finals.
Regarding that Game 7, Green posted 32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and a blistering 95.5 true shooting percentage. His 35.9 game score wasn't just the highest of any player, it also more than doubled third-place Kyrie Irving's 16.1. And no other Warrior was over 10.0.
As offensive superstars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson struggled to find any rhythm in a game that turned into a typical Finals slugfest, Green kept the reigning champions in the bout with his trademark intensity and drive. Of course, he needed more help to secure repeat titles.
In 2019, with Kevin Durant out for much of the series with calf and Achilles injuries, Green again tried to will his team to victory. He averaged 12.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 1.7 steals and one block in those six games. He did his part, but the rest of the injury-riddled Warriors couldn't overcome the depth and talent of Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors.
Yes, Green had plenty of shining moments throughout Golden State's three title runs as well. But what he showed in the losses may be even more indicative of who he is as a player.
Some may try to sow a little doubt in LeBron James' playoff accomplishments by citing his longtime presence in the Eastern Conference.
The magnitude, though, of his postseason production is astonishing:
- Games: 4th, and within 20 of the leader
- Minutes: 1st
- Field goals: 1st
- 3-pointers: 4th
- 2-pointers: 2nd
- Free throws: 1st
- Rebounds: 6th
- Assists: 3rd
- Steals: 1st
- Blocks: 16th
- Points: 1st
- Wins over replacement: 1st
- Box plus/minus: 2nd
- Win shares: 1st
- WS per 48 minutes: 3rd
In case that's not enough, feast your eyes on LeBron's basic numbers over the course of 239 playoff games: 28.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks per night.
Or, if you prefer, his Finals numbers: 28.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks.
And finally, for those looking to capture his recent brilliance, here are his Finals numbers following the 2011 dud that seemed to be his championship awakening: 30.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks.
There may be an argument that Michael Jordan's playoff peak was higher, but there simply isn't one to suggest anyone has been more prolific than LeBron. The numbers he has stacked up over nearly two decades are unbelievable.
And even when it comes to peaks, King James has some talking points MJ might not be able to match.
For one, he beat the 73-win Warriors. Sure, Draymond Green's suspension helped, but knocking off one of the greatest regular-season teams in NBA history has to count for something.
LeBron also has the top two (and four of the top 12) game scores in Finals history.
On June 16, 2016, he went for 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks. He had as many assists as missed shots.
On May 31, 2018 (when JR Smith infamously dribbled out the clock in regulation), LeBron went off for 51 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, one steal and one block.
Ever since Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks dismantled James and the Heat, he has looked like a basketball Thanos in the playoffs. He just happened to run into the revenge-driven San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and Golden State's stacked Avengers squad on more than one occasion.
Bring up his Finals record, if you must, but his whopping 35 series wins should not be discounted.
Nikola Jokic only has one postseason to his name, but what he did in the 2019 playoffs was unlike anything we've seen.
His 11.6 box plus/minus over two series against the Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers is tied for the sixth-best performance in NBA history. Only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have higher marks. Jokic's number could drop this postseason, of course, but for now, he owns the top career playoff BPM in the three-point era.
In those 14 games, Jokic has averaged an absurd 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per night. His true shooting percentage is 59.6. The Denver Nuggets were plus-7.0 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor and minus-16.2 with him off.
It's hard to argue against Kawhi Leonard as last season's top playoff performer, but Jokic's peak may have been higher.
The Ringer's Tyler Parker tried to put his dominance into words:
"You don't control Jokic. Mad genius is nothing to trifle with and Chewbacca-sized people tend to make the rules, not follow them. There's something warm about his skill set. Not familiar, exactly, but inviting because of its potential to be surprising. Kevin McHale has called a fair number of Nuggets games this postseason and there have been multiple instances where Jokic has done something so wildly out of place for someone his size McHale can't help but giggle."
So much of what Jokic does defies explanation, and that was certainly the case in the postseason.
Players who are constantly dinged for being "out of shape" aren't supposed to be able to play 65 minutes and register 33 points, 18 rebounds, 14 assists, four threes and two blocks in a single game.
Players who were selected in the second round of the draft aren't supposed to have historic individual playoff runs by their age-23 seasons (or ever).
Jokic has been one of the most productive players in the NBA during his young career. And he was somehow even better under the bright lights of the postseason.
Kawhi Leonard may go down as the quintessential player for this category.
Among the 12 players in NBA history who have more than one Finals MVP, Leonard is the only one without a regular-season MVP. His regular-season box plus/minus (6.8) and true shooting percentage (59.7) are shy of his playoff marks (7.6 and 61.8). Ditto for his scoring average (19.5, compared to 18.5).
But the biggest factor may be this dreaded 14-letter term: "load management."
In an effort to preserve himself for the postseason, wherein Leonard is building his legacy, he deliberately sits out games many others might play. The approach has been the subject of much analysis over the last two seasons.
In Leonard's' mind, it works.
"I don't think I'd be playing right now if I would've tried to go through the season," Leonard told ESPN's Rachel Nichols during the 2019 Finals.
If load management played any role in Leonard's dominance last postseason, it's tough to fault the Los Angeles Clippers for following suit in 2019-20.
Leonard's final numbers in that title run with the Raptors were 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 threes and 1.7 steals per game with a 61.9 true shooting percentage.
LeBron James, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan are the only players in NBA history who tallied more wins over replacement in a single playoffs.
This run, much more than 2014's, cemented Leonard as an all-time great playoff performer. With that Spurs team, Leonard was the MVP, but leadership still seemed very much in the hands of legends Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Leonard had plenty of help in 2019 as well. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and others made meaningful contributions. But there's no question the heavy lifting was done by Kawhi.
He brought a sense of inevitability—reminiscent of Michael Jordan—to every series. He scored at will and from every level. He dominated defensively.
You'll often see that from Leonard in regular-season games. He brings it every minute in the playoffs.
CJ McCollum had an unforgettable Western Conference Semifinals against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in 2019, averaging 26.4 points and helping the Trail Blazers reach the conference finals.
In the series-clinching Game 7, he went 17-of-29 from the field on the way to 37 points. It was the cherry on top of a two-year playoff run in which McCollum posted a 2.6 box plus/minus that was comfortably higher than the 1.1 he put forth in those regular seasons.
"Down the stretch, I just told coach: 'Flatten it out. Man, he can't check me. And I'll get us a bucket. Or at least get us a good shot,'" McCollum told ESPN's Doris Burke after his 37-point performance. "And that's what happened."
That mentality has been a critical component of McCollum's playoff success. The year before their conference finals trip, the Blazers were swept in the first round by the Pelicans. It would be tough to fault McCollum for that, though. He averaged 25.3 points while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three.
Portland's chances for a playoff berth this season are waning. But if the team is healthy and squeezes in, McCollum, Damian Lillard and the Blazers will present an intriguing challenge for LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.