This is it. The final four. Winning time. Legacies are on the line (Dirk). Some are working for a name (KD, Westbrook, Rose). The dark side is looking for redemption (LeBron, Wade).
If you checked out Mike & Mike in the Morning earlier this week, you might’ve heard them rating the six superstars still left in the playoffs (Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook). Who’s been the best in the playoffs? It’s a hard debate. All six have had their moments, and my list seems to change from game to game. Interestingly, look at the ages for these guys. Dirk is really the only one who shouldn’t be in his “prime.” The others are either babies (KD, Russ, Rose) or just coming into their own (‘Bron, Wade).
Which guys have been the best in the playoffs? Here are my rankings for the six superstars still alive (statistics courtesy of NBA.com’s StatsCube.)
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6. Russell Westbrook
The playoff vitals: 23.2 ppg, 6.5 apg, 5.2 rpg, 44.5 clutch USG %
No great player has taken as much heat during the postseason as this guy. You say you need a player with big cajones? Willing to take the clutch shots? Name me someone like this kid. He took the shots from the media, sucked ’em in and then went out and played just as he always has. Yes, during Game 7 he was looking for teammates more often. But while playing a position he didn’t grow up playing, in just his third year, at just 22 years old, playing next to the NBA’s best scorer, on a team that desperately needs his leadership, in a firestorm of critics, his playoff run is a big f$%^ you to the critics. It was this guy who won the triple-OT Game 4 thriller against Memphis, playing 51 minutes and scoring 40 points, saving OKC’s season. It was this guy who laced a Game 7 with the first triple-double in nearly 20 years.
If OKC is to get to the Finals, Westbrook not only has to win his backcourt matchups but he has to dominate them. DeShawn Stevenson is going to check him? Please. It’ll come down to his response to the fourth-quarter benching. The Thunder need him. They need Westbrook attacking and aggressive. KD can’t do it alone. The next few games will define Westbrook’s season. Still, when there are five players playing better than Westbrook is right now, we’re in good hands.
5. Dwyane Wade
The playoff vitals: 25.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.8 spg, 48% shooting, third in playoff PER: 28.09
Against the Celtics, Wade was the difference, dominating at the start and finish of the series. In Game 1, he answered the questions about Boston defending him by going for 38 points and missing just seven shots. Then, his three-pointer clinched Game 4 before he played one of the best games of his career in Game 5 (68% shooting, 34 points, 10 rebounds, four steals), a one-man wrecking crew in the first half when Miami could’ve easily fallen into a 15-point hole and found themselves on a plane ride back to New England. Wade is Miami’s heart. During the Heat’s most critical hours, Wade was there to lead them. Very few players can pinpoint what their team needs in a tight game. Wade can. Miami’s biggest weakness is their rebounding, but at the end of close games (last five minutes of a game when the score margin is within five points), Wade is averaging twice as many rebounds as he does during the rest of the game.
And down the stretch, the Heat’s defense is without parallel. You can’t even describe it. With Wade (and James) on the court in the clutch, the team’s defensive rating (team points allowed per 100 possessions) drops nearly 40 points. The Bulls get the love as a great defensive team, but the Heat are just as destructive, and they do something Chicago doesn’t always do: they can turn their defense into immediate offense. This is a product of Wade, perhaps the most devastating defender in the league when he’s playing the passing lanes.
4. Derrick Rose
The playoff vitals: 28.2 ppg, eight apg, 4.3 rpg, 47 percent mid-range shooting
No one is asked to do as much during critical moments as the MVP. Rose’s usage rate jumps to over 50 percent during the clutch just as his scoring skyrockets. But somehow, his turnovers dip in half, and he still has yet to miss an important free throw during the playoffs. While Rose has won multiple playoff games in the final moments, the Bulls are outscoring teams by less than two points during crunch time, highlighting just how much pressure they’re putting on a 22-year-old. Rose was a beast during Chicago’s first two games against Indiana, snatching two wins away from the Pacers with a combined 75 points. That set the tone. And while his start against Miami was relatively quiet (for his expectations), he destroyed Atlanta in the second round, just barely averaging below 30 and 10 for the series.
Sooner or later in these conference finals, Chicago and Rose will face a moment when the MVP will have to man up and go face-to-face with Miami’s two stars. The Bulls can’t win every game in a blowout. Down the stretch, it’ll come to Rose. And he’ll have to beat Wade and James. If the Bulls are going to make the Finals, their point guard will have to win that two-on-one matchup.