Ranking The 2012 NBA Playoff Studs
The playoffs are heading into their second weekend and already the NBA has seen some exceptional performances in the early going. The Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs are having little trouble in the first round thanks to their All-Stars, the Dallas Mavericks are struggling to make it a series versus the Oklahoma City Thunder despite the play of Dirk Nowitzki and the Miami HEAT are now primed to move on thanks to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Here is a look at the top playoff studs of the first round:
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Miami HEAT
The HEAT continue to face enormous scrutiny, and both James and Wade have risen to the challenge. James is averaging 27.7 points per game on almost 51 percent shooting from the field. Add to those points over six rebounds and almost six assists per game, and James is picking up in the playoffs right where he left off at the end of the regular season.
Not to be outdone by James, Wade is averaging over 21 points on over 56 percent from the field. Combined, James and Wade make up over 50 percent of the HEAT’s 97 points per game. The HEAT are also holding the New York Knicks to only 77 points per game, the lowest scoring average of all playoff teams. James and Wade have also been active on the defensive end, averaging a combined 5.4 steals per game.
If James and Wade continue to dominate on both sides of the ball, the HEAT will find themselves back in the Finals for a second consecutive year. With the Bulls now struggling after the loss of Derrick Rose, this could be the year James breaks through and wins his first NBA championship.
Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers
Bryant is off to a hot start, leading the playoffs at over 34 points per game. Bryant is shooting over 49 percent from the field and 83 percent from the free throw line. Thanks to Bryant’s efficient scoring, the Lakers have jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Denver Nuggets.
Bryant has also been deferring to his teammates; three other Lakers are averaging in double figures, thanks in part to the defensive attention that is being focused on Bryant. His assist numbers may be down, but his shooting has opened up the lanes for big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol as well as point guard Ramon Sessions.
If Bryant can continue to score his points within the offense and open up the paint for his teammates, there is a good chance Bryant could find himself in position to earn his sixth championship ring.
Bynum has been Bryant’s best teammate. Bynum’s breakout has resulted in him being the perfect number-two scorer, averaging 18.5 points per game on a remarkable 63 percent shooting from the field.
Bynum has also been the Lakers’ defensive anchor, with the team funneling most of their defensive schemes towards him. Bynum has responded by leading the playoffs in block shots with six per game and is in the top five in rebounds at 11 per game.
The one-two punch of Bryant and Bynum has had little problem solving the Denver Nuggets to this point in the playoffs. With Bynum’s emergence, it’s a safe bet the Lakers are going to make a deep run.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
MVP candidate Kevin Durant receives most of the attention for the Thunder’s success this season, but in the early stages of the playoffs, it’s been Westbrook who has been the team’s best player.
Westbrook has broken down the Dallas Mavericks’ defense and has been able to get into the paint seemingly at will. He is averaging 25.7 points per game, and is shooting over 49 percent from the field.
There is no question that Durant is a special player and scorer. In fact, he hit the game winner at the end of Game 1 and is now third in the playoffs in scoring. But after last year, when the Thunder flamed out in five games against the Mavericks, it’s clear that Westbrook is the key for Oklahoma City to reach the next level.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
The reigning Finals MVP is having another solid playoff run; unfortunately it hasn’t resulted in any wins for the defending world champion Mavericks. Dallas is trailing the Thunder 3-0, but the blame can’t fall on Nowitzki’s shoulders.
He’s averaging 24.3 points per game on almost 46 percent shooting from the field and 86 percent shooting from the free throw line. Nowitzki isn’t the problem; it’s his supporting cast that has struggled during the first round.
Vince Carter is shooting a lowly 29 percent from the field and Jason Kidd is at 26.7 percent. Also, the Mavericks are getting only 10.3 points per game from their three-headed center of Ian Mahinimi, Brandan Wright and Brendan Haywood.
If the Mavericks are going to turn their first-round series around, it will take more than just Nowitzki. An athletic and young team like the Thunder is unlikely to give games away, and even if Nowitzki plays at his best, he still needs his teammates to step up like they did in last year’s playoffs.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Parker has been the poster child for offensive efficiency during these playoffs. He’s been dissecting the Jazz defense to the tune of 23 points on 55 percent shooting from the field and taking only 14.5 shots per game.
Also, he’s third in the playoffs in assists with 8.5 per game, but only averaging 1.5 turnovers. Parker’s play is reminiscent of when he won the 2007 Finals MVP. During that run, he averaged 24.5 points, but only 3.3 assists.
Parker is key to everything the Spurs do on offense. He controls the pace of the game and his ability to get into the paint opens up lanes and space for the rest of the offense. If Parker continues to play at his current pace, the Spurs could be looking at their fifth title under Gregg Popovich.
Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
Hibbert has been arguably the most dominant defensive player so far during these playoffs. He is averaging 12 rebounds per game and an astonishing 4.7 blocks. With Dwight Howard sidelined after undergoing back surgery, the 7’2’’ Hibbert is taking advantage of the Magic’s lack of height.
Hibbert is also averaging 10 points on 50 percent shooting from the field. If the Pacers are to make a deep run, Hibbert will need to continue dominating down low, especially if they face the HEAT in the second round.
Have questions for Mark Nugent? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Thursdays at 6 p.m. EST for his weekly basketball chat. Follow him on Twitter @MarkNugentNBA.