The ability to achieve under pressure when so much is at stake separates the good from the great, the great from the elite and makes all talk of a regular season MVP, regardless of its historical impact, seem irrelevant. Can you produce when it counts, when everything is at stake, is what matters in the NBA’s put up or shut up second season. For these six, the answer is yes.
Kawhi Leonard: 32.5 points. 6.5 rebounds. 58% field goals. 52% 3-pointers. Offensive Rating: 141. PER: 39.5. Kawhi’s first 40-point playoff performance came in a thrilling overtime game that ended in a loss for the Spurs but not because of Leonard who put on an offensive and defensive clinic. He is the best two-way player in the playoffs. Outside of LeBron James, he is the one player who you can classify as scary. Every shot on the floor is within his range and he can guard all five positions, hit a game tying shot and never crack a smile. Everyone forgets because of his self-effacing nature he is a Finals MVP. In other words, good luck Memphis.
Chris Paul: 26.7 points. 10.3 assists. 55.4% field goals. 46.2% 3-pointers. Offensive Rating: 133. PER: 36.3. Despite the Clippers curse, and another injury [Blake Griffin] Chris Paul is doing Chris Paul things. His defense is dynamic. He is scoring on a [Utah] backcourt that is undermatched and just can’t deal with him. He is making nearly every shot he tosses up and in the fourth quarter there is no stopping him. With the Griffin injury there will be more Chris Paul, not less. He is posting playoff career highs across the board: scoring, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, he hasn’t missed a free throw, career high offensive rating and second best defensive rating, a PER he has never posted before. Chris Paul is doing some things.
James Harden: 38.7 points. 7.7 assists. 47% field goals. Offensive Rating: 126. PER: 35.0. Harden is dominating his series against the Thunder the way he dominated the regular season in a MVP year. He is scoring 12 more points than he did in the 2016 playoffs and an ungodly 35.0 PER; last year in the playoffs his PER was 21.8. How about his defense? It is as good as it is ever going to get for Harden. Shaking off the personal MVP duel with pal Westbrook, Harden is exhibiting his versatility as a leader, play maker and scorer. It is pretty clear that if Houston is going anywhere this post-season, James Harden is going to drag them there.
John Wall: 31.0 points. 10.0 assists. 55% field goals. 71% 3-pointers. Offensive Rating: 130. PER: 32.1. Continuing his change of narrative, John Wall is the best player in the Wizards-Hawks series and it is not even close. He is efficient with his shot, driven in his leadership, competing harder than anyone else on the floor and seemingly wants to advance to the second round and beyond with a vicious hunger and thirst. He has never scored like this and has never been this dynamic and elite. He is turning all his critics into believers.
LeBron James: 32.7 points. 10.7 assists. 9.7 rebounds. 55.2% field goals. 47% 3-pointers. Offensive Rating: 121. PER: 30.7. The only knock on LeBron James this postseason is his free throw shooting is a career worst 55.2%. And he has a career worst defensive rating of 110, a worst defensive rating than James Harden. But his offense is sublime. Almost averaging a triple double, what James did in Indiana in the second half to pull his team out of their coma and drive a stake in the heart of unhappy Paul George was vintage best player on the planet. He drove to the rim, he hit threes, he dished the ball to open shooters. He was who LeBron James is, simply brilliant and will earn himself a little rest before he gets round two and either the Bucks or the Raptors.
Mike Conley: 24.0 Points. 7.8 assists. 48% field goals. 48% 3-pointers. Offensive Rating: 125. PER: 29.1. Welcome back Mike. After missing last year’s playoffs with an Achilles injury, Conley has come out strong as he has matched the Spurs guards and in many ways surpassing them. Conley has carried his team and is now in a 2-2 series with the Spurs. He is making shots, playing smart defense and making players better while at the same time caring zero baggage about the big time contract he signed in the off-season. Conley’s maturity keeps him grounded at all times as he elevates teammates, many of whom were in the D-league. The next time you hear Conley complain will be the first time. The outburst and strong defense by coach Fitzdale only legitimized Conley, the most underappreciated back court star in the NBA. If he finds a way to dismantle the Spurs, Conley will [finally] be in best point guard discussions.