Even if the Miami Heat have a red carpet marking their way to a repeat championship, the 2013 NBA Playoffs have had enough thrills and story lines to make them entertaining regardless. Already at about the halfway point of the postseason, SJN has decided to award the best performances of the playoffs thus far, in the following categories: Best Coach, Best Team, Best Player, Best Defender and Best Bench.
A quick note: we decided to omit the coaches, teams, and players already outed from the playoffs. It’s hard to praise the performance of those who’ve been outperformed.
Best Coach: Mark Jackson
No one expected the Warriors to be the number six seed in the playoffs this year. Less people expected them to steamroll the Denver Nuggets. And not even Joey Crawford had Golden State tied 2-2 with San Antonio in a series where the Warriors have looked like the superior team. Yet, here they are, perched to make franchise history if they can eliminate the hardy Spurs from contention.
Jackson has been a dig-your-heels-in type of coach. He will not be phased by analytics, legacies, pundits, shortcomings, or unlikely odds. He believes in his young core, knows they believe in him, and doesn’t give a second thought to pre-game, mid-game, pre-series, or mid-series adaptations.
Working Harrison Barnes off pick and roll situations in Game 4 was masterful. The rookie ended with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Jackson went small against Denver after David Lee hurt his hip and it paid off in dividends. Despite their greenness, he hasn’t hesitated to throw rookie seven-footers Festus Ezeli and Andris Biedrins at Tim Duncan. Or to ride Jarrett Jack in late game situations despite his sometimes questionable defense.
Tom Thibodeau has also been exceptional in the postseason, but he beat a Nets squad he was projected to beat, even if he did it with a depleted roster. Jackson has led his team to uncharted waters and mostly to the disbelief of most of the league.
Best Team: Miami Heat
It’s growing a little tiresome to keep stating this, but the Miami Heat are looking tough to beat this year. They are ranked fourth in the postseason in PPG (100.7), first in APG (23.4), first in field-goal percentage (49.6%), sixth in free-throw percentage (75.4%), third in three-point percentage (34.9%), and their defense is also first-rate. They’re second in opponent PPG (86.6), fifth in opponent field-goal percentage (42.6%), second in opponent three-point percentage (30.3%), and second in opponent free-throw percentage (68.6%).
Their only real flaws have been rebounding, poor response to teams that move the ball quickly and well, and an aversion to physical play. But it seems wrong to even call those flaws as they’re solid even in those areas.
Best Player: Kevin Durant
32.3 PPG on 50% shooting, 9.3 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.4 STLPG, 1.0 BLKPG, and 86.4 FT% speak for themselves. Durant is having a monstrous postseason and not even LeBron can take that away from him. His only flaw has been his three-point shooting, which currently stands at an uncharacteristic 24%. And the low percentage cannot be blamed entirely on him having to carry such a heavy load without Westbrook. He shot 21.1% from deep in both contests in which Russell played in before the knee injury.
Durant’s impact has been just as meaningful when analyzed by Advanced Stats. He’s had a higher Player Impact Estimate (PIE) than LeBron at 23.0%, trails only Carmelo in Pts Per 100 Possessions (at 37.56) and Usage Rate (USG%) (31.7%). He ranks fifth in points scored in the paint (PITP), and is tied with Nate Robinson for most points scored in crunch time (22).
If this guy can get Scott Brooks to run some semblance of plays to draw attention away from him, can add an arsenal of post moves this summer (a whole four years before LeBron did), and bulks up another 10-15 pounds, he’s going to morph into a league rule-changer―the sign of an all-time great.
I couldn’t get myself to vote against any four of these guys. This four-way tie is absolutely a nod to big man ball, and is appropriate because all four players have been defensive anchors.
Andrew Bogut manhandled the Denver frontcourt and has had games this postseason where he logged 21, 18, 15, 12, and 11 rebounds. Only three other players are averaging more offensive rebounds in the playoffs, and he’s allowed Golden State to be the best rebounding team in the chase for a chip. Not to mention that he’s badgered Tim Duncan any opportunity he gets.
Noah has matched both a Shaquille O’Neal and a Michael Jordan record this postseason. He’s only the second player in addition to Shaq who has knotted at least 24 points on 70% shooting, 14 rebounds, and six swats in a playoff game. He did that in a crucial Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets. In a Game 4 loss against the Heat, Noah put up 15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks. Only Michael Jordan has posted a similar stat line in the playoffs for the Bulls. Noah is also third in the postseason in blocks (2.5 per game) and first in offensive rebounds (4.5 per game).
Gasol is playing up to his Defensive Player of the Year acclaim. Though the Grizzlies aren’t ranked as good defensively in the postseason as they were in the regular season, they’re on the path to beating two very, very good Western Conference teams. And of course your defensive numbers aren’t going to hold up when playing against Kevin Durant and Chris Paul-led teams. Gasol isn’t known for his stats, but he does help dictate tempo and defense like no other big man.
Hibbert has outplayed another dominant center in Tyson Chandler on both sides of the court. He anchors down a strong five-man starting unit for Indiana who has mostly had their way against a very good New York team. Hibbert probably patrols the paint the best out of these four candidates and has become a world-class shot affector, if not, deflector. The Pacers are a tough team to beat with him playing such good two-way ball.
Best Bench: Chicago Bulls
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have well-deep squads. The Warriors have had major contributions from their bench. But the Bulls are their bench.
As depleted as they have been, most of their starting unit are bench players, but yet have outcompeted the Brooklyn Nets and are playing the part of a pesky fly against the Miami Heat. When your sixth man, Nate Robinson, is tied with Kevin Durant for most clutch points in the 2012-13 postseason and was a point shy of breaking Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls record for most points in a quarter, you know that your bench is playing out of its mind. The question remains: can they get Miami to lose theirs?