One of the bad things about a great NBA Finals — maybe the only one — is that it tends to overshadow all that comes before it. This was a postseason for the ages long before the .1 Prayer, the Headband Game and the Confetti Choke, and though the enduring memories for the summer will surely be of the Heat’s victory and the Spurs’ defeat, the true list of winners and losers from these playoffs is a lot longer than just that.
At least 25 long each, anyway. That’s the number of winners I’ve ranked from this year’s postseason — losers to come tomorrow — crediting the breakout stars, the clutch performers and the unlikely heroes of these exceedingly memorable playoffs. Relive the second season with the names of the players and coaches who best defined it, and let me know why Mario Chalmers should have been higher than all of them.
But first, some honorable mentions. Hey, there were a lot of important dudes in these playoffs.
- Brian Shaw, Indiana Pacers. Could barely get a second look as Phil Jackson’s potential successor two seasons ago, now nearly as hotly pursued in coaching free agency as Lionel Hollins and George Karl.
- Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls. Why go through the trouble of amnestying Carlos Boozer when your team can just keep plucking potential All-Star talents with the last pick in the first round of the draft?
- Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs. Boris Diaw, LeBron stopper. In a Finals of unlikely subplots, this required the biggest suspension of disbelief.
- Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies. Games One and Two, Clippers-Grizzlies: “Is this the end of the Zach Randolph era?” Games Three-Six, Clippers-Grizzlies: “Nope.”
- Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors. 34 points and 14 rebounds in a road win in the second round is a good way to dispel that whole “Deer in headlights” thing.
- Francisco Garcia, Houston Rockets. Possible that the whole Robinson-Patterson trade with the Kings was just a smokescreen for the Rockets to acquire the sharp-shooting, lockdown-defending Garcia? Sneaky sneaky, Daryl.
- Iman Shumpert/Raymond Felton, New York Knicks. You couldn’t trust a lot of guys on the Knicks by the end of their underwhelming playoff run, but Felton and Shumpert were the two guys who always seemed dangerous.
And now, the list proper:
25. Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder. No, he isn’t Russell Westbrook, nor can he even produce a particularly convincing facsimile of him. Still, if you weren’t impressed by him in these playoffs — averaging a 14/5/4 and shooting 48 percent for the postseason, while starting for the first time in his career and playing a far bigger role in the limited Thunder offense than anyone could have predicted he’d have to — you need to stop evaluating second-year backup points by the standards of one of the best players on the planet.
24. Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets. From NBA washout to playoff starter in a couple short months, Beverley proved a surprising key role in a number of game adjustments and big plays from the Thunder-Rockets’ twist-filled first-round series. His knee-knocking with Westbrook in Game 2 will earn him a place in infamy for all-time in OKC, but at least they all know his name now.
23. Quincy Pondexter, Memphis Grizzlies. Just when everyone concluded that the Greivis Vasquez trade was an unmitigated disaster for Memphis, here comes Quincy Pondexter being just about the only reliable wing scorer and floor-spacer for the Grizzlies in their four-game sweep at the hands of San Antonio. True, it’s not particularly hard to outshoot Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince, but still — 49 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three in career-high minutes is impressive. Just gotta work on those free throws, Q-Pon.
22. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls. Not like Joakim had all that much to prove to Bulls fans in the heart-and-hustle department, but powering the Bulls to a meaningless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things Game 7 win in Brooklyn while playing on two bad feet will certainly make him forever beyond reproach in that department. Plus, even if it looked pretty ridiculous four games later, how great was that billboard of him extinguishing LeBron after Game One?
21. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics. Green averaged just about the quietest 20 points a game you can average in a playoff series in the Celtics’ first round loss to the Knicks, but it was still a redemptive end to a down-and-up season for the C’s’ enigmatic young talent. Hell, he even showed that he was capable of doing it efficiently every once in a while, scoring 18 points on just eight shot attempts in Boston’s unlikely Game 5 victory.
20. Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors. Bogey Lives! OK, you might still like to see more than seven points a game from your former No. 1 overall pick, but his rebounding and defensive presence were huge for the Warriors, and the fact that he was still capable of doing this after three seasons of seeming like he just might not ever be fully healthy again had to be far more inspiring to GSW fans than David Lee and Mark Jackson trying to pull a Willis Reed.
19. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies. Any Best Center in the League debate lingering for the 2012-13 season was probably quashed by Gasol’s superlative two-way play in the first two rounds of the playoffs, capped by a 23 point, 11 rebound, six block performance in Game 4 of the OKC series that effectively shut the door on the Thunder’s season. He showed in the Spurs series why it’s still maybe not the best thing for him to be your go-to guy offensively, but four straight 20-point outings against OKC showed that it’s probably not the worst, either.
18. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets. Amidst inconsistent and disappointing performances from nearly every one of his teammates, the only Net who really showed out in the Bulls series was Brook Lopez. Averaging 22 points a game going against Joakim Noah is no small feat — even with Noah practically on crutches — and leading the league with three blocks a game in the postseason is something I doubt anyone saw coming from Lopez. There’s reason for skepticism with most things concerning the Nets’ recent personnel decisions and future prospects, but it appears they got at least one thing right last offseason.
17. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. When your team’s system and ethos is strong enough to withstand minutes going to Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook that should be going to Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, it’s a pretty good case for you being one of the few coaches in the league who can claim that they’re just as valuable to their team as anybody on the court. Just imagine if he could’ve squeezed a second win out of that Heat series.
16. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs. Injuries, minutes and too much LeBron wore him down for the last few games of a potentially legacy-altering Finals against the Heat, but that doesn’t undo the incredible postseason run Tony Parker had to that point, which included a mind-boggling 37-point, 15-21 shooting closeout performance against the Grizzlies in the West finals, and one of the craziest late-game shots ever hit in the Finals. There’s probably no wrong answer in the Tony Parker vs. Chris Paul Best Point Guard Right Now debate, but at the very least, Parker made it clear that CP3 is currently his only real competition in the matter.
15. Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers. Lance’s numbers for the playoffs on the whole aren’t particularly great — just nine points a game on 41 percent shooting, a sub-standard 11.3 PER — but his defense, rebounding and overall toughness made him a key part of Indiana’s Eastern finals run, as well as a sensation in the hoops world at large. Plus, he proved capable of the occasional breakout game, as in his 25-point, 10-board performance in Indiana’s clinching Game 6 victory against the Knicks, and finally seemed to earn the begrudging respect of LeBron, who at least deigned to directly answer questions about him postgame this time.
14. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies. The bet was that Mike Conley could replace Rudy Gay as the Grizzlies’ crunch-time ball-handler and scorer, and for at least two series, it was a good one. Conley played Chris Paul to a near-draw throughout the Clips-Grizz series, and earned an entire Zach Lowe column with his steady all-around excellence against OKC. The shots stopped falling for Conley late in the Thunder series, and he never really regained his stroke against the Spurs, but the transformation of Mike Conley from over-extended draft disappointment to All-Star-level performer was already complete.
13. Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors. Preacher was spreading the gospel with a vengeance this postseason, badly out-coaching George Karl in the Warriors’ first round upset of the Denver Nuggets, and winning over NBA fans with his perfectly orated Inside Trax huddles and postgame press conferences. Jackson ran out of miracles (or maybe just Steph Curry three-pointers) late in the Spurs series, but he had already struck a big blow for prospective head coaches lacking prior official coaching experience. Jason Kidd probably owes him a fruit basket.
12. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs. And damn, would he have been a lot higher if I had written this column after Game 5 of the Finals. Green’s crash-landing to earth in Games 6 and 7 of that series was dramatic enough to probably represent the difference between San Antonio winning their fifth championship in five tries and them spending the summer deliberating What Ifs and How Coulds. Still, it’s probably safe to say that without Green’s historically white-hot shooting in the five games prior — going 25-38 from deep, setting the record for threes in a finals midway through Game 5 — they wouldn’t have been in position to win the Finals anyway. No Danny Green, Finals MVP after all, but certainly a postseason to remember for Danny Boy just the same.
11. Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls. He’ll move on to another team next year. He’ll have great games, he’ll have terrible games, he’ll get boos and he’ll get standing ovations, he’ll get into a silly feud with an opponent and strike up an endearingly ridiculous friendship with a teammate. No matter where he goes from here, though, he’ll always have the Nate Robinson Game, a performance of such prodigious offensive brilliance that it justifies every other silly thing that goes along with the Nate Robinson Experience, forever. Until it doesn’t, anyway.
10. Chris Andersen, Miami Heat. Flipping the script from disgraced NBA washout to championship contender secret weapon seemingly overnight in the regular season, it would seem the Birdman would have nowhere to go but down once the postseason started. Nope. Andersen just kept going up, shooting an unfathomable 81 percent from the field in his 15 minutes a game, at one point going three weeks — three weeks!!! – in between misses, and becoming the people’s champ among fans at American Airlines Arena. The only thing keeping him from top five on this list was Coach Spoelstra’s curious decision to hold Bird from Games 4 and 5 of the Finals, a curious asterisk to Andersen’s otherwise uninterrupted run of unexpected, unequivocal success this post-season.
9. Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers. His gang convincingly beat a favored Knicks team in the second round, then hung tough for seven hard-fought games against the eventual champs in the conference finals, solidifying his presence on the list of the league’s best coaches in the process. His reputation as one of the league’s best defensive schemers continues to grow — minus a couple of controversial late-game substitutions in Game 1 — and from all we’ve seen and heard of the guy on the sidelines and at the podium, he seems like one of the league’s great leaders and motivators as well. Isn’t it crazy to think that as recently as 2011, this guy was an assistant behind Jim O’Brien?
8. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Of course, in terms of straight coachiness, there’s still no f’ing with Pop. Aside from the countless chess moves he made throughout the playoffs and especially the Finals — going small with the starting lineup, tweaking the rotation to give minutes from struggling players (Splitter, Joseph) to producing ones (Diaw, Neal), adopting a consistent strategy for guarding Wade and LeBron and getting his guys to stick with it — Popovich was in his finest form when dealing with the media, most notably in a pre-Game 7 presser that instantly became the stuff of legend among NBA fans. He even showed a rare dash of sentimentality in his post-Finals embraces with LeBron and Wade, a moment equally stunning for Pop in its effusiveness and its sincerity.
7. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs. Pretty big bummer that the layup he blew in the final minute of Game 7 — the one which, by his own prediction, will basically haunt him forever — will likely end up the enduring memory of Tim Duncan from these playoffs. In truth, Duncan was probably a half-minute away from winning his fourth Finals MVP award, his legacy as the Best Power Forward (Who Was Really a Center) Ever cemented by his dominant 30-point (25 in the first half), double-digit rebound effort in the Game 6 closeout of the Heat. But of course, the out wasn’t officially closed, the Heat rallied back, and Duncan had to stick around to muck that game-tying bunny two nights after, rendering his 24 and 12 from earlier in the night an afterthought. Tough break for the future Hall of Famer, but hopefully most real fans won’t let the moment overshadow what was otherwise another incredible postseason run from the (technically 37-year-old) NBA immortal.
6. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat. Not like anyone besides Jeff Van Gundy will really notice or care, but after the Heat’s historic regular season and second straight NBA championship, Erik Spoelstra is in the process of building a coaching resume that, once all is said in done, may be matched in all of basketball history by just a few names, one of whom still sits a couple rows up from him at American Airlines Arena. It wasn’t a cheap ring for Spo, either — he had to keep up in the chess match with Gregg Popovich, deciding who to play between the hot/cold Mike Miller-Shane Battier combo, balancing minutes for Dwyane Wade with Miami’s lethal all-shooting lineup, and eventually figuring out how to remove Danny Green from the equation on offense, among countless other such decisions, all of course made under the league’s hottest microscope.
Impressive stuff. Here’s hoping the NBA doesn’t go and ruin it all for him by naming him Coach of the Year.
5. Paul George, Indiana Pacers. If you don’t know, now you know. Paul George finished his breakout junior season in the NBA — which included his first All-Star appearance and a Most Improved Player trophy — with a playoff run that saw him level up even further. Posting a 19/7/5 line on 43 percent shooting — all numbers up from the regular season — George still probably drew the most notice for his work on the defensive end, doing an admirable job of containing Carmelo Anthony in the Pacers-Knicks series and at least making LeBron work hard for the money in the East finals. You get the feeling it won’t be the last time George goes against those guys in the playoffs, and that it won’t be too long before George is the defensive assignment no young wing defender wants to get.
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs. Though like just about everyone on San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard’s playoff success was tempered with one moment of notable ignominy — in his case, going one-for-two at the line with a chance to make it a two-possession game down the stretch in Game 6 — you don’t feel quite as bad for Kawhi, both because his play was so otherwise strong (15/11 on 51 percent shooting for the Finals, with a couple steals and good-as-it-gets defense on LeBron) and because his future seems so impossibly bright from here. Duncan may be haunted forever by Game 7, but it’s hard to tell if anything really gets under the thick skin and droopy eyes of Kawhi Leonard, and if you’re a Spurs fan, the biggest consolation you have after that gut-wrenching Finals loss is that even if this is the end of the Big Three era, you still have this guy to key the Spurs’ next wave.
3. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers. The arc of Roy Hibbert, Playoff Hero could not have been foreseen in November and December, when Hibbert was scoring in the single digits, shooting under 40 percent and inspiring fans to talk about what a bullet the Blazers dodged by Indiana matching their offer sheet for his services in the offseason. But Hibbert rounded into form near season’s end, and in the postseason, he was as big a force down low as anyone, scoring on post moves his own fans probably doubted he had, and serving as the impenetrable (and un-fouling) last line of defense against the driving likes of Carmelo and LeBron.
If he played for an entire season the way he played against the Heat — averaging 22 and 10 on 56 percent shooting, and defense so valuable the Pacers could scarcely afford to steal him minutes on the bench — he’d probably be closer to providing peak-era Dwight Howard production than actual current-day Dwight Howard. Regardless, it’s unlikely Blazers fans still feel quite so fortunate to have been denied the opportunity to sign him.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. Players like George and Leonard became stars for the first time this postseason, but only Curry made the jump from star to superstar, his unprecedently scorching shooting turning him into the league’s absolute most exciting player for two rounds this postseason. It’s a testament to how much great stuff happened after Curry’s exit against the Spurs in Round 2 that he’s not even one of the first things that comes to mind when discussing this postseason, since while he was posting a 44/11 in Game 1 against San Antonio, it seemed like a show that even our No. 1 guy couldn’t upstage.
Injuries and exhaustion may have slowed him down for the last few games of his astounding playoff run — he went just 3-15 from deep in Games 5 and 6 combined, both Warrior losses — but his numbers on the whole for the playoffs (23 points, eight assists, 43 percent shooting and 40 percent from three) are still incredibly impressive, and you can’t even get from the numbers how exciting it was to watch this guy dribble up from half-court and instantly be within his shooting range. Just one postseason into his NBA career, and it’s already impossible to imagine a playoffs that doesn’t involve him.
1. LeBron James, Miami Heat. Yeah, not much to debate here. LeBron James won his second championship as by far his team’s best player, posting two triple-doubles in the Finals and scoring 37 in Game 7, to basically forever crush whatever remnants were holding on from the “LeBron Isn’t Clutch” hater bandwagon (totally different from my own LeBron hater bandwagon). He won Finals MVP in a walk, exorcized some of his demons by beating the Spurs in the Finals, and figured out that he might be better off without the headband after all. Really, for two years and two postseasons, there’s nothing you could want from this guy that he doesn’t do, and do better than just about anyone else.
Yet, all that said, it’s still worth pointing out that LeBron was 30 seconds — an offensive rebound, a made free throw — away from not appearing on this list at all, but rather tomorrow’s Losers list, for coming up short on a couple late Heat possessions as the Spurs unexpectedly re-surged, nearly swiping the championship from him on his home floor. The line between hero and goat can be that thin in the NBA, especially for someone with as much responsibility and expectation as LeBron, but for the second straight year, at the end of the day he’s basically completely unassailable. From this point on, LeBron’s not competing with his peers anymore, he’s competing with history — and before long, there’s not gonna be a ton of competition left.