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Head to Head: The Playoff MVP So Far

Susan Bible, Eric Pincus and Moke Hamilton discuss who has been the MVP of the NBA playoffs so far.

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The Conference Finals are here, and NBA fans have been treated to two excellent rounds of playoff action. In this week’s head to head, we asked Susan Bible, Eric Pincus and Moke Hamilton: Which player has been the playoff MVP so far? Here is what they had to say:

Russell Westbrook

Without a doubt, the Oklahoma City Thunder are beyond fortunate to have Kevin Durant, the league’s 2013-14 Most Valuable Player, on their roster, but the MVP of these playoffs so far is his teammate, the much-maligned Russell Westbrook.

Yes, he’s an unconventional point guard who attempts an abundance of shots. He is equal parts frustrating and inspiring in his decision-making, sometimes in the same play. The basketball world is slowly, but surely, coming to the realization that the best course of action – the winning course even – is to let Westbrook be Westbrook. Thunder coach Scott Brooks and Westbrook’s teammates have known this all along. They’ve shown him considerable trust and support in the face of critics. It’s paying off in spades as the Thunder are now headed to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years.

In the postseason thus far, Westbrook’s elevated play and sheer will to make winning plays have earned him the postseason MVP title. The numbers speak for themselves. In 13 playoff games, Westbrook is averaging 26.6 points, 8.4 assists and 8.0 rebounds. Compare that to the regular season: 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds. During the playoffs, he’s logged three triple-doubles in a five-game span. Three. Don’t forget that the Thunder have won, arguably, the toughest two series of any team (a seven-game battle against the Memphis Grizzlies featuring four overtime situations, and a wild back-and-forth six-game series against the Los Angeles Clippers).

What Westbrook lacks in efficient scoring, especially in three-pointers, he more than makes up in other facets of the game. In reviewing all the postseason stats, he leads his position in rebounds, and it’s not even close (Damian Lillard is second at 5.1 rebounds per game), and he’s third among all players in offensive rebounds. His growing ability to find the open man is remarkable; he’s second only to Chris Paul in assists. At just 25 years old, Westbrook is demonstrating a well-rounded set of skills that are on full display in this postseason.

Westbrook is reaching Durant-levels in clutch play. In the pivotal Game 5 of the Thunder-Clippers series, Westbrook sealed the win with a critical late steal, managing to get fouled on a three-point attempt, then making all three free throws with 6.4 seconds left on the clock. Durant remains brilliant, of course, but it’s noteworthy that Westbrook’s 24.5 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and .869 free-throw percentage top Durant’s at 23.5 and .825, respectively.

There’s no danger of Westbrook losing his confident and emotionally-charged style of play. His freakish athleticism and fearless nature in the paint leave us only able to shake our heads in amazement. Simply put, he is who he is, and it’s working out beautifully. The Thunder would not be in this position to make another title run without his contributions on the court.

– Susan Bible

Tony Parker

Why is it that one of the NBA’s best, most successful point guards is often overlooked as just that?

Tony Parker, of the San Antonio Spurs, won the NBA Finals MVP in 2007.  The Spurs won 62 games this season, best in the league.If the Spurs are often considered “too old,” or not flashy enough, Parker continues to lead his team to victory.

Through 12 postseason games, Parker is the Spurs’ top scorer at 19.3 points a game, along with 4.9 assists.

San Antonio easily got past the Portland Trail Blazers.  The Dallas Mavericks proved to be a difficult first-round opponent, but in Game 7, Parker scored 33 points with nine assists to help the Spurs to an easy series-clinching win.

Troubling for San Antonio, Parker is dealing with a mild hamstring strain.

The Spurs will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, and while Serge Ibaka will sit out for the Thunder with a calf injury, Oklahoma City can be a daunting challenge.  Russell Westbrook is averaging 26.6 points and 8.4 assists a game for the Thunder.

This won’t be an easy matchup for Parker.  If he can match Westbrook’s output, the Spurs still have to deal with Kevin Durant – but then the Thunder face a deep, powerful San Antonio squad.

Perhaps it’s the Spurs’ considerable depth that keeps Parker slightly under the radar, despite his resume. As long as Parker’s hamstring isn’t a problem, he should be able to help get his team past the Thunder to a second-straight NBA Finals.

Other players may put up bigger numbers than Parker, but he could a month away from his second NBA Finals MVP.

– Eric Pincus

LeBron James

One could make the case for Russell Westbrook and for sure, Tony Parker merits special consideration, but we would be remiss to not unequivocally anoint LeBron James as the Most Valuable Player of the NBA playoffs thus far.

Now in his ninth playoffs, James has long ago spoiled us with his outstanding talent. We watch him, mostly in awe, but often with the expectation of greatness, and now, during one of his finest runs, we overlook him, almost entirely.

With his Miami HEAT mostly running on fumes and with a cast that is probably not as good, experienced or polished as last year’s, James’ HEAT arrived at the Eastern Conference Finals with an 8-1 record. They made short work of the Brooklyn Nets in a series where James average 30 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 57 percent from the field and a whopping 82 percent from the free-throw line.

In Game 4 of that series, on the road in Brooklyn, James put on a one-man show by scoring 49 points on just 24 shots from the field. In Game 5, he came up with two critical stops on Joe Johnson that sealed the game and eliminated the Nets from the playoffs. There, he was the major catalyst in the HEAT erasing an eight-point deficit and holding the Nets to just three points in the final five minutes of the game.

In short, when the going has gotten tough, the already tough James has gotten tougher.

That he has done so and led his team throughout Dwyane Wade’s decline is something that is worth supreme reverence. While Wade is averaging more points this postseason than last (17.9 to 15.9), his minutes, rebounds, assists and steals are all down as he is clearly pitch-counting himself in hopes of being fully rested and prepared for the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

As someone who has watched James quite closely and has personally observed his ascension to basketball royalty en route to winning two NBA championships, it is easy to see that he is playing the best basketball of his career at this moment. Quite simply, he makes the correct decisions with the basketball and has quietly forged a reputation for being the game’s ultimate closer, despite once being thought of as a mere court-jester in the clutch.

Now in their fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, James’ Game 4 performance against the Nets will go down with his 48-point performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons back in 2007 and his 45-point, 15-rebound Game 6 performance against the Boston Celtics back in 2012.

With the game on the line and championship hopes hanging in the balance, there is no other player I would rather have on my team and with the ball in his hands than James. And if I am the opposing coach in that situation, there is no other player that strikes fear into my heart as much as James does.

As the HEAT trod toward their dynastic destiny, hoping to complete a three-peat, they do so with James—the greatest player of his generation.

Behind his 30 points, 7.1 rebounds and four assists and 8-1 record, the HEAT are following the lead of King James.

To perhaps a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, they are clearly following the league’s playoff MVP.

– Moke Hamilton

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