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 NBA -- ESPN Insider article: Ranking LeBron, LaMarcus, Lillard and top 10 NBA playoff MVPs

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PostSubject: NBA -- ESPN Insider article: Ranking LeBron, LaMarcus, Lillard and top 10 NBA playoff MVPs   Sun May 08, 2016 1:24 pm

Sunday, May 8, 2016
ESPN Insider article
Ranking LeBron, LaMarcus, Lillard and top 10 NBA playoff MVPs
Undefeated in the playoffs, the Cavs -- led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving -- are feeling good. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
8:00 AM ET

David ThorpeESPN Staff Writer


The playoff MVPs -- our weekly top 10 rankings -- represent seven teams, not just the three title favorites. We have explosive scorers, amazing defenders and every other kind of postseason star.

First, a note on our top player and his unique team.

We have rarely seen a team transition gracefully from one set of core stars to another. The Celtics after Bird, the Lakers after Magic and the Bulls after Jordan are three examples of how difficult it is.

These Spurs are special. Yes, their older stars still make plays here and there, but while they have remained productive, they've plainly taken a back seat to the new generation. With their support, and with the freedom to play to his strengths within the San Antonio system, the first player on our list began outplaying every other big man in the league.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge

2016 playoff stats:
23.0 PPG | 58.0 FG%

The entire league "zigged" to guys who can score at the rim and make 3s, including the Spurs, but Coach Pop (from what reports suggest) had long planned to "zag" in the form of acquiring LaMarcus Aldridge.

His midrange post game is the best in the league and makes him basically unguardable in one-on-one play. In the first two games of this series, he looked like a video game star with 79 points on 44 shots. The question heading into Game 3, thanks to that kind of dominance: Will Oklahoma City keep letting him score in hopes of controlling the other weapons?

The answer was yes. OKC decided to try to limit the other Spurs players and, thus, mostly defended Aldridge with just one guy. For much of the game, it allowed Aldridge to give the Spurs just enough offense to maintain a lead. Aldridge didn't make almost every shot, like he did in San Antonio's two home games, but he made enough, and with Kawhi Leonard playing his best game of the series and Tony Parker looking to score more, the Spurs won. Now OKC has to think again about how it should defend the Spurs' best offensive player.
2. LeBron James

2016 playoff stats:
23.9 PPG | 8.6 RPG

There used to be a running comment from NBA players: "If Bron ever gets that 3-point shot down, it's a wrap." He did that for much of his time in Miami, and he took home two rings.

It's been a struggle in Cleveland, as his outside shot became an afterthought -- perhaps because he was missing too many. It made sense for opponents to hope he would shoot from deep, and they defended him with that in mind.

This reminds me of another comment players have made: "Never kick a sleeping bear." In the first two games of the Cleveland-Atlanta series, LeBron hit six of his 10 attempts from 3-point range -- and it looked like his success helped create a new sense of confidence for his team.

Heading into Atlanta, the Cavs looked, perhaps for the first time all year, like a team that can stand right with the two great teams in the West. They looked just as strong at the end of Game 3, using LeBron's near triple-double to crush Atlanta's hopes in a dominating fourth quarter. He has never looked more confident in a Cleveland team.
3. Kawhi Leonard

2016 playoff stats:
22.3 PPG | 2.0 BPG

In three games, Russell Westbrook has missed 49 shots and made just 26. Is there a more telling stat from the OKC-San Antonio series?

Although Kawhi has not defended Westbrook on every shot, he has been the Spur who has marked him the most by far. He has made it tough for one of the league's greatest finishers to drive and finish while avoiding fouls. Leonard starts defensive possessions in 3-point range but beyond Westbrook's true range, and that has forced a dismal 4-for-19 performance from 3-point range for Westbrook.

On offense, Kawhi is still stickier with the ball than any other perimeter player for the Spurs, but that is by design. He can bully almost any Thunder defender, as he showed in the pivotal Game 3, earning 14 free throws on his way to a monster 31-point, 11-rebound performance.
4. Klay Thompson

2016 playoff stats:
27.0 PPG | 45.0 3PT%

We knew Klay Thompson could shoot and score -- he has a quick release and a great feel for how to get open, even when being guarded attentively. With Steph Curry out, the bigger question became: How will he defend when he has to save some energy for his offense?

In the first half of Game 2 against Portland, the answer was, "Not so great." It's hard to guard a totally green-lighted Damian Lillard, but Thompson got stuck on some screens, didn't move quickly enough to recover on occasion and wasn't as engaged overall on defense as Golden State needed him to be.

In the Warriors' big comeback to win the game, part of it was the better effort by Thompson on Lillard: quicker reactions, great discipline to avoid fouling and using his long arms to bother Lillard on every pull-up jumper.

In Game 3, nobody could stop Lillard, who put up 40, but Thompson maintained his strong offensive push, which gave the Blazers a lot of things to consider for Monday's Game 4 and the potential return of Curry.
5. Jonas Valanciunas

2016 playoff stats:
15.0 PPG | 12.1 RPG

He wasn't leading his team in scoring or dominating on offense in the Raptors' home split against Miami. Rather, he was their best player when they needed someone to actually play well in crunch time.

Toronto would've been headed to Miami down 0-2 without Valanciunas' ultra-strong paint play and overall aggressiveness. Valanciunas played his best game in Miami until the moment he injured his ankle. Once he went out, Miami went on a 32-13 run, though the Raptors pulled it out late.

He had already destroyed Miami inside when Hassan Whiteside injured his knee in the first half, and he kept it up until he went down early in the third quarter, already amassing a 16 and 12 game in 22 minutes. For the Raptors, getting the big man back to the court will be their biggest aim before Game 4.
6. Kyrie Irving

2016 playoff stats:
24.9 PPG | 55.1 3PT%

LeBron gets the spotlight, of course, but Kyrie is having a fantastic postseason. Good enough to make me wonder if the Cavs could have beaten the Warriors with Irving healthy (even without Kevin Love).

Kyrie's postseason turnover rate is less than half of the rate posted by Irving's replacement, Mathew Dellavedova, last postseason, even though his responsibility is much greater as a primary scorer and playmaker.

And Irving has done plenty of scoring in the playoffs, including eight straight points, followed by an assist for a Channing Frye 3-pointer in the fourth quarter of Game 3 while LeBron got his rest. Instead of the Hawks building their lead, it disappeared along with their chances of winning the series. It's that kind of production, without LeBron, that gives the Cavs hope -- more than hope, really -- that they can win two more series after this one.
7. Dwyane Wade

2016 playoff stats:
21.2 PPG | 4.6 APG

On paper, these two teams look even. But one team has D-Wade, and the other doesn't. His special play was just enough to get Miami out of deep trouble in the first round, and he has the ability to do that again in the Heat-Raptors series.

After two games, which were split with both games going to OT, it looked like Wade's energy level had dimmed slightly. He had already played nine games in the postseason and suffered the numerous hard falls and collisions that are part of his game.

The same pattern emerged in Game 3. He put his team on his back in an epic third quarter that saw him score 18 points as he willed the Heat back from a deep hole to tie the score as the final period began. But he looked tired again at the end of the game, and his team struggled to score.

Now the team has to decide how to play him in Game 4, which is nearly a must-win. Still, given what his teammates have seen, they have to believe he has enough magic left to get them to the East finals.
8. Draymond Green

2016 playoff stats:
17.9 PPG | 10.5 RPG

Draymond's "brand" is defense and energy, which he provides Golden State on every possession.

Somewhat lost in that hurricane of controlled chaos is his skill, particularly as a playmaker and now as an improving scorer. Yes, Green is a great offensive player too, happy to get the "Gretzky" or the assist or take the shot himself -- whatever makes sense and helps the team, as we saw in his 37-point explosion in a Game 3 loss.

Green's offense -- and with it his confidence -- has grown a great deal since June, and nights such as Saturday will prove significant when the Warriors need it going forward.
9. Kevin Durant

2016 playoff stats:
25.0 PPG | 6.5 RPG

Kevin Durant was composed and calm after OKC's Game 3 loss. But during the series, his frustrations have shown. You can see him upset with a teammate's decision, with the Thunder's failure to move the ball and with turnovers (some of them his own -- he had five in Game 3).

He remains OKC's best player, the hardest to account for and the one reliable scorer against the league's best defense. He'll need all of that and all the level-headedness he can muster to keep the Thunder in the series. If things don't go well, it will be interesting to see exactly how poised he remains as the stories about his uncertain future in OKC continue to surface.
10. Damian Lillard

Trail Blazers
2016 playoff stats:
25.2 PPG | 43.2 3PT%

Yes, it's probably going to be only one win for Portland. But what a win it was.

Lillard's incredible Saturday night gives the Blazers hope that they can tie the series before heading back to Oakland. His shot-making skills and range, on full display in Game 3, have to give the Warriors' coaches pause as to how to defend him.

As the Warriors have seen three times this season, Lillard can put up 40-plus on any night. If that happens Monday and the Blazers win again, Game 5 becomes a lot more necessary than anticipated for Golden State's title hopes.

If nothing else, Game 3 makes questions about Curry's health and readiness to play at his usual MVP level a lot more urgent. That's how vital Lillard's explosion was.
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