“Big time players make big time plays in big games” -Santana Moss former Miami Hurricane and NFL wide receiver known for lighting it up in DC.
A quote from Santana Moss to open a NBA playoff preview might seem unusual but when you look at Moss; 5-10, lightning quick and able to do “Batman versus Superman” level damage when left in space, what you are looking at is the embodiment of the NBA’s pace and space style of play. The style that permeates the league from the Charlotte Hornets to Oakland where the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte’s very own Steph Curry are reconstructing basketball logic.
The “warrior-ificaion” of the league means that teams that want to compete for the title have worked to shoot and defend the three-ball (as Walt “Clyde” Fraizer would call it). These players are going to be the key to the success of one franchise come June. With that said (written), here are the top five 3&D players that will determine the course of the NBA playoffs.
LeBron James- Cleveland Cavaliers
Let me guess: your reaction lies somewhere between “duh” and “what about the 3 tho?” First off, contrary to semi-popular belief, LeBron is still the best player in the NBA. Yes, better than three-point wunderkind Steph Curry, and no that is not a slight against the MVP. Now as far as the 3&D, you might point out that he has the lowest career three-point percentage (.340) of anyone on this list, he is on the downside of his illustrious career, and doesn’t always play the suffocating defense we’d seen him do in the Miami days…and you’d be right. My retort would be for you to take a listen to the latest HHSR Podcast to get a quick recap of the numbers James put up in his last playoff run. No other player in the league has shown the physical and mental basketball capabilities to go “Zero Dark 23” like LeBron.
LeBron James may not be a lot of things, but no single player in these playoffs is going to be needed to carry as much of the load for their team to reach the title on both sides of the ball.
Serge Ibaka- Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder can’t win with just KD and Russ, right? Right? The Thunder have been snakebit by injury year after year with their two top guns, yet have still made exciting runs in the playoffs. It appears the Thunder are as healthy as they’ve been going into the playoffs in recent years. We know that the dynamic duo can rack up the points, but they will need Ibaka to continue pounding the defensive glass (9.2 reb per 36 minutes) and playing his trademark defense. However if he can knock down a timely three a couple of times per game, ala last year’s finals MVP Andre Iguodala, or more appropriately this year’s Draymond Green (more on him later), the Thunder could challenge the Spurs and Warriors for a trip to the NBA finals.
There’s no guarantee this happens though. In 2015-16, Ibaka’s three-point shooting has dipped five whole percentage points from the season prior.
DeMarre Carroll- Toronto Raptors
Defense and three-point shooting are the two reasons why DeMarre Carroll was brought to the Great White North. Last season in Atlanta, Carroll hit .395 from three, which helped “Spurs East” to reach the top seed in the East. Carroll has been out due to injury most of this season (appearing in only 26 games), but he recently returned and is getting re-acclimated in the Toronto Drakes lineup. Before injury, Carroll was netting about 12 points and 5 rebounds per game. If he can be ready to defend the likes of Paul George, Joe Johnson and LeBron James, it will be a gigantic boon to Toronto’s chances. The trio of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozen and DeMarre Carroll could prove to be an intriguing mix of length, shooting, penetration and scoring as the Raptors enter the playoffs.
Draymond Green- Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry is the league MVP but you could easily argue that Draymond Green is the key to the Warriors ability to play their style of ball. The flexible four can D up every other position, pass with the best of them (check his assist numbers), and can shoot from distance.
Green can do it all. He notched 13 triple-doubles on the year, second in the league only to the human vine machine Russell Westbrook. The undersized Green is efficiently averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists per contest, while shooting .388 from three on the season. Though not the best player, Draymond is without question the Warriors’ emotional leader and the prerequisite goon any championship team needs. There aren’t any proven ways to defeat the Warriors and Draymond Green’s ability to be an undersized master of all trades (Stephen Curry’s lightning quick release that allows him to pull off the basketball equivalent of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary passes every night doesn’t hurt). Because of what Draymond Green brings to the table, defenses can’t rest. They can’t just pound it inside and they can’t just key in on Steph and Klay Thompson. Draymond Green is the reason you have to pick your poison and say your prayers versus the Dubs, as they continue to seemingly collect all the records during their title defense.
Kawhi Leonard- San Antonio Spurs
If it wasn’t for Steph Curry being the cheat code to the game, Kawhi Leonard would be clearing space on his mantle to add his first league MVP award, next to his Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award. The Spurs small forward is averaging 21 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per game, and has become a viable threat from beyond the arc, shooting sizzling .443 (fourth in the league) from deep. “The Klaw” is the league’s best defender and has become one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, even with his post all star break decline; this after coming into the league with his jumper being his perceived weakness.
Kawhi Leonard, a true silent assassin on the court, has the knack for putting the clamps on the league’s best players from game to game, or even play to play; a characteristic he shares with Draymond Green and LeBron James. He is a bonafide scoring threat either off the dribble or as a shooter, and unlike Green is the top scoring option on his team. LeBron is undoubtedly his better offensively, but when Kawhi is tightening the vice grips even The King knows it’s better to let someone else do the heavy lifting.
Sidebar: The Spurs, who are ranked 25th in three’s attempted per game (and lead the league in defending the three), are unshockingly loaded with great defenders who can hurt you from three point land. Patty Mills, Danny Green and my own candidate for “Random Spurs player who swings a playoff game” Jonathon Simmons would all be able to get honorable mentions here.
Every player on this list has the athletic ability, desire and intelligence to impact the game in a variety of ways. In today’s NBA, versatility is the key to success and these gentlemen are the keys to the successes their franchises have experienced to this late point in the season. As the playoffs come into focus and the pressure ratchets up ever higher, the big time players will indeed make those big time plays and that scores touchdowns…er wins championships.