3 votes – Chauncey Billups. For reasons I will elaborate further below, but for now just know that Chauncey had never before hit back-to-back thirty point games in his playoff career – and that is a long and distinguished playoff career. So now I want you to answer me this question. How far do you think the Denver Nuggets can go, considering they are a deep, talented team with one of the league’s best scorers (Melo), one of the league’s best bench players (JR) AND one of the strongest, clutchest most experienced point guards of the last decade PLAYING IN CAREER BEST FORM??? Before the playoffs started I said Denver didn’t really impress me, on paper – and therein lies the problem. ON PAPER Chauncey was not supposed to be playing this well, better than he has all season, better than he has his entire career. It is a complete rebirth, a renaissance, made all the more amusing for the fact Chauncey’s career already had a major renaissance five years ago during the Pistons championship year. Much respect to Mr. Big Shot.
2 votes – Dwyane Wade. If there’s one word I could use to describe D-Wade’s performance in Game 2 it would be brave. Dwyane Wade took a lot of ballsy jumpers and threes in this game, and made most of them, and it wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do. It’s not how he makes his bread and butter on offense, and after his dismal Game 1 I expected him to respond with a typical Wade throw-your-body-at-the-rim kamikaze assault – you know, the ones that end up with Wade shooting 17-19 from the FT stripe while infuriating opposition crowds to no end, call after call after call (Mark Cuban has seen a few of these – “you are an amazing player Dwyane. I love watching you shoot free throws”). We didn’t see that Dwyane Wade, we saw a very different, Kobe-esque Dwyane Wade who trusted his outside shot and trusted his teammates’ outside shots even more (this was the first time ever in the playoffs two teammates, Wade and Cook, have hit 6 threes or more). Like I said, it wasn’t the smartest game, but it was ballsy. And I respect balls.
1 vote – Courtney Lee. I very nearly gave this vote to Daequan Cook for his killer shooting, but it was hard to ignore Lee for one reason: he didn’t just lead the Magic with 24 points, he had his best game of the entire season. That is a season-high for Lee, and for a role player like that to step up in a must-win game and lead the team in scoring, well, it’s huge on so many levels. Huge because the Sixers clearly need to pay this guy a little more respect after going for 18 and 24 point games so far. Huge because Lee’s teammates will now be happy to get him the ball for more looks, making the task of doubling Dwight that much more difficult. And lastly, it’s huge because a guy that was supposed to have minimal impact on this series – at least behind Dwight, Hedo, Rashard, and Rafer – now has more confidence than he did at any point of the season. “We respect him now,” Andre Miller said. “He’s earned our respect after a couple of games”. Gotta respect the respect.
A few days ago I said a series win for the Nuggets would go a long way to restoring the image of Mr. Big Shot, which lets face it, was slightly tarnished after the Pistons uninspiring playoff-exits the last few years. But right now Chauncey is doing more than that. He’s doing something rare and shocking, and that is upstaging the best player in the league at his position – Chris Paul. Before we go any further, I have to assume we’re all happy calling CP3 the undisputed best point guard in the game. I love Deron, and I rate him above CP3 in some areas – namely one-on-one defense and scoring ability – but when taking into account the complete package, the intangible leadership qualities and stats, Chris Paul is simply the best. Now ask yourself this question: when was the last time the best player in the league at any position, was ousted in the playoffs due to the other team’s player at that position thoroughly outplaying him and dominating the series?
I know the Nuggets/Hornets series is far from over, so its a hypothetical question, but in a week from now we might be forced into answering it for real. When I first asked myself this question, I drew a blank, and for good reason. It’s very rare that the best player in the league at any position gets out-played in the playoffs by his direct opponent – that’s what makes them the best player at that position. And don’t bother arguing that this whole point is moot because CP3 hasn’t been directly guarding Billups the entire time. That doesn’t matter. They’re both point guards, it’s not like one is a combo guard and one is a point guard. They both have the exact same role for their team.
Exactly how rare is this situation? I looked back over the last ten years to find out. Listed below are the best players at each position, the team that knocked them out, and the main reason it happened (unless they were champions of course). “Best player” is taken to be the All-NBA First Team member, which is usually a pretty good indication. Remember, what we’re looking for is instances where a player was completely out-played, overshadowed, beaten, dominated – whatever you want to call it – by his counterpart.
Dwight Howard – Lost to Pistons. Not due to any direct opponent outplaying him (Pistons used Sheed/Dyess)
Kevin Garnett – Champion
Lebron James – Lost to Celtics. Paul Pierce outplayed Lebron in the Game 7, but you can’t really say Pierce outplayed Lebron throughout the series. That is plain wrong. Pierce had quiet games during those Conference Finals (game 1 for example). Lebron didn’t.
Kobe Bryant (MVP) – Lost to Celtics. Pierce outplayed Kobe during stretches, but not the entire series (only had 6 points in game 3). And besides, for the sake of this theory, Ray Allen is clearly Kobe’s direct shooting-guard opponent.
Chris Paul – Lost to Spurs. Tony Parker was great as usual, but didn’t outplay Chris Paul by any stretch of the imagination.
Amare Stoudemire – Lost to Spurs. Not outplayed by Duncan. Outplayed by his own stupidity for running on the court and getting suspended for a game.
Tim Duncan – Champion
Dirk Nowitzki (MVP) – Lost to Warriors. Not outplayed by anyone, just choked.
Kobe Bryant – Lost to Suns. Certainly not outplayed by Raja Bell.
Steve Nash – Lost to Spurs. Parker was great in this series, but so was Nash.
Shaquille O’Neal – Champions
Dirk Nowitzki – Lost to Heat. Not outplayed by any Heat forwards. Too much D-Wade.
Lebron James – Lost to Pistons. Had a great series, beaten by a better all-round team.
Kobe Bryant – Lost to Suns. Again, not due to any direct opponent. Suns simply the better team.
Steve Nash (MVP) – Lost to Mavericks. Nash was great in this series. Certainly not outplayed by Devin Harris.
Shaquille O’Neal – Lost to Detroit. Not outplayed by Ben Wallace, just lost to the better team.
Tim Duncan – Champion
Dirk Nowitzki – Lost to Suns. Was great in this series, but Nash was too good.
Allen Iverson – Lost to Detroit. Simply the better team.
Steve Nash (MVP) – Lost to Spurs. More than held his own against Parker.
Shaquille O’Neal – Lost to Pistons. Can’t really argue he was outplayed by Ben Wallace, a guy who doesn’t play offense.
Kevin Garnett (MVP) – Lost to Lakers. Yes, at times outplayed by Karl Malone (as ridiculous as that was) but clearly not for the entire series
Tim Duncan – Lost to Lakers. Too much Kobe/Shaq and freaky D-Fish buzzer-beaters.
Kobe Bryant – Lost to Pistons. Not outplayed by Rip, but Prince gave him a tough time. Reason Lakers lost was really because of Chauncey.
Jason Kidd – Lost to Pistons. And guess what, outplayed by Chauncey Billups (Champion and eventual Finals MVP). There were games in that series where both Kidd and Billups had minimal impact (i.e. stunk), but over the last two games when it had to be won, Chauncey completely upstaged Kidd. Worth noting Chauncey wasn’t even a Second or Third teamer that season.
Shaquille O’Neal – Lost to Spurs. Was not outplayed by D-Rob. Just too much Duncan in that series.
Tim Duncan (MVP) – Champion
Kevin Garnett – Lost to Lakers. Solely due to Shaq and Kobe of course.
Tracy McGrady – Lost to Pistons. Tayshaun Prince was awesome in that series, but not as good as T-Mac, despite the fact he completely blew it.
Kobe Bryant – Lost to Spurs. Again, too much Timmy D. Ginobili wasn’t even a starter back then.
Shaquille O’Neal – Champion
Tim Duncan (MVP) – Lost to Lakers. Too much Kobe/Shaq
Tracy McGrady – Lost to Hornets. Too much Baron Davis.
Kobe Bryant – Champion
Jason Kidd – Lost to Lakers. Too much Kobe/Shaq
Shaquille O’Neal – Champion
Tim Duncan – Lost to Lakers. Way too much Kobe.
Chris Webber – Lost to Lakers. Way too much Shaq.
Allen Iverson (MVP) – Lost to Lakers. Certainly better than D-Fish (Aaron McKie was their SG back then)
Jason Kidd – Lost to Kings. Was NOT outplayed by Jason Williams.
Shaquille O’Neal (MVP) – Champion
Tim Duncan – DNP in playoffs, injured.
Kevin Garnett – Lost to Blazers. Was hands-down better than Sheed in that series.
Jason Kidd – Lost to Lakers. Too much Kobe/Shaq.
Gary Payton – Lost to Jazz. Was better than Stockton in this series. Just too much Karl Malone.
Alonzo Mourning – Lost to Knicks. Classic series, but Alonzo was clearly better than Ewing at this point.
Tim Duncan – Champion
Karl Malone (MVP) – Lost to Blazers. Would love to claim Sheed had the better of him, but not true. Also, how on earth to the Blazers win this series with Isaiah Rider and Damon Stoudemire as starters? A perplexing result for the history books.
Allen Iverson – Lost to Pacers. Was certainly not outplayed by Mark Jackson. Probably more to do with the Sixers have Larry Hughes.
Jason Kidd – Lost to Blazers. Didn’t have a great series, but neither did Mighty Mouse.
It’s pretty easy to see, looking over the last ten years, that the best player at their position was rarely knocked out because their direct opponent outplayed them. It’s basically a pattern of most teams not having an answer for Duncan, Kobe or Shaq – and when those guys were on top of their game, i.e. First-Teamers, they never lost. The surprising thing of course, is that the only real exception, the only plausible answer to my original emboldened question, was Chauncey Billups outplaying Jason Kidd back in 2004. Here was the undisputed best PG in the league, arguably in his prime after getting the Nets to back-to-back Finals, upstaged by a point guard who wasn’t even considered in the top 5 at his position.
Chauncey is doing the exact same thing to Chris Paul right now. Granted, the series is far from over, and after two games in New Orleans there’s a good chance CP3 will have restored the balance of point-guard power. But if he doesn’t and the series progresses as expected, it will be very plain for all to see: this is the Second Renaissance of Mr Big Shot.
And we all know what happened after the first.