Strictly speaking, playoff performance has nothing to do with winning the regular season MVP. However, an important aspect of being a legitimate MVP candidate is having the ability to lift a mediocre team into playoff contention and elevate a good team into championship contention.
The consensus MVP candidates this season are LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook singlehandedly carried the Oklahoma City Thunder into playoff contention after 2014 MVP Kevin Durant suffered a season-ending foot injury. However, Davis’ New Orleans Pelicans claimed the final Western Conference playoff spot by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Davis averaged 24.4 ppg (fourth in the league), 10.2 rpg (eighth in the league) and 2.9 bpg (first in the league for the second consecutive year) this season. He also ranked seventh in the league in field goal percentage (.535).
Davis’ 45-37 Pelicans faced an impossible task in the first round versus the 67-15 Golden State Warriors but he elevated his game during the Warriors’ four game sweep, averaging 31.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 3.0 bpg while shooting .540 from the field.
While Davis played valiantly in defeat, Curry was the MVP of the series, averaging 33.8 ppg, 7.3 apg and 5.3 rpg while shooting .453 from the field (including .417 from three point range). Curry poured in 39 points in Golden State’s 109-98 series clinching win.
During the season, Curry averaged 23.8 ppg (sixth in the league), 7.7 apg (sixth in the league) and 2.0 spg (fourth in the league). He led the league in free throw percentage (.914) and finished third in three point field goal percentage (.443) while leading the league in three pointers made (286, a new record) and attempted (646).
Harden ranked second in the league in scoring (27.4 ppg), sixth in the league in steals (1.9 spg) and ninth in the league in assists (7.0 apg). He led the league in free throws made (715, the 12th highest total in NBA/ABA history).
Harden’s Houston Rockets captured the second seed in the Western Conference despite only having the fifth best point differential (3.4 ppg, only 1.2 ppg better than the ninth seeded Thunder).
Harden has not been a great playoff performer, shooting less than .400 from the field in three of his six postseason appearances (including a pair of first round losses in his first two seasons with Houston). He started out the same way in this year’s playoffs, shooting 9-28 (.321) from the field in Houston’s first two games versus the Dallas Mavericks.
Dwight Howard has been Houston’s best playoff performer thus far, averaging 17.3 ppg, 14.3 rpg and 3.0 bpg while shooting .588 from the field. Howard once again looks like the dominant force who carried the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals.
In the first game versus Dallas, Houston jumped out to a 19-8 lead in the first six minutes with Howard dominating the paint. He played limited minutes the rest of the way and Dallas outscored Houston when Howard was out of the game.
Howard put on a show in game two, with 28 points and 12 rebounds. He dominated the fourth quarter, converting six alley-oop dunks.
The Mavericks adjusted their defence in Game 3 to limit Howard but this created opportunities for Harden, who responded with a playoff career-high 42 points on 15-24 field goal shooting. The Mavericks outscored the Rockets by one point when Harden was in the game but the Rockets outscored the Mavericks by 16 points when Howard was in the game.
It will be interesting to watch Howard and Harden perform in the second round (no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, so it is safe to count out the Mavericks at this point).
Four-time MVP James ranked third in scoring (25.3 ppg), third in steals (1.9 spg) and seventh in assists (7.4 apg) while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
He averaged 27.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.0 apg and 2.0 spg as the Cavaliers took a 3-0 lead versus the Boston Celtics. James has had some bizarre postseason performances (most notably in 2010 versus the Celtics and in the 2011 Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks) but there is no question that he can be the best player on a championship team. His playoff resume includes two championships, two Finals MVPs and a 28.0 ppg scoring average that ranks fifth all-time.