SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest playoff question of the day. Today, we examine …
Which player has delivered the most underrated performance of the 2014 NBA playoffs?
Lee Jenkins: Joe Johnson, Nets. Last round, the popular storyline in Brooklyn revolved around the high stakes for Deron Williams, and this round it will shift to the stubborn grit of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But Johnson, quiet as ever, is the reason the Nets are still playing. Johnson's scoring average of 21.9 points in the first round was more than six points higher than in the regular season and he shot 52.3 percent from the field, nearly seven points higher than in the regular season. Williams, Garnett and Pierce may be more celebrated, but Johnson led the team in scoring against the Raptors and carried it through Game 7 on the road.
Chris Mannix: Wesley Matthews, Blazers. Matthews didn't shoot particularly well against Houston (41.3 percent), but his defense against James Harden more than made up for it. Matthews helped limit Harden to 37.3 percent shooting, keeping the All-Star guard frustrated through most of the six games. On a team without many lockdown defenders, Matthews has stepped up, giving the Blazers the perimeter stopper they badly needed to overcome the Rockets.
Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Heat. His performance is only underrated in the sense that James has been the best player of this postseason and yet, because of Miami's drama-free run so far, he's somehow been relegated to the background. That is both understandable, given the events of the first round, and slightly ridiculous. In five playoff games against quality defenses, James has averaged 28.4 points on outrageous efficiency. Only six qualified players have posted a higher effective field goal percentage (61.8) than James, none of whom shoulder anywhere near the same creative responsibility. LeBron initiates offense, fights his way through multiple defenders and then finishes just as consistently as those who usually have their scoring opportunities created for them. That isn't a new development for James, but this postseason he's hitting shots at an even more preposterous rate than before.
Oh, and by the way: LeBron's turnover rate (10.2) is a career playoff low (and way down from his regular-season mark), his defense is decidedly more attentive, his free-throw shooting is up to 81 percent on nine attempts per game, he's been an active rebounder (7.4 per game) in lineups both big and small and he's still making passes that few others in the league, if any, can. There may not be glory in sweeping the Bobcats and blowing out the Nets, but James has been glorious all the same.
Matt Dollinger: Bradley Beal, Wizards. He's only 20. Two years younger than Rookie of the Year Michael-Carter Williams. The same age that Adam Silver wants to make the minimum in the NBA. And not old enough to spray champagne should the Wizards continue their remarkable run. Rarely do players so young -- making their postseason debuts -- dominate with such confidence. Yet that's exactly what Beal has done, stealing the spotlight from backcourt partner John Wall and putting Washington on his shoulders. He's leading the Wizards in scoring (20.7) while also averaging almost five assists and five rebound. He's also shooting 48.1 percent on three-pointers while hitting 2.2 per game. He's delivered in the clutch, he's delivered consistently and he's delivered the Wizards into the second round. If he pushes them into the third, I'm guessing he won't be so underrated anymore.
Brad Weinstein: Tiago Splitter, Spurs. TNT's Chris Webber jokingly referenced Magic Johnson and John Stockton while gushing over Splitter's playmaking during Game 5 of San Antonio's first-round series against Dallas. Indeed, the 6-foot-11 center racked up five assists overall, including four in the fourth quarter, when he also had nine points and six rebounds in an assertive display that propelled the Spurs to a critical victory. The assists are nice, as are the double-doubles, of which Splitter has three in the postseason. But the 29-year-old Brazilian's primary role is to defend, and it's hard to argue with those results either: He kept the Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki in check, and his active work early in Game 1 against the Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge (who made 1-of-5 shots in the first quarter before heating up) helped San Antonio race to a big lead in Tuesday's wire-to-wire win. Notable two-way contributions from Splitter? Yet another thing that opponents must account for against the loaded Spurs.
Chris Johnson: Paul George, Pacers. The Pacers do not look long for the postseason. This is obvious in many ways -- from Roy Hibbert’s bafflingly subpar production to the team’s inability to make defensive adjustments. With all the negativity surrounding Indiana, finding positive takeaways has not been easy. Here’s one: Paul George. In eight postseason games, the two-time All Star has averaged team highs in points (23.1), rebounds (10.1) and assists (4.6). George also guarded Jeff Teague, one of the Hawks’ primary offensive options, for stretches during the first round. Most important, George delivered his biggest performance in a decisive Game 7 against Atlanta, scoring 30 points and snaring 11 rebounds to help Indiana stave off elimination. It’s a testament to Indiana's ineptitude that George’s efforts have gone almost completely unnoticed. Rather than focus on whether Hibbert will snap out of his “funk,” we ought to tip our caps in the direction of the Pacers’ star small forward.