HoopsHabit – Ranking the Best Current NBA Player at Every Age

This is a fun one: Here’s my HoopsHabit article with the best current NBA player at every age.

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2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Heat Beat Celtics, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were poised to move on to yet another NBA Finals and it looked like the Heat would once again come up short in their quest for a championship. But then LeBron James took over, finishing off Boston with another prolific game at home in the series clincher, which came just two days after propelling his team to a decisive Game 7 with a monumental performance in Game 6. In a 101-88 victory in Miami, LeBron led the Heat back to their second consecutive NBA Finals with 31 points and 12 rebounds.

Credit Doc Rivers and the aging Celtics for contending with this talented Miami team, but LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were too much for the hobbled Boston side in the end. After yet another sluggish start, Wade woke up in the second half and finished with 23 points, six rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile Bosh, whose playing time was limited in Game 6 after returning to action from an abdominal strain, came off the bench and chipped in 19 points and eight rebounds, made even more impressive that nine of those points came off of three huge 3-pointers the riled up the crowd and acted like daggers to a Boston defense that already had its hands full trying to slow down LeBron and contain Wade. LeBron paved the way and Wade’s performance in the second half was key, but Bosh was the X-factor that helped the Heat pull away in the fourth quarter as they outscored Boston 28-15. In fact, LeBron, Wade and Bosh scored Miami’s last 31 points in the game. However, they also got a little help from some role players along the way. Shane Battier, who had been struggling with his shot throughout the series, knocked down four 3-pointers to finish with 12 points. Mario Chalmers had nine and Udonis Haslem added seven as well, making up for Mike Miller’s goose egg.

LeBron James was terrific once again as the Heat advanced to the Finals. Can he keep it up against the Oklahoma City Thunder?

For Boston, the loss was extremely disappointing but in truth, they were outmatched in this series and the Eastern Conference Finals would most likely have been decided in five games if Bosh had been on the floor the entire time. However, the Celtics battled and got a lot out of some aging veterans, which they should be commended for. Rajon Rondo had yet another playoff triple double, leading his team in scoring with 22 points in addition to 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Paul Pierce followed up with 19 points, Brandon Bass added 16 (14 of which came in the first half), Ray Allen had 15 and Kevin Garnett added 14. Every one of Boston’s starters scored in double figures, but the Celtics got absolutely nothing out of their bench. Without Avery Bradley, the Celtics’ bench scoring in this series was up and down, but in a decisive Game 7 on the road, none of Boston’s reserves made any impact with their limited minutes. Ryan Hollins was the only bench player to score for the Celtics, and he only had two points. The Celtics jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first half, which was cut to seven just before halftime. In the second half, Miami outscore Boston 55-35 and the game was tied heading into the fourth. From there, the Heat’s big three took over: Bosh hit two key threes in the corner, LeBron had a colossal three from a few feet behind the 3-point line and Wade finished it off with a three-point play that extended Miami’s lead to 12.

Without Avery Bradley to guard Dwyane Wade and chip in some points, it’s a wonder the Celtics were able to extend the series to seven games. Then again, without Chris Bosh, it’s not surprising the resilient Celtics were able to hang around with Rondo and Garnett playing so well. Although they didn’t quite have it in them to overcome LeBron, Wade and Bosh down the stretch, Boston had a terrific season and certainly overachieved by advancing so far in the East. For the Heat, their dreams of winning a title after assembling the big three are still very much alive. LeBron James continued his streak of dominance by stepping his game up for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but there should be concern about how well the Heat match up with the Thunder. LeBron is playing out of his mind right now, but unless Wade seriously steps up his game and Bosh continues to produce at a high level, the Heat don’t have the depth to contend with a young and athletic Thunder team that really came into its own agains the San Antonio Spurs. Whatever the case, we’re sure to be treated to one hell of an NBA Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.

LeBron James led the Heat, but Chris Bosh was the X-factor off the bench that helped Miami advance to their second consecutive Finals.

LeBron James’ Transcendent Night Forces Game 7

Like him or not, the league MVP wasn’t ready to let his team bow out of the Eastern Conference Finals just yet. Because of LeBron James’ transcendent night that had Celtics fans heading for the exits early in the fourth quarter, the Heat took Game 6 in Boston with a 98-79 win, tying the series up at three games apiece and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in Miami. Although the Celtics didn’t help matters by coming out flat, it was LeBron’s 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and 19-for-26 shooting night that singlehandedly kept the Heat on top, never allowing Boston to close the gap or give their fans something to cheer about.

LeBron’s stats during the postseason are unquestionable, but after the Heat lost three games in a row to a Celtics team everyone perceived as being old and banged up, the world waited for him to have a truly dominant game. Up until that point, LeBron was dropping just under 30 points a night, but it still wasn’t enough because his team was losing and he wasn’t enforcing his will on anyone. We wanted to see this superstar play with fire and passion, much like Kevin Durant did during the Thunder’s remarkable four-game winning streak to take the Western Conference Finals. And after dropping Game 5 at home, it was do or die time for the Heat. So in Game 6, with all that pressure and the possibility of elimination acting as yet another oppressor to a team that constantly deals with mass criticism and often unwarranted hate, LeBron James gave us one of his marquee playoff performances to send this series back to Miami for a chance to advance to the Heat’s second straight NBA Finals. And it wasn’t as though LeBron exploded in a given quarter or made a huge run to topple the Celtics at home. The MVP’s domination was consistent and thorough all night, spread out through the course of the game, providing his team with big buckets time and again to instantly drain any momentum Boston was trying to build. The Heat took a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter, with LeBron scoring 14 of his team’s 26 points. Dwyane Wade, who has been criticized of late for his slow starts and generally uninspired play, once again had little to contribute in the first half. But LeBron covered all that up, heading into the locker room at halftime with 30 points and a 13-point lead. He was getting to the rim. He was knocking down jump shots left and right. He was draining 3-pointers. And when he gets going like that and when the jumper starts falling, he’s nearly impossible to guard. Simply put, the Celtics had no hope of containing him.

LeBron unleashed one of his finest playoff performances on the Celtics to force Game 7 in Miami.

It goes without saying that LeBron got some help from his teammates. Wade (slightly) picked up his game in the second half and finished with 17 points, even if it took him 17 shots to get there. Chalmers went 3-for-3 from downtown to chip in nine, Shane Battier added eight and Chris Bosh had seven off the bench. But taking a look at this game from a statistical standpoint and from a morale standpoint, LeBron’s big night was the sole factor that kept Miami’s playoff hopes alive. The Heat once again didn’t get the kind of production the need out of Wade, Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Battier and even Chris Bosh (if the Heat want to contend for an NBA title, he’s going to have to get back to form pretty soon). But it didn’t matter because LeBron James would not allow his team to falter. It didn’t matter that the Heat had lost 15 of their last 16 games in TD Garden before Game 6. It didn’t matter that everyone was criticizing him for not playing with fire or for simply going through the motions. Because when it mattered most, LeBron let his game do the talking.

For Boston, LeBron’s prolific performance is discouraging, but what’s worse is how flat they came out in a golden opportunity to close out the series at home and avoid a dangerous elimination Game 7 in Miami. Rajon Rondo led Boston with 21 points and 10 assists, but none of the other Celtics’ starters played particularly well. Brandon Bass’ 12 was a nice addition, but Kevin Garnett also scored 12, which is significantly low for this resilient powerhouse who’s been capable of dominating Miami’s interior defense at times. Ray Allen added 10, but the most disappointing performance of the night was definitely from Paul Pierce, who finished with just nine points on an appalling 4-of-18 shooting night. Pierce has risen to the occasion in the past against LeBron, especially during the playoffs, but tonight was LeBron’s night and there was nothing Pierce or anyone else could do to stop it. The Celtics didn’t entirely let Game 6 slip through their fingers as much as LeBron James completely yanked it out of reach. A loss like this is disheartening, but don’t write Boston off just yet; outbreaks of “Let’s go, Celtics” chants at the end of the game might be just the thing they needed to keep their heads after such a convincing defeat. Those chance seemed pointless to the rest of the world, but for Boston, they showed just how much faith the fans have in their team and that can mean the difference on the road. However, if LeBron plays anything like he did in Game 6, or if he finally gets some help from Wade and the rest of his supporting cast, the Celtics stand no chance.

Pierce and the Celtics had better hope they play better in Game 7 in Miami if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. Or that LeBron James plays a lot worse.

Celtics Snag Road Win, Take 3-2 Lead

When the Celtics fell into a 2-0 hole in Miami against LeBron James and the Heat, the Eastern Conference Finals looked like they would be wrapping up early. And even when they defied expectations by defending home court and knotting the series at 2-2, everyone assumed the Heat would just take Game 5 at home and have two chances to finish Boston off. But after a 94-90 win in a pivotal Game 5 in Miami, the Boston Celtics look like a team to be taken seriously again.

Kevin Garnett led the Celts with 26 points and 11 rebounds and Paul Pierce scored eight of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger 3-pointer over LeBron James to give Boston a four-point lead with less than a minute to play. Pierce’s big-time bucket was reminiscent of James Harden’s clutch three that sunk the Spurs in Game 5 and helped Boston win its third straight game to take a 3-2 lead on the series. The Celtics never led until the third quarter, when they went on a 15-1 run as the Heat once again went through a dry spell. Miami didn’t have a field goal for more than five minutes and once they fell behind, the veteran Celtics held on to their narrow lead, which was particularly impressive since Boston’s stars were struggling from the field up to that point. Rajon Rondo had only seven points on 3-of-15 shooting, Ray Allen had 13 points on 2-of-9 shooting (he knocked down eight free throws) and Pierce was only 6-for-19. However, Garnett’s brilliance, Pierce’s fourth quarter resolve and Boston’s role players stepping up proved to be too much. Mickael Pietrus had 13 points off the bench while Brandon Bass had another solid performance with 10.

Kevin Garnett had another all-around dominant performance and Paul Pierce came alive in the fourth to give the Boston Celtics the critical road win in Game 5 and take a 3-2 lead.

The Heat tried to get Dwyane Wade going early on and for the most part, it worked, as LeBron and Wade combined for 14 of the Heat’s first 16 points. Unfortunately, Wade was nowhere to be found again until the fourth quarter. LeBron led Miami with 30 points and 13 rebounds while Wade pitched in 27, 14 of which came in the fourth. The Heat also got an initial boost from Chris Bosh, who made his return to action with nine points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. Unfortunately for the Heat, Erik Spoelstra didn’t play him much down the stretch as Miami watched a perfectly winnable Game 5 slip away. Although Wade was absent until the fourth quarter and LeBron was dominant until the fourth quarter, they were the only one who put up points for the Heat. Mario Chalmers continued to struggle with his shot and only had nine. Udonis Haslem, who was inserted into the starting lineup, made a poor debut with only three. Shane Battier only put up five and Mike Miller had just three off the bench. In fact, no one scored more than nine for the Heat other than LeBron and Wade. Miami also couldn’t get their hands on a few unlucky 50-50 balls, including one that led to a 3-pointer from Pietrus after Rondo perfectly tipped a phenomenal block from Wade to the wide open man in the corner. And after Pierce’s dagger three, the Celtics hit their free throws and finished off the road win to send the series back to Boston for an elimination Game 6.

The Miami Heat missed a golden opportunity to take back control in this series at home, where they have been nearly unstoppable during the postseason. It’s amazing how much of a difference coaching is making in this series; Doc Rivers is guiding and old and hobbled (but determined and experienced) Celtics team to the Finals while Erik Spoelstra is letting a team with two of the game’s biggest superstars underachieve once again. If the Heat do lose this series, Spoelstra’s job could (and should) be in serious jeopardy. But for now, the Eastern Conference Finals shift back to Boston, where a rocking TD Garden will make things even more difficult for a Heat team struggling to find support outside of LeBron and Wade. Chalmers and Miller need to start knocking down 3-pointers again, Haslem has got to make himself an offensive option and Chris Bosh will need to be ready for extended minutes (Spoelstra’s decision to bench him for the entire fourth quarter of Game 5 was ultimately dumb, but not indefensible; there will be no excuses in Game 6). If Bosh can play like he was before his abdominal injury, he will have a huge impact on the offensive end by putting up points in the paint and on the defensive end by matching up with the formidable Kevin Garnett. But the key to getting such a difficult win on the road in an elimination game will be Dwyane Wade. LeBron James shows up to play every night and has been quietly putting up nearly 30 ppg in the postseason, but Wade has been all too inconsistent in the playoffs this year. When Wade does come to play, the Heat are nearly unstoppable, as evidenced by their two-man demolition of the Indiana Pacers in the second round. Miami needs their supporting cast to step up and knock down perimeter shots and a good game from Bosh would definitely be a plus. But after losing a game where Rondo and Pierce both shot so poorly, the Heat need Wade to go off to force Game 7.

Do LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have what it takes to force a Game 7 in Miami?

Boston Outlasts Miami In Overtime, Ties Up Eastern Conference Finals

And just like that, we have a series again. After the Thunder tied up the Western Conference Finals Saturday night, Boston came out and defended their home court to do the same, outlasting Miami in a 93-91 overtime win in Game 4. Although the contest was greatly influenced by overzealous refereeing (thanks again, Joey Crawford), it was consistently poor on both sides of the ball and ultimately only robbed the audience of a potentially classic overtime battle as Paul Pierce and LeBron James both fouled out in the game’s extra period.

Boston got off to a fast start, quickly building up a 21-9 advantage behind Pierce and Ray Allen and they led by 14 at the break. The Celtics got huge boosts in the first half and the entire game from Allen, who knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. Boston also got improved performances out of Brandon Bass and Keyon Dooling, who finished with 11 and 10, respectively. Pierce led the Celts with 23 points before fouling out on an off-the-ball foul against Shane Battier, marking the third time he’s fouled out in the past five games. Rajon Rondo had 15 points and 15 assists and Kevin Garnett finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds. LeBron James once again had a quality first half without getting much help from his teammates, which has been a recurring issue in the past two games and explains why the Heat have had to battle back from double-digit deficits in the second half of their two games in TD Garden. Dwyane Wade went 2-for-11 in the first half and finished with 20 points on a meager 7-of-22 shooting, with one of those misses being a last-second 3-point attempt that would have given Miami the overtime win. Wade had an open look and his poor shooting night certainly didn’t help matters, but Erik Spoelstra should take the majority of the blame for drawing up such a feeble attempt of a play to end the game both in regulation and overtime. I understand the tendency in the NBA to just give the ball to your star player in the clutch and let him pull up for a dramatic jump shot for the win, but how do you not convert down the stretch twice with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the floor?

With LeBron James and Paul Pierce both out of the game, Dwayne Wade missed a last-second 3-point attempt to win the game and gave the Celtics the Game 4 OT win and even the series.

The Heat remained resilient and battled back with Wade and Mario Chalmers stepping up in the third quarter, but couldn’t hold on to a minimal fourth quarter lead after taking momentum back. Chalmers and Udonis Haslem each finished with 12 points but Shane Battier only pitched in six and Mike Miller only had two. LeBron led all scorers again with 29 points and even hit a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game that would eventually send it to OT. But he didn’t get much help from Wade and got next to nothing from his supporting cast for the second game in a row, which meant a win for the home team. LeBron will also have to deal with the criticism of not being clutch because he passed on the last play in regulation (which is absolutely ridiculous since he hit the three to send it to OT and also because he was TRIPLE-TEAMED on the game’s final possession). After a devastating overtime defeat that was heavily influenced by the referees on both sides, the Miami Heat are now under heavy pressure to reclaim the lead against a team that was seen as banged up and broken before the series started.

Like the Thunder, the underdog Celtics stared a 2-0 deficit in the face and beat it into submission with back-to-back wins on their home floor. Now the Eastern Conference Finals are tied and all the pressure is on Miami to prove that the last two games didn’t matter. But unless Wade and Miami’s supporting cast wakes up and steps up on their home court, the overall balance of the Celtics looks like it has what it takes to get the best of LeBron James. Pierce, Rondo and KG are all pitching in while role players like Bass, Dooling and Allen are outshining Miami’s bench. The Heat could really use Chris Bosh right about now, who has been sitting out since the Heat’s series against Indiana in the second round. Many people take Bosh and what he does for granted, and while it was fine for him to sit out with the abdominal strain when the Heat were up 2-0, now that Boston has put the pressure back on Miami, it might be time for him to suit up again. Because this experienced and veteran Celtics team has proven that they have what it takes to win and they have all the momentum heading into a pivotal Game 5 on the road. But unlike Game 4, hopefully the disgraceful refereeing of the NBA won’t deprive us of anything special again.

Keyon Dooling and Boston’s role guys were huge once again for the Celtics, who now have a shot.

Celtics Dominate Heat At Home In Game 3

With a 101-91 Game 3 win, the Boston Celtics pulled one game closer to evening the series and defending home court. Kevin Garnett led Boston with 24 points and 11 rebounds, Paul Pierce had 23 and Rondo followed up with 21 points and 10 rebounds as Boston’s new big three cut the series deficit to 2-1 with a convincing victory in TD Garden.

The win prevented the Celtics from falling into a 3-0 hole and gives them a chance to tie the series up at two games apiece tonight in Game 4. And although it was beneficial for Garnett, Pierce and Rondo to all play well in the same game, the Celtics also got a huge boost from role players Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling off the bench. Brandon Bass, who continued to disappoint in Game 3, struggled with foul trouble and only managed four points on 1-of-3 shooting. However, Bass’ foul trouble gave Daniels the chance to come in off the bench and make a huge impact during a critical second quarter stretch. Daniels played great defense on Dwyane Wade and had nine points and five rebounds in 18 minutes while Dooling played phenomenal defense and added seven points. Ray Allen looked more like himself by draining a few 3-pointers to finish with 10 points, but it was Daniels and Dooling that helped the Celtics go on a 15-0 run during a stretch starting with the end of the first quarter and extending to the second quarter.

Marquis Daniels was huge for the Celtics off the bench in Game 3.

For the Heat, only LeBron James played well. During Boston’s 15-0 run, the Heat didn’t score for seven minutes and didn’t have a field goal for over eight. LeBron led Miami with 34 points and eight rebounds, but 16 of those points came in the first quarter. Dwyane Wade had a mediocre night, finishing with 18 points on 9-of-20 shooting, Mario Chalmers had 14 and Mike Miller added 11 off the bench. But Udonis Haslem had only three points and Shane Battier missed all six of his shots and put up a goose egg. LeBron can’t do it by himself, especially when the Celtics’ best players show up, and Game 3 was a prime example. The Heat cut a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter to just eight, but they didn’t have enough in the tank to pull off the improbable comeback.

For Game 4, Dwyane Wade has to make Boston remember why losing Avery Bradley was so critical. But role players like Haslem and Battier will also have to step up and contribute more. They also must win the battle for the boards, as they were out-rebounded by the Celtics 44-32 and gave up 12 offensive rebounds in Game 3. They can’t let Garnett kill them in the paint and they can’t allow Rondo to hurt them with penetration again. Rondo is coming off two great games in a row, and if that streak continues, the Heat will need especially big nights from LeBron and Wade. More importantly, the Heat have to strike early and avoid the crowd getting involved. When Kevin Garnett was fouled hard and landed on his back, a potentially scary moment for TD Garden quickly changed into a turning point as Garnett started doing military-style push-ups to get the crowd pumped up. From there the Celtics extended the lead in front of a roaring crowd inspired by Garnett’s toughness. Miami can’t allow the crowd to get involved if they want to take Game 4. Finally,  the Heat need to make a concerted effort to get to the free throw line. After many Celtics fans complained about a few questionable calls (and no-calls) down the stretch of Game 2, the refs seemed to take not for Game 3. LeBron only had five free throws in Game 3 (missing four of them) while Wade didn’t get to the foul line once. Miami needs to be more aggressive in attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line, but they will also need to take advantage of free points better after shooting 10-of-20 from the foul line in Game 3. The Celtics have a chance to even the series on their own terms, but I’m expecting a big Game 4 out of LeBron and Wade, so if Boston doesn’t get another big performance out of everyone, the Eastern Conference Finals could be decided in five games.

They’re getting old, but don’t ever count Kevin Garnett and the Celts with resolve like this.