The first round of the NBA playoffs is history. And it had a great finale, as the LA Clippers’ great performance in Game 7 against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks ended up sending Kawhi Leonard, Paul George & Company to the Western Conference semifinals to face the Utah Jazz.
Before the Clippers and Mavs finished their series, other stars took it upon themselves to do their homework: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks swept the defending Eastern champion Miami Heat, while the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers needed just five games each to. move along.
In the West, Devin Booker took the Phoenix Suns further, eliminating defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, while Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets edged out Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers in two thrilling six-game battles. Lastly, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the Jazz sent the Memphis Grizzlies home in five minutes, after Ja Morant starred in an upset in Game 1.
Which of those stars is the MVP of the first round? Our panel of experts makes their choices.
Doncic set the bar ridiculously high during his playoff debut last season, adding incredible numbers as the Mavericks pushed the Clippers to six games in the first round. That bar was raised even higher in this postseason rematch between the two teams, regardless of losing the series.
With an offensive load as heavy as anyone in the playoffs, Doncic averaged 35.7 points and 10.7 assists, a significant increase for his mind-blowing stats (31.0 points, 8.7 assists) during his first NBA playoff appearance. And his stats in this series are skewed by his rough performance in Game 4, when the cervical strain on his neck prevented him from even looking to his left without excruciating pain.
“He did everything,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said.
Doncic did this with his supposed co-star, Kristaps Porzingis, reduced to a maximum contract role player. Coach Rick Carlisle determined that Porzingis can better help the Mavs attack the Clippers’ small-ball lineups by spacing the court to maximize the space Doncic has to work his magic.
Of course, the reason the Clippers scrapped their regular starting lineup to downplay is because Doncic is so dangerous. He took advantage of Ivica Zubac’s presence so often early in the series, exploiting him over and over in the changes, that his trainer Ty Lue had no choice but to send the big man to the bench.
Doncic, who won titles with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team as a teenager, enjoys the playoffs. He proved it last season. No, the Mavs didn’t make it out of the first round, but their Game 4 reverse triple to cap a 43-point triple-double was one of the bubble’s signature moments.
The Mavs fell short again despite Doncic participating with 77 points (scoring 46 and dishing out 14 assists), the most in Game 7.
“Even before this series started, I think he has shown that he is one of the top five in the world,” Carlisle said. “This series certainly validates it.”
– Tim MacMahon
Last summer, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were humiliated by the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs. An offseason of introspection followed, as well as changes to both the roster and a new approach. Everything was immediately put to the test in the first round, when the same showdown was featured.
Antetokounmpo responded by leading his team to the most surprising and impressive result of the first round: a four-game sweep of the defending Eastern Conference champions, including the last three games in a riotous fashion.
Antetokounmpo’s stat line was far from perfect – he shot 45.9 percent from the field and 1-of-16 from 3-point range, but what stood out from his performance was the way he, and by extension the Bucks, they faced their demons from the past.
After being criticized in the past for failing to take on the challenge of defending the best opposition player at times, Antetokounmpo scored Jimmy Butler for much of the series and he struggled, shooting 19 of 64 in all four games. Meanwhile, after the Heat successfully created a wall that repeatedly frustrated Antetokounmpo in last year’s playoffs, he had an impressive 31-12 assist-to-turnovers ratio, including a 15-assist masterpiece (with only two turnovers) in Game 4.
That series alone won’t change everything that happened to Milwaukee in the past two years. Just winning this series against the Nets, and two more later, will completely change that talk. But for a team with so much at stake, the first-round rematch with the Heat offered an opportunity for Giannis and the Bucks to produce the same old story or write an entirely new script.
It didn’t take them long to show that this year can be different. And it was Antetokounmpo, as always, who led the way.
– Tim Bontemps
The Madison Square Garden Master impressed in his first playoff appearance. Analysts long wondered if Young’s small stature would become a problem against defenses who had a chance to plan how to get the ball out of their hands and offenses that were targeting it in substitutions.
So far, the answer is that Young has been better than ever in the postseason, producing a combined 52 points per game between his own score and the points generated by his assists, the fourth-highest total in the first round.
Young’s ending on this list reflects both the amount of his contributions and his punctuality. Making his postseason debut, he scored 13 points and delivered three assists in the fourth quarter of a tense first game at the Garden, capped by a winning floater with less than a second with the game tied. In total, Young scored 41 points in 40 minutes of the fourth quarter, tied with Memphis Grizzlies guard Morant for the most points in the final draw during the first round.
Just as impressive, Young repeatedly delivered in a hostile environment, with Knicks fans yelling at him from before kickoff to when he shut them up at the end of Game 1 and bowed after Game 5’s decisive road win. On the most famous stage in the NBA, Young ran the show from start to finish victorious.
– Kevin Pelton
If anyone needed a reminder of Leonard’s greatness, and more specifically, his greatness in the playoffs, Games 6 and 7 are the last installments ever.
The 45-point performance in Game 6, on 18 of 25 shooting, while also assuming the main second-half assignment of defending Doncic, should be the kind of game that becomes an all-time player in a elimination game on the road.
The magic of Game 6 would be debatable without an encore, so Leonard returned to comply. He scored 28 points on another ridiculously efficient 10 of 15 shooting, adding 10 rebounds and 9 assists, along with individual defensive excellence over Doncic (even though Doncic scored 46).
For the Clippers, it was a watershed moment for the franchise, cornered in a corner with the memes and jokes ready to roll and the potentially harsh reality front office after another early postseason exit. And for Leonard, too, it could have forced some unexpected assessments of his future, asking questions of the supporting cast in Los Angeles to determine if this was all the right move after all.
But Leonard rescued the Clippers from that, at least for a few more weeks. He came to life the moment the Clippers had to have him, responding to a mediocre Game 5 that put their backs against the wall. He has established himself as one of the players to fear the most in Game 7, because in a game that can rely on changes in emotional impulse, Leonard’s robotic killer instinct shines through.
– Royce Young
Technically speaking, Lillard’s 55-point masterpiece in Game 5 against Denver wasn’t enough. The Nuggets won and eliminated the Blazers in Game 6. But here’s the thing: Lillard’s incredible outburst of shooting proved that he is one of the deadliest players this league has seen in crucial times. If that’s not valuable, I don’t know what is.
Lillard broke the record for the most 3s in a series in just six games, but his team failed to match his intensity and execution. He deserves a better supporting cast, one that complements him with better defense and more inside scoring.
It would be great to see him in the NBA Finals, but unless his supporting cast improves, that won’t happen.
– Kirk Goldsberry
Booker had a breakout performance in Game 6 when his Suns eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. His 47 points, on 15 of 22 shooting including eight 3-pointers, was a masterful final act to close out his first postseason series. Oh, and he did it while playing 46 minutes, staying hot until the very end.
After the game, Booker told reporters that he had been thinking about Lakers legend Kobe Bryant all night and the conversations the two had previously had.
“So looking at that 8 and that 24 up there, with the way the lighting at Staples has here, it feels like it’s shining on you,” Booker said. “And I know he was here tonight. I know he was here tonight. I know he’s in the building. I know he was proud.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Booker tied the most points for the first chance to win a series in a player’s career. He’s tied with Anthony Davis, who played just five minutes for the Lakers in Game 6 before leaving with his groin injury.
Booker scored 30 or more points four times in the series and really had to shoulder the weight of Phoenix, as Chris Paul was dealing with a right shoulder injury. After the Suns fell behind the Lakers 2-1, Booker averaged 31.3 points and 8.3 rebounds on .559 / .524 / .944 shooting split in Phoenix’s three consecutive victories.
– Andrew Lopez
Others who received votes
Deandre Ayton, Suns; Kevin Durant, Nets; James Harden, Nets; a href = “https://espndeportes.espn.com/basquetball/nba/player/_/id/3112335/nikola-jokic”> Nikola Jokic, Nuggets; Khris Middleton, Bucks; Donovan Mitchell, Jazz.