The conference finals have come to an end: the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks will meet in the NBA Finals.
For the Suns, Chris Paul’s great performance of 41 points in Game 6 sealed the fate of the LA Clippers who fought valiantly in the loss. Paul, who will make his first Finals appearance in his 16-year NBA career, threw an impressive 16 of 24 shots from the field, adding 8 assists and 4 rebounds in the victory.
While they were eliminated, the Clippers ended up holding their heads as one season marked the longest postseason run in franchise history. Without Kawhi Leonard, Paul George took over admirably, averaging more than 41 minutes and 28 points per game in the series.
The Bucks, who lost Giannis Antetokounmpo to a knee injury in Game 4, watched as Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday stepped up to secure the series over the Atlanta Hawks. The duo averaged 55 points over the past two wins, securing the franchise’s return to the NBA Finals for the first time since a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics in 1974.
So who was the most valuable star during the conference finals?
Was it Devin Booker who played like a superstar throughout the Suns-Clippers series? What about Middleton, who had some of his best playoff performances after Antetokounmpo injured his knee? How high will George and Paul’s great performances rank on this list?
Our panel of NBA experts makes their picks.
1. Chris Paul | Base | Phoenix suns
Many times, you get an idea of the value of a player when he is not on the court. And in this series, without Chris Paul in the first two games, the Suns won both.
But don’t let that convince you that Paul’s presence wasn’t part of those first two victories. From watching games on FaceTime with head coach Monty Williams at night for further exploration, to possibly texting his brother CJ about the settings as he sat on the court in Game 1, to FaceTiming with the second team. after the final ring, Paul was an active part of the team. And as Devin Booker and Cameron Payne spoke, Paul’s influence on playing style and the expectation of looking after the ball was on their minds.
When he returned, he showed signs of rust after missing nearly two weeks of games and practices to comply with league health and safety protocols. He struggled to find his rhythm with his mid-range shot, hitting the front iron on almost every attempt as the Clippers regained the series.
It all had the potential to be the last disappointment of Paul’s career: a 3-1 series lead wasted and against a team losing its best player.
But on the road and in his old confines of the Staples Center, Paul orchestrated brilliance to close the series. With 41 points and the kind of ruthless stab that finally broke Patrick Beverley’s spirit, Paul led his team to the finals, finally.
– Royce Young
2. Khris Middleton | Guard / Forward | Milwaukee bucks
When the Bucks needed him most in the conference finals, Middleton had his prime. Middleton’s first call came during the final quarter of Game 3, when he played the familiar role of closer down the stretch.
Milwaukee entered the fourth quarter with two road losses in a series tied 1-1. Middleton’s pitch helped prevent Atlanta from taking the lead in the series. He outscored the Hawks 20-17 in the final period on his own, making eight of his 13 shot attempts, half of his touchdowns and nearly half of his attempts coming from beyond the arc. As a result, with Trae Young limited by a foot injury, the Bucks won Game 3.
Overall, Middleton’s 38 points in Game 3 tied his effort in Game 6 of the previous round against the Brooklyn Nets for his most points in a playoff game. And his six 3-pointers were his second-highest number in his playoff career.
After a poor Game 4 (16 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the field), Middleton stepped up again after Giannis Antetokounmpo left the lineup in the second half of that game with a left knee injury that would be left out of the game for the remainder of the series. In the absence of Giannis, Middleton averaged 29 points, 12 rebounds and 7.5 assists to lead Milwaukee to victories in Games 5 and 6 and eliminate Atlanta.
During the decisive Game 6, Middleton helped the Bucks seize control with a dominant performance during the third quarter. He had 23 points on 8-of-12 shots in the period, including four 3-pointers. So Milwaukee converted a narrow four-point lead at halftime into a dominant 19-point lead into the fourth quarter. In a hot stretch early in the period, Middleton scored 13 points on five possessions in just over two minutes. The Hawks never recovered.
– Kevin Pelton
3. Devin Booker | Escort | Phoenix suns
Mask or no mask, it didn’t seem to stop Booker from continuing to change his reputation from a perceived type of empty stat to one that could help lead his team to the NBA Finals.
In his first five seasons in the NBA, he had his detractors who never thought he could lead a team to a victory in the playoff series, let alone reach the Western Conference finals.
That perception began to change last season in the bubble when Booker helped lead Phoenix to an 8-0 record despite the Suns trailing well behind the West’s entry tournament. There were many who thought that same play-in tournament was going to be where the Suns would finish this season, but they broke all expectations on their way to a 51-21 record, the second-best record in the league.
Booker started off on the right foot in the conference finals against the LA Clippers by dropping his first NBA triple-double: 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. Oh, and he did it all while point guard Chris Paul missed the game due to health and safety protocols.
Without Paul, Booker carried much of the scoring load down the stretch as he scored or assisted in 43 of the Suns’ final 50 points to end the game.
It was in Game 2 that Booker broke his nose in three different places after a head-to-head collision with Clippers guard Patrick Beverley. Starting in Game 3, Booker began wearing a protective face mask, and as a result, his shots dwindled and were not as effective.
Sometimes he played with the mask; sometimes he left him. Overall, he shot 35.2% and was 6-of-25 from 3-point range in the last four games of the series, but still managed to play almost 41 minutes per game averaging 23.3 points, and reached the line 22 times alone in Games 4 and 5.
– Andrew Lopez
4. Paul George | Alero | LA Clippers
If anything, George’s postseason was an overwhelming success because now no one can make a Playoff P joke in good faith.
George’s series against the Suns was a show of personal endurance, as he took on the burden of Kawhi Leonard’s absence to keep his team’s hope of advancing to the Finals alive. George’s numbers were stellar: 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists while playing an absurd 41.2 minutes per game. But beyond that, he helped forge an identity of toughness and defense for the Clippers.
Without Leonard, George was obviously relied on in a more direct leadership role, but the Clippers also adapted to play a more democratic style, spacing the court and relying on the movement of the ball. George thrives in settings with space and movement, always looking for a rhythm and feel in each game. When George achieves that rhythm, he can transform into one of the top five or six players in the world, harnessing a two-way ability that makes him elite.
It wasn’t enough and the Clippers fell in six games, but their series could have reset the table for the franchise in the future as well. Leonard is a free agent and a month ago there were many questions about his future. But after George and the rest of the team fought like this, the Clippers core looks much better today than it did then.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo | Alero | Milwaukee bucks
Although Giannis was supporting his teammates from the bench when the Bucks won Games 5 and 6 to reach the NBA Finals due to the knee injury he sustained in the second half of Game 4, Milwaukee would not have been in position to win the series without him. Surprisingly, despite missing more than one game, he still led all players in the Eastern finals in my win metric above replacement player (WARP) before Game 6.
During the three complete games he played in the series, Antetokounmpo averaged 30.7 points per game on 59% shooting, plus 10.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Perhaps his best performance was in Game 2, when he scored 25 points in just 29 minutes of action in the Bucks’ win, making 11 of his 18 shot attempts. In that game, Giannis’s spinning motion puzzled the Hawks’ defenders, allowing him to repeatedly reach the rim.
Game 3 was emblematic of Antetokounmpo’s impact. Before Middleton could drive Milwaukee home with his fourth-quarter outburst, Giannis was the reason the Bucks stayed on target in the game. He had a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds in three quarters before taking a backseat against Middleton and making both of his shots in the final period.
Even in Milwaukee’s Game 1 loss, Antetokounmpo was outstanding. He was within one assist of what would have been his second career playoff triple-double and scored 34 points on 14 of 25 shooting. Giannis’ 31.5 score in that performance was his fourth best in a playoff game, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Others who received votes:
Deandre Ayton, Suns; Jrue Holiday, Bucks; Bring Young, Hawks.