Stars Rising (And Falling) During Playoffs
Playoffs baby, playoffs! With all four series through four games, the NBA Playoffs second round has only built on the excitement of the first. Three of the four series are all knotted up at 2-2, while the fourth is 3-1. In the East, we are watching the emergence of the Greek Freak to the pantheon of the NBA’s best. Kawhi Leonard is reminding us of why his name was being bandied about in that same conversation not too long ago. The West has pitted two assassins against each other in Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray. And the Houston-Golden State series is everything we had hoped it would be.
Buck Your Luck
The lone series not at 2-2, Bucks-Celtics has brought to light two budding truths. First, Giannis Antetokounmpo is good. Like really, really good. Averaging 28.4/11.8/4 in this postseason, he has upped it to 30.5/11.5/4.5. The boards are (ever so slightly) down, but are offset by the scoring surge and slight boost in assists. He is shooting better from deep and on free throws, going from 34.4 percent from deep and 66 percent at the charity stripe to 46.7 and 68.3 percent, respectively. His free throw numbers are especially astounding as he is averaging 15 for this series and 12.9 for the playoffs.
Boston is bizarro-Milwaukee at the moment. As the Bucks star has emerged, the Celtics have seen their guy go borderline-M.I.A. as they have fallen into a 3-1 hole without the benefit of home court. Playoff-Kyrie’s scoring is down about a point from the regular season and his rebounding has dipped a smidge. His assists are also up, but he is shooting (39.9/33.3/89.5 playoffs, 37.3/24/90.5) has been extremely suspect, especially from deep. The jokes about need a certain former teammate have inevitably arisen, but the biggest takeaway might be that Irving just doesn’t fit well in Brad Stevens’ team-first scheme.
Oakland, We Have a Problem
Last year the Houston-Golden State series went seven games. This year looks like we might get our first encore from last season. James Harden, who got dogged for running out of gas against the Dubs last year, is putting up 35.8/7.3/5 with 41.7/34/89.7 shooting numbers. Last year, he had 28.7/5.6/6 on 41.5/24.4/88.5 shooting percentages. A slight bump in drives (20.6 to 21) only partly explains his jump in free throw attempts from 7.4 in 2017-18 to 9.8 this postseason. He reportedly came into the season in the best shape of his career (surprise) and this series with the Warriors is testing that notion.
Golden State heads back to Oracle Arena for what they hope is not the last time this postseason. A thought that was a non-starter when the year began is now a distinct possibility. Kevin Durant has arguably been the MVP of this postseason but he is the only Hampton 5 member consistently producing. Steph Curry (21/4/5) and especially Klay Thompson (15/6/2) have been…bad. They have somewhat gotten passes because Curry is always one shot away and Thompson draws the toughest defensive assignment, but this more than any stress of the upcoming offseason, is hindering them.
North of the Process
No sooner had the proverbial ink dried on this piece about Durant’s ascension to NBA’s best did Kawhi put everyone on alert. He missed last year, including the playoffs, so it isn’t really surprising that people forgot how good he is. Well, averaging 38/9/4 (32.3/7.7/3.4 in the playoffs) will certainly get folks’ antennae up. Not only is he doubling the scoring output of his next closest teammate this series, but he is doing so on incredible efficiency. Leonard is slashing an inhuman 61.8/46.4/82.9 and taking seven threes a game. He will need more from his teammates but he is firmly placing himself in the ‘best player’ discussion.
Coming into the postseason, one might have wagered on the 76ers starting five against any other in the Eastern Conference. Warts that showed in the first round are still apparent. Ben Simmons has gone from 17.2/6.6/7.6 to 10/7/4.8 as his lack of a perimeter shot has opened him up to a slew of criticism. Joel Embiid has gone from 24.8/13.5/3.5 to 18/8/4.3 as he’s dealt with knee and an illness (more knee issues). The only one of the Philly Big 3 to step up their game has been Jimmy Butler, who has gone from putting up 15.8/4.8/4.6 in the opening round to 22.8/8.3/5.8 in the second.
Blazing Trails in Mile High
Damian Lillard has cooled from his scorching the Thunder to the tune of 33/4.4/6 down to 27.3/4/6.3 as this series is nowhere near as emotional. Lucky for him, and the team, C.J. McCollum is dropping 26.5/5.8/3.5 after putting up 24.4/5.4/4 in the last series. They have expectedly done the heavy lifting, but contributions from Enes Kanter and Al-Farouq Aminu have been huge. Even Rodney Hood has come up huge for Portland against Denver. If Maurice Harkless returns to the form he had against OKC and/or Seth Curry gets hot, look out.
Nikola Jokic might be the best center in the league. He has been the best in these playoffs. He is averaging 24.5/12.5/9.3 for the playoffs and 26.8/13.3/9.5 against the Blazers. The list of players to average that during the regular season in empty. He is not alone either. Jamal Murray is quickly becoming one of the league’s more feared scorers. He had 18.2/4.2/4.8 in the regular season up to 21.7/3.6/4.3 so far this postseason. Against the Blazers he has 26.5/5.3/4.5 while shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, 36.4 percent from three, and is perfect at the free throw line. This series should probably come down to the last shot.
Stars Rising (and Falling) to the Occasion
A round and a half into the playoffs and it is highly unlikely that anyone is complaining about the action on the floor. Even those who say the eventual champion is in any way a foregone conclusion have to be at least pausing for a moment. Of course, the boys in the Bay are still the favorites, but we see there is no shortage of players and teams looking to assert themselves as the NBA’s best. Who ultimately earns that distinction is anyone’s guess. But the juice, as they say, has been worth the squeeze during the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
All stats and information courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.