With a full round-plus of playoffs under our collective belt, now is a good time to take stock of which players have been the most outstanding over the initial stretch of games. Today’s exercise is to construct three All-NBA teams, much like in the regular season, only these teams will be determined solely on playoff performance to this point. The only ground rule for this is the player must be playing in the second round and/or have played at least six total games, so Utah, OKC, Indiana, Brooklyn, Orlando, and Detroit will not be represented.
Without further ado, let’s get to it:
- C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
- F: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
- F: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
- G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
- G: James Harden, Houston Rockets
This group is pretty airtight. The first four guys all have solid cases for being the Playoff MVP at the moment, and while Harden hasn’t shot particularly well, he is still carrying the Rockets and giving them a chance to win every game. Jokic is answering every question about whether he could hold up under the brighter lights and heavier minutes — pun very much intended — posting a bonkers line of 24.9/ 11.8/ 8.8 on 50/ 37/ 91 shooting splits in 38 minutes per game, including star-making performances in Game 6 against San Antonio and Game 1 against Portland. If Denver should survive the Portland series, he’ll likely meet a swift end in the Conference Finals against either Golden State or Houston, but it sure has been fun to watch his legend grow, and we’ll be seeing him battle in the postseason for many years to come.
Dame obviously has The Shot of the playoffs thus far, and it’s going to be tough to top. Beyond that one iconic moment and the sea of memes it spawned, he so thoroughly sonned Russell Westbrook — a former MVP, you may recall — in the first round, it has forced the collective NBA hive-mind to re-evaluate the position of both guys within the hierarchy of the league, both currently and historically.
From a pure performance standpoint, though, the top two players thus far have been Durant and Kawhi, and I wouldn’t argue with whatever order someone wanted to put them. I posted this to Twitter on Monday, but here is the updated version following Toronto’s loss Monday night to Philly, in which Leonard was “held” to a mere 35/ 7/ 6:
Yeah, yeah, different eras, blah blah blah. I know. Putting that aside, along with the sacrilege of even daring to offer up such a comparison, the similarities are pretty striking. Kawhi is slightly larger, but he cuts a similar physical profile to MJ, and the technical precision with which he moves and the ease with which he gets to his spots are eerily reminiscent. The stats merely affirm what the eye test is suggesting, and the lockdown defense is just icing on the cake. I’m not here to proclaim Kawhi is suddenly the best player of all time, but he sure is playing a lot like the GOAT did at the same age, and that’s not nothing.
The stats paint Kawhi as the superior playoff performer to this point, but Kevin Durant is on some shit right now. His shotmaking has ascended to a plane few in the history of the game could even dream of, and in the process he has done the seemingly impossible by wresting control of the Warriors from Steph Curry, and however briefly, making them ‘his’ team. Whether this is a winning formula remains to be seen (it has been so far against Houston), but for all the ways it’s easy to hate on KD, one thing is clear: we are witnessing one of the most uniquely skilled basketball players of all time at the absolute zenith of his powers, so we probably shouldn’t take it for granted.
- C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- F: Al Horford, Boston Celtics
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- G: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
- G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Yeah, I’m fudging things position-wise, but Horford did start alongside Aron Baynes for the entire Indiana series, so even if he is destined to play almost exclusively at the 5 against Milwaukee, I’m not being overly disingenuous by slotting him in as a forward here. Besides, he deserves it. Stats aside, almost no player is having a bigger impact on the postseason than Big Al. His shooting and defensive versatility completely flummoxed Giannis and the Bucks in Game One. Milwaukee adjusted in Game 2, switching defensively far more often to shut off the flow of wide open Horford threes out of the pick-and-pop with Kyrie, but Brad Stevens will undoubtedly counter-punch, and Horford remains the key to the series as it shifts to Boston. [The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks has a nice breakdown of the strategic considerations Milwaukee is facing, some of which they employed to great effect in Game 2, here.] Should the Celtics advance, there is no reason to think he won’t cause the same sorts of tactical dilemmas for either Philly or Toronto as well.
Giannis stock took a temporary hit after his humbling Game 1 performance, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees. He bounced back in Game 2, imposing his will on Boston’s defense in the paint and bulling his way to 18 free throw attempts en route to a 29/ 10/ 4 line in only 31 minutes. After basically floating through the first five games of the postseason, the Bucks appeared to triangulate on the requisite level of focus and intensity they need to bring to this series, and I suspect we’ll see more of the same pace and aggressiveness out of Giannis going forward. There’s a monster 42/ 17/ 8-type line lurking just around the corner somewhere, and if The Freak uncorks it over the next few days in Beantown, the tenor of this series could change in a hurry.
Embiid has been limited by various afflictions and Coach Brett Brown has been forced to work around Joel’s inability to play heavy minutes, but on a per-minute basis, he remains a monster. Whether or not he can take on a bigger load (hehehe) without breaking down is perhaps the key to the outcome of the series with Toronto.
Irving and Curry have both been quietly effective, even as their respective teammates, Horford and Durant, have garnered most of the plaudits. Given the track records of the two star guards, this could change at any time.
- C: Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
- F: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
- F: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
- G: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
- G: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Now we get into the tough choices and snubs. We’ll throw two spots to those who were valiant in defeat, Williams and Aldridge. Sweet Lou was a legit PROBLEM for the Warriors’ defense, and his herky-jerky pick-and-roll game (in conjunction with honorable mention Montrezl Harrell) carved up Golden State for long stretches. He finished up the series averaging 21.7/ 2.8/ 7.7 in only 29.3 minutes, and he will now go into the offseason ready to reprise his role next year amid a probably different cast, or function as a wildly valuable trade chit for a franchise ready to make a leap. Aldridge was his usual steady self, keeping the Spurs in the mix all the way until the final moments of Game 7 with Denver, when he inexplicably played a major role in the uncharacteristic, team-wide brain fart which may have cost them their season. DeMar DeRozan is an equally credible choice for 3rd Team as well, and the fact the Spurs’ top two players both max out at “maybe the 15th-best player in the playoffs” tells you just about all you need to know regarding where San Antonio resides in the current competitive landscape. [Apologies to Khris Middleton, who will almost certainly usurp Aldridge’s spot if he continues to scorch the nets and act as Celtics Kryptonite like he did in Game 2 on Tuesday night.]
Gasol and Siakam are relatively easy choices — Siakam because he has been a beast at both ends — Game 2 semi-dud against Philly notwithstanding — and is quickly earning “you need to game plan for this dude” status, and Gasol for being something of a “Horford-lite” in a postseason where hulking centers are becoming increasingly marginalized. Big Spain’s numbers are far from impressive, but he is providing useful floor spacing (47.6% from deep on three attempts per game), and his crafty defensive game has mostly nullified All-Star pivots Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid. He has also developed a heady pick-and-roll/pop chemistry with Kyle Lowry in the scenarios when “give Kawhi the ball and let him go full MJ” doesn’t pan out. The matchup with Embiid is the exact reason Toronto went out and got Gasol, and so far he has been just as-advertised.
It’s dealer’s choice on the final guard spot, and I’ll go with Simmons. There is a case for any one of DeRozan, Jamal Murray, CJ McCollum, or Jimmy Butler (who’s been a killer in the Toronto series thus far after being mostly invisible against Brooklyn), but the Swiss army knife value of Simmons on both ends is enough for me to give him the nod. His overall numbers are down a bit from the regular season, but he absolutely dominated the game against Brooklyn when Embiid was out, a performance which kept that series from becoming far more interesting than it had any right to be. He gives them defensive options against Toronto’s diverse attack, from trying to slow down Kawhi (he at least made Leonard work in Game 2, despite the continued crooked numbers) to limiting Siakam’s hustle game to guarding Lowry at the point of attack, if need be. Even without the threat of a jumper, his top-tier athleticism puts constant pressure on the rim, and if Embiid remains hampered, Simmons will have to shoulder more of the load on both ends.
Top Photo Credit: Mark Blinch/Getty Images/NBAE