NBA first-round playoff-series MVPs

Devin Booker and LeBron James after Suns-Lakers
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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The NBA names two (!) Players of the Week every week of the regular season.

Then, as the season crescendos through its most important time – the playoffs – individual short-period awards stop until NBA Finals MVP. Three rounds and 14 series of… nothing.

It’s a major missed opportunity.

But we can at least unofficially honor the players who’ve performed best when it counts even more. The 2020 first-round series MVPs:

Bucks 4, Heat 0: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo rejected even the notion of defending Jimmy Butler last year. This year, Antetokounmpo guarded Butler plenty, helping to shut down the Miami star. That showed an evolution in Antetokounmpo’s mentality. Though he’s better as a help defender and closer to the basket, the best players must sometimes just do whatever it takes to win.

Antetokounmpo (23.5 points, 15.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists) didn’t score as efficiently as usual. He shot just 1-for-16 on 3-pointers and made free throws adventurous.

But his all-around contributions slightly outdid teammates Jrue Holiday (who defended exceptionally on the perimeter, set up teammates and chipped in as a scorer) and Khris Middleton (who scored well and hit the game-winner in Game 1).

Nets 4, Celtics 1: Kevin Durant

James Harden (27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game) played a masterful offensive series. He ran the Nets’ offense to a level never before seen in a playoff series. He scored incredibly efficiently (66% on 2-pointers, 48% on 3-pointers, 91% on free throws) and kept the ball moving.

Kevin Durant – who scored plenty himself (33 points, 57% on 2-pointers, 50% on 3-pointers, 91% on free throws) – gets an edge for his defense. Durant really raised his defensive intensity, disrupting Boston on and off the ball. That set a tone for Brooklyn.

Suns 4, Lakers 2: Devin Booker

The Lakers looked old and slow in this series.

Devin Booker was a big reason why.

He pushed the pace and just kept moving. His 47 points in the series finalesecond-highest-scoring game by someone in his first playoff series – was a fitting capper. He just left the Lakers in his dust as Phoenix won its first playoff series in more than a decade.

Booker (29.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game) also stepped up his playmaking when Chris Paul got hurt. Booker’s defense has improved, too. He definitely rose to the occasion with a superb all-around performance.

Nuggets 4, Trail Blazers 2: Damian Lillard

Yes, Nikola Jokic (33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, 56% on 2-pointers, 43% on 3-pointers, 92% on free throws) was fantastic. Yes, Denver won the series.

But Lillard (34.3 points and 10.2 assists per game, 48% on 2-pointers, 45% on 3-pointers, 94% on free throws) was just a little more impactful toward winning – even though his team came up short. His Game 5 was an all-time special performance, even in a loss. Lillard did everything he could to carry Portland to victory, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot and even playing lockdown defense for spurts.

 

The Nuggets got outscored with Jokic on the floor. That’s mostly do to a Trail Blazers Game 4 blowout… in which Lillard shot 1-for-10. It was a weird series.

Denver’s rag-tag guards – Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo and Markus Howard – exceeded expectations. That was in part because Portland paid so much attention to Jokic, and he deserves credit for that gravity.

But Lillard’s singular excellence gets the edge here in a close call.

76ers 4, Wizards 1: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid scored 96 points in 95 minutes.

Though that playing time was low because he got hurt, Embiid still made such a huge impact. Philadelphia outscored Washington by a whopping 34.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

He was a force on all levels. Embiid shot 69% on 2-pointers, 46% on 3-pointers and 89% on free throws. He also played imposing defense in the middle.

It’s hard to contribute more than everyone else while playing so much less. But Embiid did it.

Hawks 4, Knicks 1: Trae Young

Trae Young took a bow after leading Atlanta to a series-ending win in New York.

“I know where we are. I know it’s a bunch of shows around this city,” Young said. “And I know what they do when the show is over.”

What a show it was.

In Game 1 – after getting spit on – Young hit the game-winner then shushed Knicks fans. Young embraced his role as New York villain and continued a fantastic series, averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists per game.

Jazz 4, Grizzlies 1: Rudy Gobert

This was a surprisingly high-scoring series, which doesn’t reflect well on Rudy Gobert. The presumptive Defensive Player of the Year barely slowed Ja Morant (30.2 points per game). Jonas Valanciunas battled Gobert inside somewhat effectively.

But when Valanciunas sat, Gobert completely shut down Memphis’ offense. When Valanciunas played, the Jazz’s perimeter players – especially Donovan Mitchell (28.5 points per game) – took advantage of the Grizzlies center’s defensive limitations.

Gobert turned this series into a no-win proposition for Memphis.

Gobert (17.4 points, 13.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game) still defended well overall. He actively screened and rolled, shooting 78%.

But, as usual, individual numbers don’t show his full impact.

Clippers 4, Mavericks 3: Kawhi Leonard

Players had scored 30 points per game while shooting 60% from the field in a playoff series just 15 times in NBA history:

  • Shaquille O’Neal (2000 LAL-IND)
  • Shaquille O’Neal (1998 LAL-SEA)
  • Charles Barkley (1994 PHO-GSW)
  • Michael Jordan (1992 CHI-MIA)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (1987 HOU-SEA)
  • Bernard King (1984 NYK-DET)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1983 LAL-POR)
  • Bob McAdoo (1978 NYK-CLE)
  • Jo Jo White (1977 BOS-SAS)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 LAL-POR)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 LAL-GSW)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1974 MIL-CHI)
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970 MIL-PHI)
  • Jerry West (1968 LAL-GSW)
  • Sam Jones (1967 BOS-NYK)

Those players combined to attempt just 10 3-pointers, a lower-percentage shot (eight by Barkley, one by Olajuwon, one by King).

Kawhi Leonard (32.1 points per game, 61.2% on field goals) just joined the club while attempting 40 3-pointers against Dallas!

Leonard’s shot-making was unbelievable in this series. He shot 79% in the restricted area, 63% from mid-range and 43% on 3-pointers. He also made 90% of his free throws.

Leonard wasn’t at his very best defensively (a high standard), but he helped slow Luka Doncic just enough late in the series.

Doncic (35.7 points, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game) was brilliant. In another matchup, he probably would’ve won series MVP.