NBA first-round playoff-series MVPs

Devin Booker and LeBron James after Suns-Lakers
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

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.



Dončić dodges suspension, NBA rescinds 16th technical

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets
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This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”

The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.

That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.

Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.

This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000  for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a  Mavericks loss.

Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.

Kyrie Irving has fan ejected during road loss to Hornets


Sunday was not a good day for the Mavericks and Kyrie Irving.

In addition to losing their second-straight game to the Hornets (and fourth straight overall) to fall out of even the play-in out West, Irving had a Hornets fan ejected from the game Sunday. Irving pointed the situation out to the referee, and soon arena security was involved and the man was escorted out.

It is unclear what the fan said to Irving, but more players in recent years have taken this step with fans they feel had crossed the line of common decency. Irving addressed the situation in his postgame press conference.

Irving and the Mavericks heard boos from their fans at home last Friday during a loss to these same Hornets, and Irving’s response that night was more defiant in tone.

“So what? Just the way I feel about it. I’ve been in New York City so I know what that’s like. You obviously want to play well, but there’s only five people on the court who can play for the Dallas Mavericks. If the fans wanna change places, then hey, be my guest. Got years of work ahead to be great enough to be on this level. But our focus isn’t necessarily on the boos, it should be on the performance.”

That performance has been lacking — the Mavericks have lost four in a row, 7-of-9, and if the postseason started today they would be fishing in Cabo. Irving hasn’t been the problem (the Mavericks are 4.5 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court), but he hasn’t been the solution, either. Irving is a free agent after this season and said he and Luka Dončić are still getting used to playing with one another.