NBA second-round playoff-series MVPs

Chris Paul after Suns-Nuggets second-round series
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See first-round series MVPs here.

Suns 4, Nuggets 0: Chris Paul

Chris Paul has had a few prominent failings in the playoffs. A ring has alluded him. In fact, his teams have advanced past the second round only once.

But – even counting his foibles – Paul is one of the best postseason players in NBA history.

His command of the game really showed in this sweep. In fourth quarters, Paul scored 43 points on 19 shots with 10 assists and zero turnovers. He ate Denver alive on pick-and-rolls.

Paul (26 points, 10 assists and five rebounds per game) had such a great series, it looked especially devastating for Phoenix when he tested positive for coronavirus afterward. The Suns proved they could win without Paul, beating the Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

But he makes it so much easier.

Clippers 4, Jazz 2: Paul George

Paul George really struggled in as many games in this series as he was the clearly the best player.

But in this injury-ravaged and uneven series, George (29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game) was the most consistent producer. His Game 5 with Kawhi Leonard out was essential to turning the series in L.A.’s favor.

George has taken a sidekick role, to Russell Westbrook with the Thunder then to Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. He has gotten a lot of flack for his postseason shortcomings.

But it wasn’t that long ago he was the best player on a Pacers team that pushed the eventual-champion Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Once Leonard went down, George returned to that form form to lift the Clippers into their first-ever conference finals.

Bucks 4, Nets 3: Kevin Durant

When he left the Thunder for the Warriors, many critics bemoaned Kevin Durant taking the easier route to the championship. They longed to see him do whatever necessary to lead a team, even if he struggled along the way, because they believed he’d prevail in the end.

With Kyrie Irving sidelined and James Harden hobbled, Durant got that opportunity against Milwaukee.

In Game 5, Durant (49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks while playing all 48 minutes) had one of the best playoff games I’ve ever seen.

He was nearly as good again in Game 7 (48 points – including a wild overtime-forcing jumper – nine rebounds, six assists a steal and a block while playing all 53 minutes).

Milwaukee’s defense is awesome. For Durant to do so much was incredible. When he ran out of gas in the end, everyone was just in awe he’d made it that far.

Even in defeat, Durant (35 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game while playing strong defense) solidified his case as best player in the world.

Hawks 4, 76ers 3: Joel Embiid

In Game 1, Joel Embiid scored 39 points. Philadelphia outscored Atlanta by 13 in his 38 minutes. But the 76ers got outscored by 17 in the other 10 minutes and lost.

In Game 2, Embiid had 37 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Philadelphia outscored Atlanta by 11 in his 39 minutes. But the 76ers got outscored by 14 in the other nine minutes and lost.

Philadelphia lost this series because Embiid couldn’t maintain his elite production long enough.

That wasn’t really his fault. Battling a knee injury, he played far better than expected. The 76ers just couldn’t withstand him sitting or, in a couple games, fading to the finish after playing well enough to help them build big leads.

The Hawks winning the series is not enough reason for Trae Young (29 points and 11 assists per game) to win another series MVP, as excellent as he was. Atlanta got outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Embiid (30 points, 13 rebounds and four assists per game) was slightly more dominant individually. Philadelphia outscored the Hawks by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Even ailing physically, Embiid was more than good enough in this series. The 76ers weren’t.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.