2022 NBA first-round playoff-series MVPs

Jayson Tatum in Brooklyn Nets Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The NBA awards two (two!) Players of the Week each week of the regular season.

But when the stakes go way up in the playoffs, the league stays silent until naming an NBA Finals MVP.

So, picking up where I left off last year, here are the series MVPs for the first round:

Celtics 4, Nets 0: Jayson Tatum

Kevin Durant is arguably the best player in the world. For all his issues, Kyrie Irving is insanely talented and adept at playoff basketball when on the court, and he was fully available.

But Jayson Tatum was the best player in this series, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Tatum scored 29.5 points per game – including the game-winner in Game 1 – with a 62 true shooting percentage. As Brooklyn helped more on his drives, Tatum showed off his improved passing ability with 7.3 assists per game (albeit with five turnovers per game).

Though he had plenty of help, Tatum spearheaded Boston’s domineering defense on Durant. Tatum and co. held Durant to just 39% shooting with more than five turnovers per game.

Bucks 4, Bulls 1: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks stumbled at times in this series, especially early.

But nearly never with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the court.

Milwaukee with…

  • Antetokounmpo on: +86 in 168 minutes (positive in every game)
  • Antetokounmpo off: -13 in 72 minutes (negative in four of five games)

Antetokounmpo (28.6 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game) just controlled the attack on both ends of the floor. His aggressive drives opened so many positives for the Bucks. Defensively, Antetokounmpo repeatedly shut down the Bulls’ attempts to get inside.

Though not really summoning his best effort in this series, Antetokounmpo still dominated more than enough to get past Chicago.

Heat 4, Hawks 1: Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler thrust the Heat into the second round.

Despite missing Game 5, he still led the series in points (122) and steals (11), tied for second in rebounds (31) and tied for the Heat lead in assists (21).

Sometimes, it seems Butler holds minimal interest in making 3-pointers during the regular season. But he was locked into postseason form from the start, shooting 7-for-16 from beyond the arc (44%).

Even while scoring 45 points in Game 2, Butler was an absolute menace defensively. This was a stellar two-way performance, as his per-game averages (30.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals) reflect.

76ers 4, Raptors 2: Joel Embiid

Start with the bad news: Embiid left this series with an orbital bone fracture and concussion. But let’s take a moment to acknowledge why that’s such a problem for the 76ers:

Because Embiid is so good.

Embiid (26.2 and 11.3 rebounds per game) crushed the Raptors. He made 61% of his 2-pointers. Toronto kept fouling him, and he kept hitting his free throws (83%). Though playing through a thumb injury hindered him, Embiid is a force.

Suns 4, Pelicans 2: Chris Paul

Chris Paul certainly had his moments in Game 1, Game 3 and Game 5 wins. But a Game 4 clunker (four points on 2-of-8 shooting and three turnovers) and moments of frustration also stood on his resumé.

Then, perfection.

Paul shot a playoff-record 14-for-14 in the closeout Game 6, finally putting together a complete game of brilliance. That splendid final note tied together Paul’s entire series.

In the six games, he averaged 22.3 points – making a whopping 67% of his 2-pointers – and 11.3 assists.

Mavericks 4, Jazz 2: Jalen Brunson

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Dallas will be in luxury tax hell next season.

Jalen Brunson spent this series fanning the flames.

An impending unrestricted free agent this offseason, Brunson really increased his value, thriving both in go-to and complementary roles.

With Luka Doncic sidelined to begin the series, Brunson commandeered the offense. Scoring 41 to lead Dallas to a Game 2 win was the high-water mark, but don’t sneeze at his 31-point performance in a Game 3 win.

Then, when Doncic returned, Brunson slid right back to being comfortable as a secondary playmaker. Brunson scored 23, 24 and 24 points in the final three games.

Brunson finished with a 27.8-points-per-game average, giving teams like the Knicks, Pacers and of, course, Mavericks more reason to pay up this summer.

Warriors 4, Nuggets 1: Stephen Curry

After shaking off the rust in Game 1, Stephen Curry scored 94 points in 91 minutes across Games 2-4 as the Warriors’ microwave scorer.

Obviously, Golden State couldn’t keep bringing its superstar off the bench, and new challenges come with facing opposing starters. Starting and playing 38 minutes in Game 5, Curry really cooled off.

He scored just 30 points.

Jordan Poole had a special playoff debut, shooting better than Curry on 2-pointers (61% to 60%), 3-pointers (48% to 40%) and free throws (85% to 74%). But Curry had a big volume advantage (28 points per game to 21 points per game). Whether Curry is starting or coming off the bench, the Warriors still know which side their bread is buttered on. This is Curry’s team, and he lived up to that billing in this series.

Though not quite up to his MVP standards – which is really saying something – Nikola Jokic (31.0 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game) still did plenty right in a tough situation. But Draymond Green flustered him into too many tough moments. And Golden State could pick on Jokic defensively as a center in a way the Nuggets couldn’t Curry, a point guard.

Grizzlies 4, Timberwolves 2: Desmond Bane

Ja Morant tried to give his Most Improved Player trophy to Desmond Bane. The most obvious reason: Morant is a good teammate who uplifts those around him. But some saw the gesture as fitting because they believe Morant is too good for that award, that Most Improved Player shouldn’t honor a star like Morant.

Well, Bane is pretty darned good, too.

In a wild matchup of young and athletic teams, Bane (23.5 points on 67% true shooting) was the steadiest player. He ran the floor hard, hit his 3-pointers (27-of-56, 48%) and D’d up.

Morant shouldered a larger burden and had some big moments. Even in defeat, Anthony Edwards can make a case. Neither Karl-Anthony Towns nor Brandon Clarke were that far behind.

But Bane’s efficiency, energy and defense make him series MVP.

Nuggets reportedly trade draft picks with Thunder to help keep title window open


The Denver Nuggets are just two wins from the franchise’s first NBA championship.

While Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray are trying to pick-and-roll their way to those wins, the Nuggets front office has made a trade to try and keep their title window open. The Nuggets are trading their 2029 first-round pick (protected) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 37 pick in this June’s NBA Draft and the worst of the Thunder’s 2024-first round picks, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Nuggets now control the No. 37 and 40 picks in the 2023 NBA Draft, plus this additional 2024 pick. The Nuggets will try to use this 2024 first-round pick to move into the first round of this year’s draft, reports Mike Singer of the Denver Post. (Denver’s first-round pick at No. 27 belongs to Charlotte through a series of trades.)

A first-round pick and some high second-round picks allows Nuggets GM Calvin Booth to bring in several low-priced rookies who can potentially be part of the roster and rotation, freeing up money to keep an expensive core of Jokic, Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the rest. The hope is to find another Christian Braun at the back of the first round who can contribute as a rookie.

With Jokić, Murray, Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon all locked in on big deals for the next two seasons after this, the challenge for the Nuggets is keeping quality rotation players around them to help them compete for a title without going deeper into the tax than ownership wants. Jeff Green is a free agent this summer and Bruce Brown has a $6.8 million player option that he will certainly opt out of (he will get an offer for more than $10 million a season). The Nuggets already are $7 million into the luxury tax (via Spotrac) and are looking for a way to keep below the second tax apron, making bringing those key players back a challenge.

Hence the trade, as the Nuggets look for ways to fill out their rotation with quality, but affordable, players. Good drafting — like Braun — is a way.

What does OKC get out of this? They have more first-round draft picks than they can use in the coming few years, this spreads a pick out to 2029, which they can use then or trade, depending on their needs at the time.

Heat’s Tyler Herro remains out for Game 4. Will he play in Finals?


MIAMI — With Tyler Herro not cleared to play in Game 3 of the NBA Finals and Game 4 just 48 hours later, it should be no surprise that we won’t see Herro on Friday night.

Herro is officially listed as out for Game 4. He has been out since April 16 with a severe hand fracture suffered in the first game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Herro went through a brief part of the public practice/shootaround in front of the media Thursday but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game.

“This is just part of the process,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to go through stages. First part of it was just shooting, then movement, then contact versus coaches, and then the next level of contact in practice. He has not been cleared for a game, and he is still not cleared yet.”

Even if Herro were cleared for later in the series — and the Heat players and coaches say to a man he is putting in the work — how much of a role could he play at this point? While on paper he provides shooting and shot creation Miami needs this series (although he would be a target on defense), he hasn’t played in a game for nearly two months and Spoelstra can’t just throw him into the highest level of basketball in the world mid-series. Maybe he could get in a few non-Jokić minutes off the bench, but it’s a big ask for anything more than that. And maybe it’s too big an ask for even that.

Listening to Spoelstra’s tone, I wouldn’t expect to see Herro in this series.

And this summer, don’t be surprised when Herro’s name comes up in a lot of trade rumors.

Rumor: Suns could make run at James Harden this summer


James Harden is widely expected to opt out of the $35.6 million he is owed for next season because, even if you acknowledge he is not MVP-level Harden anymore, he’s worth more than that in the NBA marketplace. At least $10 million more a season. Harden is reportedly “torn” between returning to Philadelphia or going back home to Houston (the sources NBC Sports talks to around the league have Houston as the frontrunner).

Maybe Phoenix can enter the conversation. There had been talk the Suns might make another big swing this offseason, then came this from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne appearing on ESPNLA Radio (hat tip Hoopshype):

“I want you to keep your eye on James Harden [going to Phoenix]. I don’t want to report anything, but that was in the wind for the past month or so. Everybody thinks it’s Philly or Houston, but I don’t know, there have been discussions in the wind.”

Interesting. The smart money should still be bet on Houston. Phoenix is a crazy longshot because the Suns don’t have the cap space to sign Harden outright at market value.

The only way the Suns could make a direct trade work is to convince Harden to do an opt-in and trade, where he picks up that $35.6 million and the Suns extend him off that, because if he opts out — as expected — then any sign-and-trade hardcaps the Suns. With Harden, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on the books, a hard-capped Suns team would have to round out the roster with minimum contract guys. They would have no depth.

Also, who are the Suns sending back to Philadelphia in that deal? The 76ers have no interest in Deandre Ayton, Philly is pretty set at center with the MVP. That means getting a third team involved, one that wants Ayton, and will send players back to the 76ers they want. It gets very complicated very fast. Or, can Phoenix pick up Chris Paul‘s $30.8 million for this season and do a Harden for CP3 swap? Good luck selling that.

No doubt the Suns, with aggressive new owner Mat Ishbia, want to make another bold move or two this summer, but pulling off a James Harden deal would be challenging. To put it politely.

And Harden probably wants to go home to Houston anyway.

Three things to watch, with betting tips, as Miami tries to slow Jokić, Denver offense


MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra, Michael Malone, and their staffs have been pouring over film and losing sleep, trying to come up with adjustments. Minor tweaks that can give their team even a little edge.

But four games into a series, there are not a lot of secrets left. Everyone knows what is coming. It is often more about execution and effort over adjustments.

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” the Heat’s Haywood Highsmith said. “It’s definitely some things we can adjust on, and then it’s also about a little bit more effort and just doing more. You always need more, always can do more… we definitely have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor, but you know, we’ll figure it out.”

The Heat need to figure it out before Game 4 on Friday night, because they can’t afford to go down 3-1 to the Nuggets in this series. Game 4 is as close as it gets to must-win for Jimmy Butler and the Heat.

Here are two things worth watching in Game 4, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Miami has to slow the Jokic/Murray two-man game. Somehow.

Denver’s defense has been impressive in these Finals, holding Miami to a 111.1 offensive rating through three games (for comparison, that is 7.2 below their offensive rating against Boston).

Part of the reason is that Nikola Jokić can be a better rim protector and defensive player than people give him credit for. Another key is Malone has been able to lean hard into more defensive-based lineups because the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Jokić has been all the offense the Nuggets need.

The Murray/Jokic pick-and-roll has been a masterclass in this series — the Nuggets have a 126 offensive rating this series when running that play. In Game 3, the Denver stars ran 32 pick-and-rolls, and those plays were the foundation of each of them getting a 30-point triple-double (the first teammates to have a 30+ point triple-double in any NBA game).

“I mean, the Murray/Jokic two-man game is a pretty hard action to stop,” Haywood Highsmith said. “But we got great defensive players, got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy [Butler] and Bam [Adebayo], so we’re gonna figure it out. We got a lot of different bodies we can throw at Murray as well.”

Miami may need to sell out to stop Jokić and Murray and force any other Nugget to beat them. The Heat did blitz the pick-and-roll more in the fourth quarter of Game 3, but that led to Christian Braun cuts to the basket and Denver buckets. Miami may have to live with some of that, they have to keep Murray in particular in check (it feels like Jokić will get his no matter what).

“Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said of defending the Nuggets duo. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level. It’s the highest level of competition. You’re getting the highest level of execution. Understanding what they’re trying to get to, and we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible.

“The first half, they really got to that two-man action quite a bit. They were getting a lot of traction, so they didn’t need to go to any other part of their playbook.”

Miami needs to see the rest of that playbook.

2) Miami has to make shots, rebound, set defense

The best way for Miami to limit the Jokic/Murray action and the Denver offense in general is to slow the game down. Make them go against a set defense every time down. That didn’t happen enough in Game 3 — Denver was free-flowing on offense when Miami needs the game played in the mud.

For the Heat to change that dynamic two key things need to happen.

First, Miami has to make shots. It’s simplistic but it’s true. Denver isn’t going to run if they are taking the ball out of the net.

That starts with 3-pointers, because as has been noted everywhere the Heat are 6-1 when they shoot 45% or better from 3 this postseason (including Game 2 against the Nuggets), and unreasonably hot shooting has sustained their run to the Finals. The Heat starters were 5-of-19 (26.3%) from beyond the arc in Game 3, which is simply not good enough — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and the rest of the role players must step up and knock down shots. However, the bigger concern in Game 3 was the Heat shooting 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. The Nuggets’ size is clearly bothering the Heat. Jimmy Butler needs to get downhill and then make the shots, Bam Adebayo has to get the floater to fall, and the Heat need to attack and get to the free throw line.

Second, the Heat can’t let the Nuggets win the rebounding battle by 25. Denver’s size advantage has played out in this series in many ways (including how they contested 3s in Game 3), but it is most clearly on the glass. Miami is getting one shot and they’re done, but the Nuggets grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.1% of their missed shots in Game 3, and if you give them that many second chances you will pay.

It will take gang rebounding and effort, but the Heat must be stronger on the glass.

3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Over/Under: The total continues to drop from game-by-game starting at 219.5 then going from 216.5 to 214.5 and now 210.5 for Game 4. Denver and Miami have struggled with consistency when it comes to scoring, Miami a little more than Denver. The Nuggets are shooting 51% to Miami’s 41% from the field and averaging 10 more free-throw attempts per game. The pace and tempo of this series has barely changed through three games and if it wasn’t for Miami’s 38-point fourth quarter in Game 2, the Under would be 3-0 in this NBA Finals. I will keep riding the Under.

Player Props: In this series there have been four players worth betting overs; Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. On the other hand, there have been some very good fade prospects for unders such as Kevin Love, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who are all shooting 31% or worse from the field. When betting player props in the NBA Finals, keep it simple stupid (KISS).

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)