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.
- 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.
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.