With the NBA Playoffs in full swing, teams like the Cavaliers and Wizards have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in what seemed like could be the year that a new challenger could emerge in the Eastern Conference and dethrone King [LeBron] James and company. Teams like the Raptors and Celtics? They’re in for long series and fighting for their playoff lives. A lot of individual players not named LeBron James have stepped up and taken their game to the next level in the early stages of these NBA Playoffs. Here are the best of those best:
5) Kyrie Irving: Cleveland Cavaliers Point Guard
You can arguably put him higher if not for his sometimes, at best, mediocre defense. But Kyrie’s ability to dribble penetrate and create shots is up there among the league’s best, and he simply knocks down big shots time and again. Through two games against the Pacers, Irving is averaging 30 points and 4 assists per game while shooting a cool 49% from the field (although he’ll have to step up from downtown; 5/19 from 3PT won’t cut it if the Cavs want to make another deep run).
4) Paul George: Indiana Pacers Small Forward
Indiana’s franchise player has done literally all he can to not only validate his name on this list, but keep his Pacers in a tough, physical series with the defending world champion Cavaliers. And it still might not be enough to prevent them from getting swept! PG-13 is averaging 30.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 7.0 APG while shooting 55% (10-18) from downtown so far in the series. Indiana not only needs George to continue hitting 3s at that rate, but desperately needs someone else to step up, otherwise they risk an early exit and, even worse than that, losing their franchise player to free agency.
3) Giannis Antetokounmpo: Milwaukee Bucks Small Forward (!?!)
One of the most fun players to watch in the entire league, it’s been a real treat watching the Greek Freak all season and now into the playoffs. Almost certain to win the league’s Most Improved Player award, Giannis has simply taken his game to historical new levels, leading the Bucks in EVERY major statistical category during the regular season (5th player in NBA history) and becoming the first player to finish a season in the top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.
But all facts and figures aside; it is the sheer ease and grace with which Antetokounmpo plays and just asserts his dominance on the court that has players and writers across the league marveling night in and night out (I think the nickname “Magic Giannison” is appropriate, and it’s a bit surprising that it hasn’t caught on yet). The Bucks are going to give the Raptors everything they can handle, even without Jabari Parker, and #34 will be a big reason why: he finished 3 assists shy of a triple-double in a losing effort in Game 2 (24 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assits).
2) Jimmy Butler: Chicago Bulls Shooting Guard
The Bulls are two games away from knocking off the conference’s top seed in the Celtics, and a rejuvenated Rajon Rondo is back to do in his old team and deserves a lot of credit. But it has been Jimmy Butler who has been the steadying force on what has been an incredibly tumultuous season for the Bulls, who didn’t even clinch a playoff berth until the last night of the regular season. Butler (26 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.5 APG through the first two games against Boston) is one of those rare players who performs at an equally high level on both ends of the floor, and Chicago simply would not be in the position they’re in without his performances night in and night out.
A series win over the Celtics will fuel rampant speculation not only on if acquiring Butler could have put Boston over the top this season, but how aggressive the C’s will be in dealing for him come the offseason.
1) John Wall: Washington Wizards Point Guard
For years, postseason success has for whatever reason eluded John Wall and the Wizards. But after two games this feels like a team that can make a deep run, and in my estimation, the only real challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven-game series (they wouldn’t meet until the Eastern Conference Finals). Wall is at the center of it all for Washington.
His explosiveness from one side of the court to the other often yields one-man fastbreaks that make you say “How is that possible?”. He can take over a game pretty much however he wants, whether its scoring (32 PPG against Atlanta so far through two games), facilitating (11.5 APG), or getting to the foul line (18-21 in the series). His nonstop motor and energy has rubbed off on teammates like Bradley Beal & Marcin Gortat, and has heightened their games to new levels. The Wiz will be a tough out, and Wall will be a big reason why.