The conference semi-final matchups are one game in and already producing heartstoppers and highlights from some of the league’s best players. In the East, the Bucks 101-89 victory over the Celtics has given them an early advantage and Miami handled an Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers team, 106-92, to jump out to a 1-0 lead of their own.
Out west, Golden State was able to hang on and defeat the two-seed Memphis Grizzlies, 117-116, after a clutch three from Klay Thompson late in the fourth quarter. In the other western conference matchup, the top-seeded Suns took care of the Dallas Mavericks at home in Phoenix 121-114.
In this year’s postseason, the road to the Finals is as cloudy as ever. The truth is, while there may be some teams with a slight advantage, this year’s NBA Finals is anyone’s for the taking. Here’s a closer look at the stars shining brightest in their chase for a championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, Forward
As the reigning Finals MVP and a back-to-back regular season MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most dominant and decorated players in the league. Yet somehow, he and his defending champion Milwaukee Bucks just don’t get the respect they deserve. At the beginning of the season, everyone in sports media all but guaranteed a Brooklyn Nets finals run behind an MVP-season from Kevin Durant.
It was as if everyone had forgotten that Antetokounmpo had just dispatched the Nets in six games during the Eastern Conference Finals before dropping 50 points in the closeout game of the NBA Finals. Fast-forward to this year’s postseason and Brooklyn has been swept out by Milwaukee’s current opponent, the Boston Celtics. After their 4-0 waxing of the Nets, the Celtics were favored to take Game 1 at home.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks had other ideas on Sunday, as he tagged up Boston for a triple double, totaling 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists. He’s averaging 28/13/7 in those categories during the playoffs, and it looks effortless. He’s become much more adept at letting the game come to him and taking what opponents give him. His shooting touch is also constantly improving and although it hasn’t produced results from long-range, he is shooting over 52% from the field. Milwaukee takes on the Celtics for Game 2 on Tuesday night as they try to take a 2-0 lead on two-seed Boston. If Antetokounmpo keeps up this performance and the Bucks find themselves in the Finals again, can we finally admit that “The Greek Freak” is the best player in the world?
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Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, Guard
If there’s someone who knows the secret ingredients to the championship formula, it’s Curry. The Golden State guard is averaging a hair over 27 points per game in the playoffs and shooting the lights out at over 40 percent from both the field (48%) and beyond the three-point line (40.2%). He had a quiet 24 points in the Warriors’ Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, nailing five shots from downtown. The stats don’t do Curry justice though.
His presence on the floor can be felt in every facet of Golden State’s gameplan. He gives them a sense of reassurance. Having Curry out there leading them is the world’s best security blanket for unproven, but electric young guards Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson, who recently returned after missing two years and change with ACL and Achilles injuries.
Opposing team’s have to respect Curry’s elite offensive arsenal, which leaves plenty of open shots for Poole and Thompson. Poole has been having a breakout season which can be credited to Curry’s mentorship and playing style as much as anything else. There’s no number-one-scoring option in basketball who is better than Curry at deferring to a hot shooting teammate. The offense moves constantly, ebbing and flowing like a river that Curry controls the current of. They are simply a different team with him at the helm and will be a favorite to make a run into the Western Conference Finals and beyond.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, Guard
Despite losing Game 1 to the Suns, Luka looked every bit like the best player on the floor. The Slovenian guard exploded for 45 points on 15-of-30 shooting from the field to go along with twelve rebounds and eight assists. Although he’s only played in four of Dallas’ seven games, he’s leading the playoffs in scoring during that span at 33 points per game. He’s exceeded the 30-point mark in three of his four outings, but the Mavericks are still only 2-2 with Doncic on the floor.
Luka is certainly Dallas’ best player and may be the best player in this series, holding the edge over Phoenix’s Devin Booker, but that’s about where the Maverick’s advantages run dry. Even with an unconscious performance from Doncic, the Mavs came up short and although they only lost by seven, Dallas was dominated from start to finish.
Dallas faced a 21-point canyon of a deficit early in the fourth and despite a late resurgence, were never really close to stealing Game 1 from Phoenix. Doncic will need to put up similar numbers in the next game and light a fire under his teammates if they want to have a chance at defeating the defending Western Conference Champion Suns.