Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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NBA Playoffs All First-Round: Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson lead first team; LeBron James secures second team

With the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ 106-94 victory over the Orlando Magic in Game 7 on Sunday, the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs is officially in the books. 

While the second round has actually gotten underway with the Minnesota Timberwolves beating the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal matchup on Saturday, let’s take this short window between now and Monday night — when we’ll have two more second-round games — to take a look back at the best performers of the playoffs so far in the form of my first, second and third All First-Round teams.

FIRST TEAM

There was a moment in Game 2 of Minnesota’s first-round slamming of the Phoenix Suns when I thought, for a second, we had burned Edwards’ hand by trying to pass the torch too fast. My bad. Yeah, Edwards’ Game 2 numbers don’t look like the rest of the series — three buckets on 12 shots for 15 points — but he made correct play after correct play as Phoenix sent multiple defenders at him from every direction. 

The patience alone, with all the adrenaline carried over from a 33-point Game 1 in which Edwards was all but wagging his Michael Jordan tongue at his basketball idol Kevin Durant, was superstar stuff as he was busy leveraging Phoenix’s defense into rotation with powerful skip passes and kick-outs to shooters. 

By the end of a four-game sweep, there was absolutely no doubt who the best player was as Edwards came out averaging 31 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals on 51/44 shooting splits with elite defense. Oh by the way, Edwards has already taken the second round by storm as well with a career playoff high 43 points in Minnesota’s statement Game 1 win in Denver. 

Coming into New York’s first-round series with the Sixers, Brunson, over 308 career games including the playoffs, had only attempted more than 25 shots in a single game 18 times — which equates to less than 6% of his games. He did it in all six games against the Sixers, averaging — averaging! — 29 shots a game with New York facing a scoring void in the absence of Julius Randle

Brunson delivered in what was to this point a career-defining performance, averaging 35 points for the series and 42 over the final four games. Brunson’s 47 in Game 4 stands as a Knicks playoff record. He wasn’t at his most efficient, making just 30% of his 3’s and 42% of his shots overall. He was 12-for-55 through the first two games. 

But he never once lifted his foot off the gas. He kept probing in his patented fits and starts, kept hunting and taking his shots, and finished with a 41-point, 12-assist, two-turnover gem in the closeout Game 6, becoming just the 10 player in history to record three straight road playoff games with at least 35 points. 

The Nuggets won their nail-bitingly close first-round series against the Lakers in the fourth quarter, where Jokic converted on 64% of his shots and led the playoffs in assists at 2.6 (per fourth quarter). 

It might’ve felt like Jamal Murray’s series because of the two game-winners, and it’s true that Jokic, even with the bonkers numbers I’m about to list, wasn’t at his best consistently. But come on. The dude put up 28.2 points, 16.2 rebounds, 9.8 assists and 1.2 steals on 59% shooting, and had the wherewithal to allow Murray to take control when appropriate. 

Even in defeat, Embiid managed to turn in the best playoff performance of his career despite playing on essentially one leg with a face impacted by Bell’s palsy. Embiid averaged 33 points, just under 11 rebounds and six assists, and added nine blocks and seven steals for the series. 

He was not, in my opinion, quite as great as those numbers would suggest. New York did him a favor with so many automatic double teams as I think he was getting a little clumsy and flailing with some of his one-on-on forays, which were bailed out multiple times with bogus whistles. Tyrese Maxey bailed Embiid out of a stinker Game 5 performance (19 points on 19 shots) with seven points in 20 seconds, though Embiid was terrific in that overtime and certainly came to play with 39 and 13 in the Game 6 defeat. 

Ultimately, Embiid did end up properly punishing single coverage when the Knicks tried it out as the series went on. I would’ve made him do that on a more consistent basis, but hey, the Knicks did what they did and won the series. Fair play. 

And in the end, the Knicks won because of the minutes Embiid didn’t play. This was about as close as a series could possibly be: 650-649 in favor of the Knicks, who over six games outscored the Sixers by 47 points with Embiid on the bench. In a one-point total differential, that means the Sixers outscored the Knicks by 46 points when Embiid was on the floor. He was great. The play on Mitchell Robinson was disgustingly dirty, but he was great. And he was hurt. Let’s give the guy his props. 

There are strong cases for Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving for this spot, but I’m going with Mitchell because while Irving and Doncic were able to tag team the Clippers, Mitchell did it all for the Cavs in their seven-game survival against a stout Orlando defense. My colleague Jack Maloney said it perfectly in our chat room during Game 7: Cleveland looked like an eighth-grade team with one awesome player. 

Mitchell, of course, was that awesome player, putting up 39 points in Game 7 after putting up 50, including all 18 of Cleveland’s fourth quarter points, in the Game 6 loss. You put up 89 points against Jalen Suggs in the final two games of a seven-game series, you get First-Team honors.

Cleveland looked pretty close to buried on Sunday, trailing by as many as 18 in the second quarter. But it was Mitchell, who started off cold, who hit the gas to cut that lead to 10 at halftime before exploding for 16 points in the third quarter. That swung the game, and Cleveland never lost the lead again. 

SECOND TEAM

Irving averaged 26.5 points on 65% true-shooting. His 120 second half points led all players in the first round, and his 58 fourth-quarter points was second only to Tyrese Maxey. Irving has a strong first-team case, but as I said, Mitchell didn’t have the luxury of a superstar co-pilot. 

It’s the same reason Jayson Tatum gets left off both the first- and second-team, because Boston, though Tatum is the focal point, did it by committee. Irving and Doncic did it together. 

Doncic averaged 30-9-8 in Dallas’ first-round victory, so let’s not split too many hairs. But he didn’t shoot well, just 40% overall and 24% from 3. He was 1-for-10 from deep in the closeout game. Again, this was a tag-team situation. Doncic and Irving combined for 338 points against the Clippers. That’s the highest combined scoring total for any duo playing its first playoff series together in NBA history. It’s too hard to differentiate for First-Team honors, so they both get Second Team. 

LeBron was magnificent in the Lakers’ five-game loss to the Nuggets, which is a deceiving result as L.A. led for over 150 minutes of the series against Denver’s 50. Give him the benefit of the round-up and James was good for 28 points, nine assists and seven rebounds per game on 57% shooting. 

L.A. simply couldn’t hang on for 48 minutes against a better Denver team, but don’t blame the blown leads on James, who tallied 49 fourth-quarter points over five games. Anthony Davis, meanwhile, made just five total buckets over five fourth quarters in the series. 

Davis has to do so much for L.A. to put up the fight it did against Denver. He was sensational defensively, and though his fourth-quarter scoring fell off a cliff (just five baskets over five fourth quarters), overall his performance has to net second-team recognition. The guy averaged 28 points and 16 rebounds on 63% shooting. He blocked eight shots and changed countless others. He played with one arm for much of the second half of the closeout game and still battled to contest shots and clean up the boards. It was an awesome series for Davis. 

Maxey was brilliant vs. New York, averaging 30 points and seven assists while giving us the modern Reggie Miller moment with seven points in 20 seconds to pull the Sixers out of the coffin in Game 5. Maxey had a bit of a rough Game 6, but overall he was so dynamic throughout this series as Embiid was double-teamed and had trouble finding rhythm for sometimes long stretches, and he was clutch beyond belief. Maxey’s 62 fourth-quarter points led the first round, and he did it on 59% shooting while making six of his 10 3’s.

THIRD TEAM

Williams was the best player in OKC’s sweep of the Pelicans. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored more, but OKC’s defense was stifling and Williams was right in the middle of it, making life a living hell on the Pels’ shot creators. He had seven steals in four games, and he averaged 21/7/5 on 62% true-shooting.

Williams is an elite shot creator. Not a good one. An elite one. He can get to his mid-range pull-up with the ease of a healthy Kawhi Leonard. He has that kind of last-step separation, force and body control. Williams will be an All-Star before long, and we’re seeing why on the biggest stage. 

It’s tough relegating a guy who is the first player in history to hit two game-winning shots in the final five seconds in the same series to Third-Team honors, but who are you going to take off the second team? Don’t say LeBron or Davis, because they had a lot more on their shoulders than Murray and still put up significantly better numbers. 

Murray was really good, don’t get me wrong. He owned fourth quarters in addition to the game-winners, but overall he only shot 40% and 29% from 3. He had the luxury of only dominating late, while LeBron and Davis had to do it all game. 

The Wolves outscored the Suns by an average of 15 points per game when Gobert was on the floor, and even that number is contextual and doesn’t do justice to his impact. He did everything Minnesota needed, finishing around the rim, drawing attention as a roller, making plays in the short roll, and defensively, forget about it. 

At one point or another, Gobert switched onto every Suns star and not only held his own, but he actually won the matchup plenty. He had Kevin Durant in jail a couple times. He was so effective in space as the Suns tried time and again to attack him when they probably should’ve been happy to have dragged him away from the rim and moved the ball to someone else with a driving lane. 

Don’t fall for the fact that he tallied less than a block per game. If you watched this series, you know how many shots Gobert changed, and that’s to say nothing of the terrific balance he struck in drop coverage, helping contain the drive while recovering back to break up or deter lobs. It was a terrific series for Gobert, who was game for every lineup — yes, even the small ones — that Phoenix tried to use to expose him. 

Another guy that feels like he belongs on the Second Team, Banchero averaged 27 points and shot 40% from 3 in Orlando’s seven-game loss to Cleveland. He was phenomenal in the first half of Game 7, when Orlando built an 18-point lead. 

Banchero joined LeBron James as the only players age 21 or younger to score 20-plus points in the first half of a Game 7. James score 21 against Detroit in 2006 and wound up with 27. Banchero scored 24 on Sunday and wound up with 38, his third 30-point game of the series. 

In some ways this feels like over-rewarding a role player who benefitted from the opportunities created by his star teammate, much like Andre Iguodala getting Finals MVP in 2015 over Stephen Curry. But Hart was too awesome. There is no way the Knicks win a series in which they outscored the Sixers by a single point over almost 300 minutes without him. 

Hart is such an insane rebounder for his size. He grabbed at least 13 boards four times in the series and scored over 20 three times. Not one time in the regular season did Hart make four 3-pointers in a game; he did it three times vs. Philly. 

Honorable Mention

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