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Los Angeles Lakers optimistic Andre Drummond (toe) will return soon, sources say



There is optimism within the Los Angeles Lakers organization that newly acquired center Andre Drummond will not miss more than a game or two with the right big toe injury he suffered in his debut for the team, sources told ESPN.

Drummond, seen by many as the prize gem of the NBA buyout market, was forced to leave the Lakers’ 112-97 loss to Milwaukee early on Wednesday after Bucks center Brook Lopez inadvertently stepped on his right foot, causing the toenail on Drummond’s big toe to fall off.

The nine-year veteran was officially diagnosed with a bruised toe, and X-rays taken at the arena came back negative, according to the team.

The Lakers play on the road against the Sacramento Kings on Friday, then return to Staples Center for another “Battle for L.A.” showdown against the Clippers on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC), before embarking on a five-game East Coast trip.

It’s a crucial stretch for the defending champions, losers of five of their past seven games since LeBron James went out with a high-ankle sprain. Anthony Davis has also missed L.A.’s past 20 games while recovering from a calf strain and tendinosis in his right leg.

The Lakers (30-18) are currently No. 4 in the Western Conference but have only a half-game lead over the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, which both sport a 29-18 record. L.A. is four games up on the No. 7 Dallas Mavericks with 24 regular-season games remaining. Teams seeded Nos. 7-10 in both conferences will have a play-in tournament in May in order to determine the final two playoff spots.

“Just unfortunate to have this happen to me in the first game,” Drummond said Wednesday. “It kind of was a little deflating for me, but my head is high. I’m going to take it day by day and come back better than ever.”

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Assistant coach Jarron Collins moving on from Golden State Warriors, eyes head-coaching job



The Golden State Warriors and longtime assistant coach Jarron Collins have mutually agreed to part ways in his quest to pursue head-coaching and associate-head-coach opportunities, he told ESPN’s The Undefeated on Monday.

Collins joined the Warriors before the team’s 2014-15 NBA championship campaign as a player-development coach. The former NBA center was promoted to assistant coach in front of the Golden State bench during the 2015-16 season. Collins was the defensive coordinator for the Warriors the past two seasons and led the franchise to a fifth overall rating last season. The Warriors won three NBA titles during Collins’ tenure.

“This is about myself and my own personal growth,” Collins told ESPN’s The Undefeated. “I had a conversation with [head coach] Steve [Kerr] and the Warriors. I’ve been there seven years and coached Hall of Fame players. We’ve won championships. I learned so much. For me, this is about taking the next journey and next step in my career.

“Obviously, Steve Kerr is the head coach and Mike Brown is the lead assistant. It’s time for me to step out and see whatever opportunities are out there for me.”

Collins has interviewed for NBA head-coaching jobs with the Chicago Bulls in 2020, the Memphis Grizzlies in 2019 and Atlanta Hawks in 2018. He also turned down a lead assistant-coaching job under current Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins in 2019.

Kerr said Collins has “all the skills necessary” to be an NBA head coach.

Collins was highly respected and well-liked by the Warriors’ players. Warriors forward Draymond Green once described Collins’ defensive game plan as “[expletive] phenomenal” to the San Francisco Chronicle, while forward Marquese Chriss said it was “super beneficial” to have him in player development. Collins also developed a reputation for crafting easy-to-understand defensive game plans and his meticulous approach to watching game film.

“I’m going to really miss Jarron, both personally and professionally,” Kerr told The Undefeated in a statement. “He’s an excellent coach and a wonderful human being. It’s going to be different without him around, but he deserves the chance to continue his growth with the goal of ultimately becoming a head coach in the NBA. Jarron has all the skills necessary. He’s a great teacher and communicator, he’s smart and funny, and he knows the game.”

Collins has moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles with his wife, Elsa, and three children. He said that he has received some coaching interest from NBA teams. The Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic have head-coach openings. The former Stanford University star would also be open-minded to being a head coach on the college level.

“There has been conversations,” Collins said. “But I’m going to be deliberate and strategic with my next step. I want to be a head coach. We’re going to look at all levels. We will look at what opportunities are out there. I want to be a first-assistant coach or a head coach. I’m looking to take those next steps.”

Drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft, Collins played 10 seasons in the NBA for the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, LA Clippers and Blazers.

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NBA playoffs 2021 – What could shift Jazz-Clippers and every conference semifinal series



After no first-round series in the Eastern Conference went more than five games, here we are in the second round with two star-studded matchups.

Can the two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks get past the Brooklyn Nets‘ Big Three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden? How much will the Philadelphia 76ers get out of All-NBA big man Joel Embiid, who is day-to-day with a knee injury? What does Trae Young have for an encore after the Atlanta Hawks knocked out the New York Knicks?

In the Western Conference, the LA Clippers needed seven games to overcome Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, while the Phoenix Suns stunned the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to secure a second-round meeting with the Denver Nuggets.

MORE: Full NBA playoffs schedule, results and news


How the Jazz got here: The biggest obstacle the top-seeded Jazz had to clear in the first round was getting All-Star Donovan Mitchell back on the floor after he missed the final five weeks of the regular season with a sprained right ankle. Utah made Mitchell a late scratch for Game 1 — much to his displeasure — and that was the Jazz’s lone loss of the series.

Mitchell didn’t show much rust once he was cleared. He averaged 28.5 points and 5.8 assists as the Jazz swept the games he played, capped with his 30-point, 10-assist performance in the closeout game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Point guard Mike Conley was phenomenal against his former team, averaging 17.6 points and 8.6 assists per game while shooting 54.8% from 3-point range. However, his availability for the second round is uncertain after he suffered a mild strain in his right hamstring during Game 5. Conley missed nine games late in the season due to tightness in that hamstring.

How the Clippers got here: The Clippers survived despite losing their first three home games of the series against the Dallas Mavericks, winning Game 7 at Staples Center. Teams that fell in an 0-2 hole at home to open a series have now advanced in best-of-7 series only five times out of 32 occasions.

In doing so, the Clippers answered questions about their ability to respond to adversity that had loomed like black clouds since LA’s bubble collapse after building a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets.

Two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard had perhaps the best playoff series of his career. He became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 2000 NBA Finals to average at least 30 points while shooting better than 60% from the floor in a series, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Leonard was also the Clippers’ only good option to guard Mavs star Luka Doncic, holding him to 0.80 points per possession when Leonard was the primary defender.

Series keys: How will Rudy Gobert and the Jazz handle the Clippers’ small lineup?

The Clippers switched to that lineup midway through the first round against the Mavericks because it was their best chance to defend Doncic. It would make sense for LA to stick with it because playing five perimeter shooters forces Gobert to leave his comfort zone of the paint, mitigating the biggest strength of the Jazz’s defensive anchor.

Having five starters who can switch defensively also throws a wrench into the Jazz’s offense, which relies heavily on pick-and-rolls featuring Gobert screens. The Utah big man doesn’t have the post-up game to punish opponents for putting a smaller defender on him, so the Jazz tend to end up in more isolation situations than they’d prefer against switch-heavy defenses.

That puts an even heavier burden on Mitchell’s shoulders, especially if Conley isn’t available.

Of course, Mitchell has proven to be more than capable of carrying the Jazz offensively in the playoffs. His career postseason scoring average of 27.5 points per game ranks sixth all-time (minimum 25 playoff games). He’s averaged 33.5 points per game in the last two postseasons and is surrounded by more shooting than ever, creating more space for him to work when he has to go 1-on-1.

The Jazz’s bigger concerns might be on the other end of the floor, particularly if Gobert can’t dominate as a rim protector due to his responsibilities guarding a 3-point threat.

Utah’s Royce O’Neale has fared relatively well defending Leonard, who has averaged 24.5 points on only 35.4% shooting from the floor in their four matchups since O’Neale became a starter. But Leonard is a frightening matchup in any playoff series, particularly coming off his dominance against Dallas.

The Jazz’s regular starting five also doesn’t feature another wing defender suited to guard Paul George. However, it’s worth noting that Joe Ingles irritated George when the All-Star scored only five points on 2-of-16 shooting in a 2018 Game 6, when the Jazz closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder.

— Tim MacMahon

How the Suns got here: It had been 11 years since the Suns last won a playoff series, but they broke the streak in just about the most emphatic way possible: beating the defending champs, who happen to be the Los Angeles Lakers, who happen to have LeBron James. As the No. 2 seed, the Suns weren’t favored in the series, and it looked iffy after a dominant Game 1 win in which Chris Paul injured his right shoulder.

Paul labored in Game 2 but steadily progressed as the Suns leaned more on their impressive youth. Devin Booker is ascending, headed for the upper tiers of superstardom, but Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Phoenix’s cupboard of youth all rose to the occasion.

But it was Booker and his epic 47-point closeout performance in Game 6 that stamped the Suns through, and also sent the message ahead that Phoenix is to be taken very seriously.

How the Nuggets got here: The Nuggets hit their road bumps before the playoffs began, with their starting backcourt injured and leaving them leaning more than ever on the likely MVP, Nikola Jokic. They cobbled together a guard group featuring 30-year-old rookie Facundo Campazzo, and a guy that went almost two months out of the league in Austin Rivers. They got a massive boost from Monte Morris, who has risen as a stable backup point guard, and second-year forward Michael Porter Jr. is starting to scratch the surface of his ridiculous potential.

They had to overcome Damian Lillard and his relentless clutch ability, outlasting one of the greatest playoff performances ever in a double-overtime Game 5 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Without Jamal Murray and Will Barton, the Nuggets relied on their identity as tough, gritty, resilient playoff warriors, but more than anything, they just jumped on the back of Jokic.

As head coach Michael Malone said after Game 6, the Nuggets’ coaching staff could take the floor with Jokic, and he’d find a way to make them all good enough to have a chance.

Series key: A star-driven showdown

Both teams have unguardable players. It’s clear there isn’t any one player who can guard Booker right now. The Nuggets will try a collection of wings and forwards, throwing multiple looks at him with traps, blitzes and double-teams.

And on the other side, single coverage doesn’t work on Jokic either. As good as Ayton was in the opening round, albeit facing a banged-up Lakers frontcourt, he’ll face the ultimate test now. Foul trouble was a critical element for the Blazers in their coverage scheme against Jokic, and it’ll play a significant factor for the Suns. Ayton needs to be on the floor, because after him, the options for guarding Jokic don’t look so great. The Blazers tried an adjustment of going small with Robert Covington guarding Jokic, and the Suns could try a similar approach in a pinch with Jae Crowder. Smart doubles with help defense on a string is a curveball Suns head coach Monty Williams has available.

Beyond Jokic, what the Nuggets got from their role players against Portland will have to be amplified against Phoenix. The Suns have a host of talented wings and guards beyond Booker and Bridges, so the bench battle will be an intriguing undercard. Denver’s Morris was an unexpected X factor in the opening series; Phoenix’s Cameron Payne played a similar role against the Lakers.

At the core, though, this series is star-driven. Can Jokic shoulder the load once again, lifting his teammates higher while sustaining his own brilliant, efficient scoring? And can Booker continue to rise, building on his ruthless performance against the Lakers? And where does the Point God factor in — not to mention his health — taking over late in games, snaking around screens for tilted midrange magic?

— Royce Young


How the 76ers got here: A new man calling the shots (Daryl Morey), a new head coach (Doc Rivers) and a couple of new pieces (sharpshooters Seth Curry and Danny Green), plus the Sixers’ existing questions about their quick exit in 2019-20, made for a variance of opinions on where Philadelphia would be headed once the season started. All the Sixers did was finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference with Joel Embiid having an MVP-caliber season.

The biggest obstacle the Sixers face now surrounds Embiid’s health. Embiid was diagnosed with a small tear in his meniscus and his status is being described as day-to-day. Embiid did not play in the Game 5 closeout against the Washington Wizards because of the injury. Still, Philadelphia played its way into the top seed in the East with its stellar defense — it finished second in the league in defensive rating. Moving forward without Embiid’s status solidified, however, will make this series a tougher go.

How the Hawks got here: Perhaps the biggest challenge the Hawks faced was on March 1, when they parted ways with coach Lloyd Pierce. At that time, the Hawks were 14-20 and had a 14% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

But after Nate McMillan took over, the Hawks stormed to a 27-11 finish in the regular season, the best winning percentage (.711) in the East in that span — just a notch better than the 76ers (.703). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, McMillan became just the fifth coach in the past 20 seasons to take over a team midseason and win a playoff series the same year.

The Hawks also struggled with health for most of the season. According to Spotrac’s injury-tracking data, Atlanta players combined to miss 278 games this season, fourth most in the league and most for any team in the 2021 playoffs. While they are still missing Cam Reddish and Brandon Goodwin, they have the rest of the rotation in place and playing big roles. DeAndre Hunter’s defense against the New York Knicks was a big reason they were able to slow down All-Star and 2020-21 Most Improved Player Julius Randle.

Series keys: Who scores for Philly, and can Trae be stopped?

Against Washington, Tobias Harris shouldered the offensive burden for Philly, averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds in five games. Ben Simmons nearly averaged a triple-double (16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists), but struggled mightily from the line (10-of-28).

Even if Philadelphia plays it as safe as possible with Embiid’s injury, it will need even more from Harris, who averaged 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the regular season. To get by Atlanta, Philadelphia has to have Simmons get himself right at the free throw line.

In the regular season with Embiid sitting and Simmons, Harris, Curry and Green on the floor, Philadelphia’s defensive rating jumped to 114.8. The Sixers went 10-11 in the regular season in the games that Embiid missed.

Atlanta could put pressure on the defense the same way it did against the Knicks in the first round, but Philadelphia would be well-equipped to put size against Young on the defensive end. If Philadelphia throws Matisse Thybulle into the starting group, it would allow the Sixers to throw someone at Young who focuses the majority of his energy on the defensive end.

It’s hard to look at any of the three regular-season matchups between the teams as an indicator of what to expect in the playoffs. In the two back-to-back games in late April, the Hawks were missing Bogdan Bogdanovic and Hunter for one and those two plus Young for the other.

But as they proved against the Knicks, the Hawks won’t be pushovers. McMillan has shifted his rotations to ensure one of either Young or Bogdanovic is on the floor at all times, helping the offense tread water when Young sits — Bogdanovic can run point on the second unit with Lou Williams and provide the playmaking punch Atlanta had been missing at times.

— Andrew Lopez

How the Nets got here: The Nets were massive favorites heading into their first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics. And despite a sloppy performance in Game 3, Brooklyn never felt for a moment like it was in danger of losing the series on its way to winning in five games.

More importantly, after a regular season in which Durant, Harden and Irving played just eight games together, they spent the past couple of weeks practicing and playing, including in a hostile environment in Boston, invaluable time that will only aid Brooklyn as it heads into a titanic showdown with Milwaukee — a series that could become this year’s de facto NBA Finals.

One thing to monitor is the health of Jeff Green. While he has become a journeyman late in his career, Green’s versatility at both ends has made him a critical role player for Brooklyn, and it’s unclear how much he will be available against the Bucks with the plantar fascia strain that sidelined him for most of the first round.

But the Nets will go as far as Durant, Harden and Irving take them. And if their breeze through the first round is any indication, that could be all the way to a championship.

How the Bucks got here: When the Bucks chose to play things out over the final weekend of the regular season and ensure they would face the Miami Heat in the first round, they were chastised in many corners because they lined themselves up to take on the hardest possible opponent.

How did the Bucks respond? By producing the most shocking result of the first round, sweeping the Heat — a team that more than a few people said would knock out Milwaukee for a second year in a row — and dominating the final three games of the series. Point guard Jrue Holiday produced exactly the kind of results Milwaukee hoped he would when the Bucks swung for the fences to acquire him in the offseason. He averaged 15.3 points and 9.8 assists during the sweep.

Milwaukee’s reward is this showdown with the star-studded Nets — a matchup made more difficult by the loss of Donte DiVincenzo, as the third-year guard was lost for the playoffs with a foot injury in Game 3. That will leave coach Mike Budenholzer with an interesting choice of whom to replace him with in the starting lineup against Brooklyn. In Game 4 against Miami, the answer was Pat Connaughton.

But after the playoff disappointments of the past two years, the Bucks exorcised some demons by throttling the Heat. If they can beat the Nets, perhaps this will be the year Milwaukee finally breaks through.

Series key: Can Brooklyn handle Milwaukee’s size advantage?

In a series boasting so many stars, most would assume the most important matchup would be some combination of the six top players — Durant, Harden and Irving for Brooklyn and Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Holiday for Milwaukee — going against one another.

In truth, how Brooklyn’s porous interior defense will hold up against the size and strength of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez inside for Milwaukee could swing this series. The Nets have banished DeAndre Jordan to the end of the bench for the past several weeks and exclusively played small against the Celtics.

Boston’s Tristan Thompson was able to wreak havoc inside and on the boards, and he’s a far less threatening presence than Lopez, let alone Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee has made a subtle shift to have Lopez get back to playing more like he did in his days with the Nets early in his career, when he was a low-post masher instead of the stretch-5 he has morphed into.

The Nets also have no clear matchup for Antetokounmpo, as Durant isn’t strong enough to guard him and Green is hurt. Blake Griffin can draw charges on him but isn’t likely to hold up over a full series.

Meanwhile, at the other end, the Bucks have to solve their own impossible problem: How do you guard all the Nets? The biggest part of that equation is who Milwaukee decides to match Holiday with between Harden and Irving. Harden is, in many ways, the engine of Brooklyn’s offense, while Irving is going to attack in isolation — few players are better suited to guard him than Holiday, one of the league’s elite defensive guards.

The problem is the Bucks have only one of him. This is where the loss of DiVincenzo will have an impact, as he’s a solid defensive guard who could’ve played heavy minutes on either Irving or Harden.

Ultimately, what’s certain about this series is it could become a classic. As it plays out, there will be all sorts of chess moves to monitor over the course of what hopefully will be seven fascinating games.

— Tim Bontemps

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NBA playoffs 2021 – Which star was the MVP of the first round?



The opening round of the NBA playoffs is complete. And what a finale it was: a LA Clippers‘ clutch Game 7 performance against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks sent Kawhi Leonard, Paul George & Co. to a Western Conference semifinals meeting with the Utah Jazz.

Before the Clippers and Mavs duked it out, a host of other stars took care of business in the first round: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks swept the defending East champion Miami Heat, while the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers each needed just five games to reach the conference semifinals.

In the West, Devin Booker led the Phoenix Suns past the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Nikola Jokic‘s Denver Nuggets out-dueled Damian Lillard‘s Portland Trail Blazers in two exciting six-game battles. And Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the Jazz sent the Memphis Grizzlies home in five after Ja Morant staged a surprising Game 1 upset.

But which of those stars is the MVP of Round 1? Our panel of NBA experts makes its picks.

Doncic set the bar ridiculously high during his playoff debut last season, putting up massive numbers as the overmatched Mavericks pushed the Clippers to six games in the first round. He raised that bar in this postseason’s rematch between the teams, regardless of losing the series.

Carrying as heavy an offensive burden as anyone in the playoffs, Doncic averaged 35.7 points and 10.7 assists, a significant bump to his mind-boggling statistics (31.0 points, 8.7 assists) during his first NBA playoff appearance. And Doncic’s stats in this series are skewed by his rough Game 4 performance, when the cervical strain in his neck prevented him from even looking to his left without excruciating pain.

“Oh man, he did everything,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said.

Doncic did this with his supposed co-star, Kristaps Porzingis, reduced to a max contract role player. Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle determined that Porzingis can best help the Mavs attack the Clippers’ small-ball lineups by spacing the floor to maximize the room that Doncic has to work his magic.

Of course, the reason that the Clippers scrapped their regular starting lineup to go small is because Doncic is so dangerous. He put a bullseye on LA center Ivica Zubac so often early in the series — exploiting him over and over again on switches — that Clippers head coach Ty Lue had no choice but to banish the big man to the bench.

Doncic, who won titles with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team as a teenager, craves this kind of stage. He proved that in last season’s playoffs. No, the Mavs didn’t make it out of the first round, but his Game 4-winning, buzzer-beating step-back 3 to cap a 43-point triple-double was one of the bubble’s signature moments.

The Mavs fell short again Sunday despite Doncic accounting for 77 points (scoring 46 and dishing out 14 assists), the most ever in a Game 7.

“Even before this series started, I think he’s proven he’s a top-five player in the world,” Carlisle said. “This series certainly validates that.”

— Tim MacMahon

Last summer, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were humbled by the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs. An offseason of introspection followed, as well as changes to both the roster and Milwaukee’s approach. All of it was put to an immediate test in the first round, when the same matchup presented itself.

Antetokounmpo responded by leading Milwaukee to the most surprising, and most impressive, result of Round 1: a four-game sweep of the defending Eastern Conference champions, including the final three games all in runaway fashion.

Antetokounmpo’s stat line was far from perfect — he shot 45.9 percent from the field, and 1-for-16 from 3-point range — but what stood out about his performance was the way he, and by extension the Bucks, confronted their past demons.

After being criticized in the past for not taking on the challenge of guarding the opposition’s best player at times, Antetokounmpo guarded Jimmy Butler for much of the series, and Butler struggled, shooting 19-for-64 over the four games. Meanwhile, after the Heat successfully created a wall that repeatedly frustrated Antetokounmpo in last year’s playoffs, he had an impressive 31-12 assist to turnover ratio in the first round, including a 15-assist masterpiece (with just two turnovers) in Game 4.

That series alone won’t change everything that’s happened to Milwaukee the past two years. Only winning this series against the Nets — and two more beyond it — will fully change that chatter. But for a team that has so much on the line this postseason, the first round rematch with the Heat offered an opportunity for both Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to produce the same old story, or to write a completely new script.

It didn’t take long for them to show this year may be different. And it was Antetokounmpo, as always, who led the way.

— Tim Bontemps

The Maestro of Madison Square Garden impressed in his first playoff appearance. Analysts long wondered whether Young’s small stature would become an issue against defenses that had the opportunity to plan how to get the ball out of his hands and offenses that targeted him on switches.

So far, the answer is Young has been better than ever in the postseason, producing a combined 52 PPG between his own scoring and points generated by his assists, the fourth-highest total in the opening round.

Young’s finish in this list reflects both the quantity of his contributions and their timeliness. Making his postseason debut, he scored 13 points and handed out three assists in the fourth quarter of a taut Game 1 at the Garden, capped by the winning floater with less than a second remaining and the game tied. All told, Young scored 41 points in 40 fourth-quarter minutes, tied with Memphis Grizzlies guard Morant for the most in the final frame during the first round.

As impressive, Young delivered repeatedly in a hostile environment, with Knicks fans chanting at him from before tipoff to when he shushed them at the end of Game 1 and took a bow following Atlanta’s deciding Game 5 road win. On the NBA’s most famed stage, Young conducted the show from start to victorious finish.

— Kevin Pelton

If anyone needed a reminder of Leonard’s greatness — and more specifically, playoff greatness — Games 6 and 7 are the latest installments into the lore.

The 45-point performance in Game 6, on 18-for-25 shooting, while also taking on the primary second half assignment of guarding Doncic, should be the kind of game that goes down as an all-timer in a road elimination game.

The Game 6 wizardry would be moot without an encore, and Leonard delivered again. He dropped 28 points on another ridiculously efficient 10-for-15 shooting, adding 10 rebounds and 9 assists, along with more individual defensive excellence on Doncic (even though Doncic did score 46).

For the Clippers, it was a potential defining moment for the franchise, backed into a corner with the memes and jokes ready to roll, and the front office potentially tasked with harsh reality after another early postseason exit. And for Leonard, too, it could forced some unexpected evaluation of his own future, asking questions of the supporting cast in LA or if this whole thing was the right move after all.

But Leonard rescued the Clippers from it, at least for another few weeks. He came alive at the moment the Clippers had to have him, responding to a subpar Game 5 that put their backs against the wall. He has established himself as one of the players to fear most in a Game 7, because in a game that can hinge on emotional swings of momentum, Leonard’s robotic killer instinct shines through it.

— Royce Young

Technically speaking, Lillard’s 55-point masterpiece in Game 5 against Denver was not enough. The Nuggets won and went on to eliminate the Blazers in Game 6. But here’s the thing, Lillard’s incredible shooting outburst proved he’s one of the most lethal crunch-time performers this league has ever seen. If that’s not valuable, I don’t know what is.

Lillard broke the record for most 3-pointers ever in a series in just six games, but his team failed to match his intensity and his execution. He deserves a better supporting cast, one that complements him with better defense and more interior scoring.

It would be great to see Dame Time in the NBA Finals, but unless his supporting cast gets better, that won’t happen.

– Kirk Goldsberry

Booker delivered an all-time performance in Game 6 as his Suns closed out the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. Booker’s 47 points — on 15-for-22 shooting with eight 3-pointers — was a masterful final act as he closed out his first ever playoff series. Oh, and he did it while playing 46 minutes, staying hot until the end.

Following the game, Booker told reporters that he was thinking about Lakers legend Kobe Bryant throughout the night and the conversations the two had previously.

“So seeing that 8 and that 24 up there, with the way that the lighting at Staples has right here, it feels like it’s shining down on you,” Booker said. “And I know he was here tonight. I know he was here tonight. I know he’s in the building. I know he was proud.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 47 points are tied for the most in a player’s first career series-clinching opportunity. He’s tied with Anthony Davis — who played just five minutes for the Lakers in Game 6 before leaving with his groin injury — who had 47 in a closeout game against the Trail Blazers in 2018.

Booker scored 30 points or more four times in the series and really had to shoulder the load for Phoenix as point guard Chris Paul was dealing with an injured right shoulder. After the Suns fell down 2-1 to the Lakers, Booker averaged 31.3 points and 8.3 rebounds on .559/.524/.944 shooting splits in Phoenix’s three consecutive series-clinching wins.

— Andrew Lopez

Others receiving votes:

Deandre Ayton, Suns; Kevin Durant, Nets; James Harden, Nets; Nikola Jokic, Nuggets; Khris Middleton, Bucks; Donovan Mitchell, Jazz.

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