NBA playoff notebook: The case for postseason awards

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 15:  Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets celebrates against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Five of the Second Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center on June 15, 2021 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant's incredible postseason run will be nothing more than a footnote in the NBA history books. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

As I watched the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers battle in the Western Conference Finals this week, I thought about the amazing job Tyronn Lue has done in these playoffs, guiding his team past the first two rounds despite trailing 2-0 in both series and losing Kawhi Leonard to a knee injury. I watched as Devin Booker tossed his mask and took over for stretches in Game 6, cementing an iconic first postseason run with a trip to the Finals. The list goes on.

There are so many postseason accomplishments that we celebrate in the moment but forget about as time fades away. In 50 years, we’ll look back at these playoffs and remember the championship team, look up the Finals MVP, and that will be it. The amazing individual performances of the early rounds, the chess matches between coaches, the signature games which defined careers, those will become footnotes.

But what if they weren’t? If we can hand out awards for the regular season, why can’t we do the same for the playoffs? To me, awards exist for two reasons: for basketball fans to engage in months-long debates and as a way to historically document a season. A basketball fan can look up the 2020-21 season, see Julius Randle on the All-NBA Second Team and as the Most Improved Player, and immediately realize he had a breakout year. We should celebrate and remember the playoffs in the same way.

Consider the All-NBA First Team this season. The five players voted to the team were Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic. These were, based on the voting, the five best players of the regular season. But these aren’t the five best players of the playoffs. It would be fun to go through past years to determine the All-NBA Postseason First Teams (yes, this is mostly a thought exercise to get Kyle Lowry more recognition for his 2019 postseason run).

Let’s use these playoffs as an example. Just like the regular season, the number of games played matters. So, the deeper you go in the postseason, the more consideration you receive. For example, Dame Lillard’s 55-point explosion against the Denver Nuggets in the first round holds less weight than Kevin Durant’s one-man takeover against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2. Luka Doncic was incredible against the Clippers but should be penalized because the Dallas Mavericks lost in the first round. You get the point.

So, who would be the All-NBA First Team of the 2020-21 playoffs? I’m going with Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Durant, Booker, and Paul George. My All-NBA Second Team would be Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton and Jokic.

We could extend all of the regular season awards into the postseason. Congrats to Tom Thibodeau for winning Coach of the Year, but the playoff award would go to Lue. Most Improved Player of the playoffs? Reggie Jackson is a no-brainer pick to me.

Put both sets of awards together, and it’s a fun way to flip through past NBA seasons on Wikipedia at 3 a.m. (I’m the only person who does this? Okay.), scan the regular season and playoff awards and remember the most significant moments from not just the 82-game schedule, but the two-month playoff race.

Like Draymond Green once famously said: “There are 82-game players, then there are 16-game players.”

We should also have 82-game awards and 16-game awards.

Steve Ballmer, please explain this celebration

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By the way, shoutout to the Clippers for a truly incredible postseason run. It looked like the same old Clippers again after they fell behind 2-0 to the Mavs in the first round, but this group was resilient as hell and ended up just two wins short of making the Finals, even after Leonard went out in the middle of the second round. The playoffs aren’t the place for moral victories, but the Clippers have to be thrilled to put last year’s postseason collapse behind them.

Assuming Leonard — who has a player option this summer and can become a free agent — returns to the team as most expect, the Clippers can enter Year 3 of the Leonard-George partnership knowing they’re capable of making a deep playoff run, and have a head coach who will give them the best chance to win in a seven-game series against any team. It’s a better starting point than most teams will have heading into the 2021-22 season.

One more post-mortem note on the Clippers

It is a shame the final memory of this playoff run (well, aside from whatever Ballmer’s celebration was) will be Patrick Beverley delivering a two-hand shove to Paul near the end of Game 6 of the Western Conference final:

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People will applaud Beverley for his physical play and ability to get under the opposing player’s skin, but in this series, the Clippers guard head-butted Booker and broke his nose; had a dangerous play against Paul in Game 5 where the two collided, sending the Suns guard to the floor; a flagrant foul on Ayton in Game 6; and the aforementioned two-hand shove.

I’ve watched many great defensive players bring the same energy and physicality, which Beverley is applauded for, but somehow I don’t see them participating in dangerous and reckless plays every single game. When Beverley plays basketball, he can be a great antagonist and a positive for his team. But the two-hand shove wasn’t basketball, and neither were half a dozen other plays we saw from him in this series.

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