In the NBA, the playoffs are truly a second season. There are no more back-to-backs, but there are also no more rest games for players. Also, there are no more sub-.400 teams on the schedule. To recover from a bad loss in the postseason, requires returning to the court 48 hours later and playing against the very same good-very good team. The coaching staff isn’t split up scouting different teams, all of their professional brain power is devoted to breaking down the same roster over the course of two weeks.
The energy required to get through this gauntlet of four best-of-seven series is at least equal to what is necessary to get through an 82 game regular season. It’s a brutal road, but highly entertaining television.
While free agents know that a couple of key performances this time of year can result in a significant raise, they’re not going to do anything that might jeopardize their chance at an NBA Championship. These competitors want their money, but part of the reason that they’re professional athletes is a burning desire to win.
While no honor means anything at this point in the season except for that championship trophy, those players who stood out among the best of the best deserve some acknowledgement for how well they performed
2 / 8
His NBA finals performance left much to be desired, but for most of the postseason he ran the Celtics’ offense like his name was Rajon Rondo. It’s not that he simply passed out of double teams as their most dynamic player, he intentionally set his teammates up for the best shots possible. Every game he was the person who was charged with running the offense, as opposed to his previous postseason work on offense, holding the ball and attempting a field goal late in the shot clock.
Tatum’s play allowed Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and others to take advantage of good looks and the Celtics offense ran far more smoothly than it has in the past few seasons. Also on defense, his presence was a force that all opposing teams would have to deal with. This wasn’t a screen him off and he’ll become less engaged type of a situation. Tatum was going to fight as hard possible chasing some of the best wings in the NBA while being a primary ball handler. His second-half Game 6 performance in Milwaukee is the only reason that the Celtics were able to get to the finals. Tatum showed that he can be the leader of a team that advances deep into the postseason, and there was precious little evidence of that before April 2022.
3 / 8
With his large frame he still needs to improve vastly on defense, but on offense Dončić is unstoppable. From Game 5 in the first-round through the Western Conference Finals, he showed that he has the potential to go down as one of the better players in NBA history.
The Mavericks advanced past the first round for the first time in his four-year NBA career — and for the first time since the franchise won its only championship in 2011. They pulled off a stunning upset of the Phoenix Suns, and in more than double the amount of games Dončić has ever played in a postseason, he shined. While his scoring average and efficiency from the field decreased, his free throw percentage greatly improved, and he committed 1.3 less turnovers per game than he did the postseason prior, and 1.7 fewer than he did in the 2020 postseason bubble.
We finally got to see Dončić in high stakes game outside of the first round. It can be argued that he was the best player in both the Mavericks’ second-round series against the Suns, and in the Western Conference Finals. He helped eliminate the Suns in Game 7 by scoring as many points, 27, as they did in the entire first half. In Game 2 and 3 against the Warriors he scored 40 points in both gams on 50-plus percent shooting, trying with all his might — but still failing — to keep from going down 3-0. This is a future MVP candidate and with Christian Wood now on the Mavericks, expect them to be a force in 2022-23.
4 / 8
He only played in two series this postseason, but it was abundantly clear that he is the best player in the league. His Bucks pushed the Celtics to seven games without their 6-foot-7, 20 point scoring, 37-plus percent from 3-point shooting all-star —Khris Middleton. As they were stomping the Chicago Bulls in the first round and the Boston Celtics were on their way to sweeping the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks got kicked in the calf when Middleton went down in the Bulls’ series with a sprained MCL.
They were forced to do battle with the best defensive team in the NBA with down a top scorer. In response, Antetokounmpo scored 40 points in three of the seven games. On the road, this career 29.8 percent 3-point shooter canned the long-range shot that closed the Game 5 deficit to a one possession game that the Bucks would eventually win. In the next game, he scored 44 points and shot 93.3 percent from the free throw line, desperately trying to close the Celtics out in Game 6 at home.
Antetokounmpo was the only player in this postseason who looked like man nor beast could stop him from doing what he wanted to do on the court. Without the regular season Brook Lopez injury, and/or Middleton in the playoffs, this team repeats as NBA Champions.
5 / 8
Roy Jones Jr.’s, “Y’all must’ve forgot,” must have been playing in his headphones all postseason, because Curry played like we forgot who is the best shooter in the history of the NBA. Opposing defenses are always going to gravitate to Curry, because he’s lit up like Times Square on opposing scouting reports.
Curry is like Barry Bonds was in the Bay Area two decades ago, capable of destroying the opposition with distance. Those McCovey Cove home runs are Curry’s 30-foot threes, and he washed them over opponents all postseason. He put the Memphis Grizzlies away late in Game 6, and was a steadying presence against the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Sure he was shooting over 40 percent from three, but he was also getting recognition for his defense, refusing to get picked on by the Mavs.
Then against the Celtics, he singed the nets in San Francisco and Boston. Outside of Game 5, there wasn’t much the Celtics could do with him as the 34-year-old (shout to the high school class of 2006) captured a fourth NBA Championship and his first finals MVP.
6 / 8
The Miami Heat weren’t the most entertaining bunch to watch throughout the season, and their postseason didn’t get truly compelling until the final few minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They put the Atlanta Hawks in a rear-naked choke, and the Philadelphia 76ers had nothing left after tying their second-round series against the Heat at two games apiece.
However, the Heat appeared finished against the Celtics after losing two consecutive lifeless games in the conference finals, going down 3-2. With the Celtics having a chance to close out at home, Butler played arguably the best game of the entire 2022 postseason. In a literal must-win game Butler scored 47 points on 55.2/50/100 shooting splits, and also tallied eight rebounds, nine assists, and four steals with only a single turnover and personal foul. That amazing performance was his second 40-point game on 55-plus percent shooting against the Celtics.
Butler can’t do it every night. His body won’t allow him to, and if he’s on your fantasy basketball team you are well aware of how much time he misses during the regular season. However, when he’s at his best, he can produce as well as any player in the NBA. It may not look like Curry, Dončić, or even Ja Morant, but it’s just as unstoppable. It wasn’t just the 2020 bubble, Butler is a player a team can count on the same way they would any superstar in NBA history.
7 / 8
NBA Michael Jordan postseason MVP: Stephen Curry
NBA Michael Jordan postseason MVP: Stephen Curry
I’m sure this honor means nothing to MJ, but the best postseason performer in NBA history deserves something since the two people he wanted to beat most both now have trophies named after them. This is a person who averaged 33.4 points on 48.7/33.2/82.8 shooting splits in 179 postseason games, and was also a dominant defensive player. He has some of the best postseason performances in wins — 55 points in a finals game against the Suns — and losses — 63 points against the 1985-86 Celtics. While a few decades later we can acknowledge that him punching and cursing out teammates is not the way we should behave in a civilized society, he owned spring in the NBA for much of his career
Curry’s legacy was far from consensus prior to the 2021-22 season. He had long been crowned the best shooter in NBA history, but where did that place him among the legends of the league? He didn’t really have a signature postseason moment in the Warriors 2015, 2017, and 2018 championships, nor a finals MVP.
In 2022, it was Curry or bust for the Warriors, and he took them back to where they hadn’t been since Zion Williamson wasn’t even considered the best high school player in America as a senior — champions. He closed out the Grizzlies, put the Mavericks down 3-0, and gave the Warriors much needed CPR to tie the finals at 2-2 with one of the greatest individual efforts in finals history — 43 points, 24 in the second half on 63.6/83.3/83.3 shooting splits. He was amazing in five of the six finals games, laying to rest any thought that his championships should be diminished.
Curry made an outside-in style of play one of the most feared in NBA history. There’s no bully in his game, and yet still torments his opponents. The Warriors, with a healthy team, were still as much of a one-man band on offense as the Bucks were without Middleton. Yet, Curry managed keep the offense humming, score efficiently with 30-plus points per game on 50 percent shooting, and when the Celtics focused their entire defense on him in Game 5, he dished out seven assists and turned the ball over once.
Curry missed the final 12 games of the regular season and was not even in the starting lineup for the first four games of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Denver Nuggets. It was looking like another 2016 situation with his health failing him at the worst possible time. Instead, he played like Jordan, Magic, Bird, Duncan, and all the other stars of NBA Championship teams of the past. He made his teammates’ lives easier and took control of the game when necessary. In college at a small Division I program — Davidson— his shoulders couldn’t even hold his jersey. A decade and a half later, those shoulders have carried one of the most successful runs in NBA history.