- The NBA playoffs are rolling along, but let's reflect on the best performers of the first round before we jump ahead.
With the Jazz finishing off what remains of the Clippers on Sunday afternoon, we’re all finished up with a thoroughly entertaining first round. The stars shone bright. Role players stepped up. And now we’re onto the second round, where all four matchups are each uniquely intriguing. But before we leave the first round in the past entirely, we recognize its five best players.
5. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City (lost to Houston 4–1)
Unsurprisingly, Westbrook is the only player on an eliminated team to make this list. His inclusion, of course, is certainly open for debate, too. His team lost, he shot under 40% overall (just 26.5% from downtown), and his fourth quarters were unsightly. Consider this: In Oklahoma City’s best chance to really make the Rockets sweat—Game 2, which the Thunder led by three heading into the fourth—Westbrook went 2 of 17 from the field in the final 12 minutes. He put up absurd numbers overall, though, as the round’s leading scorer and assister and second-leading rebounder. You can argue either way. Point to some numbers and maybe he’s the best player from this round. Point to others and he doesn’t even belong on the list. It’s pretty much a synopsis of his season a whole. Ultimately, his team lost in five games, which doesn’t help his cause, but no one did as much for his team as Russell Westbrook, even if that was by design.
4. James Harden, Houston (defeated Oklahoma City 4–1)
The Rockets and their free-firing offense overwhelmed Westbrook’s Thunder, and Harden’s well-rounded game helped fuel it. By The Beard’s standards, he didn’t have a great series shooting the ball—he shot just 24% from three—but he averaged over 33 points and seven assists per game, and he got to the foul line a playoff-leading 73 times. Will he have to be better against the Spurs in Round 2? Absolutely. But in Round 1, not only did Harden eliminate his biggest contender for MVP, but he continued to facilitate Mike D’Antoni’s unprecedented three-point heavy offense even without his shot falling.
3. John Wall, Washington (defeated Atlanta 4–2)
Not a single player made more shots or had more assists in the first round than John Wall. After an outstanding regular season, Wall found a new level against the Hawks, shooting 52.5% after shooting just 45.1% in the regular season. It wasn’t always easy to watch Wall—Game 5 started at 6 p.m. EST on a Wednesday, and the Wizards played one NBA TV game and one ESPNU (!!!) game—but he saved his best for the closeout Game 6. The Wizards’ star—yes, star—poured in 42 points on 16-of-25 shooting in Atlanta to send the Hawks on vacation. He gets bonus points for trash-talking everyone from Dennis Schroder to Julio Jones to Migos.
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio (defeated Memphis 4–2)
Kawhi’s best moment wasn’t even in a win. It was his unbelievable stretch in Game 4, which the Grizzlies eventually won in overtime (props to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley for an outstanding series). Kawhi outscored the Grizzlies 24–22 over the final six minutes of regulation and finished with an absurd 43 points. The numbers often don’t tell the story for Kawhi—as they rarely did for Tim Duncan—but this series was an exception: fourth in scoring while shooting almost 55% from the field and almost 97% from the foul line. As Memphis coach David Fizdale put it, he might not be human. Then again, as Gregg Popovich put it, he might be the best player on the planet.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland (defeated Indiana 4–0)
Do we take LeBron’s greatness for granted? This playoffs marks the 10-year anniversary of 22-year-old LeBron leading the 2007 Cavaliers to the Finals. The second-best player on that team was Zydrunas Ilgauskas. It might be the worst team to ever make a Finals. And, for emphasis once again, LeBron was 22! But I digress: A decade later, Lebron is turning back the clock despite playing the 10th-most minutes in the NBA this regular season at 32 years old. His 32.8 points per game against the Pacers was his highest mark in the first round since 2009 and the most he’s averaged in the playoffs since the 2015 Finals when both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were hurt. He helped engineer the greatest comeback in playoff history in Game 3. He just doesn’t stop playing, doesn’t stop producing, doesn’t stop winning in the first round, and as he showed against Indiana, when he’s on, there’s not much that can stop him.