Last week was a historic, and deeply important, week in NBA history. On Wednesday, players on the Milwaukee Bucks decided against playing Game 5 of its first round series with the Magic as a means of protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wis who was shot by police on Aug. 23. The decision by the Bucks reignited a wave of social justice protests around the sports world as players from the WNBA, MLB and MLS decided not to play in some of their scheduled contest on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
On Saturday, the NBA resumed play, but not until after the players pushed for more change. As part of the return process, the league and the NBPA released a joint-statement saying that they would resume action during the weekend, but only as both parties immediately established a social justice coalition, converted arena facilities into voting locations and created and included advertising spots in playoff games that promote great civic engagement.
With almost every team entering its second series, we take a look at who is trending up and who is trending down enter round two. However, it’s also important to recognize how players around the league are using their platforms to enact positive change.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder
Chris Paul and the Thunder forced a Game 7 with their win over the Rockets Monday night. The veteran guard scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter of OKC’s victory, including a pair of free throws which split an 100-100 tie with 13.1 seconds to play. In OKC’s three victories over Houston, the 10-time All-Star has scored 26, 26 and 28 points respectively and made key plays in the second half of each contest. But for all Paul’s on-court production, and no matter how this first round series ends, his current contributions extend far beyond basketball. Last week, he helped lead a meeting in which players discussed how they planned to proceed in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting. Paul and LeBron James were also part of small group of players who also consulted former President Barack Obama for advice on how to make tangible positive change.
9. Utah Jazz
The Jazz let a comfortable 3-1 series lead slip away. While Denver has struggled containing Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz defense has had made Jamal Murray look like a future NBA superstar. Would it be surprising if Utah advanced past the Nuggets? No, absolutely not. However, the Jazz’s wing depth has been exposed and the team is short on playmakers. Mitchell has scored more than 40 points three times this series. He may be called upon to replicate a superstar performance in Game 7.
8. Houston Rockets
Russell Westbrook had a late turnover in Houston’s Game 6 loss to OKC and will remain on a minutes restriction in Game 7. James Harden accounted for five turnovers in the defeat. The Rockets still have the star power, and overall roster talent, but Harden and his teammates will need to avoid another careless close-out game if they want to keep their title hopes alive
7. Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray helped Denver stave off elimination on Sunday night, scoring 50 points to force a Game 7 with Utah. Murray is in the midst of a historic run and he became just the third player in NBA history to score 50 points in an elimination game. Following Denver’s Game 6 victory, the 23-year-old guard was also overcome by emotion.
"I play with a lot of heart, play with a lot of passion," he told TNT. “And when you're fighting for something, it means a whole lot more. And we've been fighting this fight for a long time, and we're tired of being tired.”
It should no longer be shocking to say that the Miami Heat could legitimately win the Eastern Conference. And on Monday night, they showed why. The Heat fought off an 11-point first-quarter deficit to the Bucks and ended up winning by double-digits. Goran Dragic scored an efficient 27-points and Bam Adebayo added 12 points and 17 rebounds. But it was Jimmy Butler who looked like the game’s best player, recording a 40-point showing on offense and a stellar performance on defense.
5. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors will need All-Star forward Pascal Siakam to rebound in Game 2 as last year’s Most Improve Player award winner scored just 13-points in his team’s Game 1 defeat to the Celtics. Siakam wasn’t alone, though, in his struggles as Fred VanVleet recorded just 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting and Kyle Lowry was just 1-of-5 from three-point range and notched five fouls.
Prior to Game 1 against the C’s, however, Toronto had looked like a team more than capable of not just winning the Eastern Conference, but also the NBA title yet again. They scored a team-record 150 points to complete their sweep against the Nets and tallied an NBA-record 100 points. This Eastern Conference semifinals matchup seems poised to be a must-watch series.
4. Boston Celtics
Boston led wire-to-wire on Sunday in their 18-point victory over the Raptors. Including the postseason, Toronto has lost just twice in the Orlando bubble, but both losses were shellackings by the Celtics. The C’s shot 47% from the floor and nearly 44% from three in their victory and Boston cruised despite relatively tame stat-lines from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.
The Celtics also recognize the power of their platform Even prior to the Bucks’ decision to sit out of Game 5 vs. the Magic, there were reports that the C’s and Raptors were discussing potentially sitting out a game. “How may points you scored and did you win, that sh*t don’t matter right now,” Tatum said last week. “Being a Black man in American is more important what I do on the basketball court.”
3. Milwaukee Bucks
For the second consecutive postseason series, the Bucks laid an egg in Game 1. On Monday night, they mustered up just 41 second-half points as the Heat stifled 2018-19 league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Milwaukee’s struggles in the Orlando bubble are certainly cause for concern, let’s not overreact to one game in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Monday showed that Milwaukee is in for a battle over the next week-plus, but the Bucks were the league’s best team for a reason. More important than any of their on-court showcases, however, Milwaukee took a historic stand, one that will far outlive the 2020 postseason.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Different members of the Clippers made incredibly strong statements throughout the week. Kawhi Leonard finished off an intense battle with Luka Doncic and the Mavericks Sunday recording 33 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and five steals. He missed just one of his 10 shots after halftime and has now scored at least 20 points in 14 straight playoff games last year.
But more than just Leonard’s steady and prolific play, it was the moving comments from Clippers coach Doc Rivers that helped frame this past week in the NBA. Rivers, fighting back tears, said Tuesday night after his team’s Game 5 win that he wished he could just coach, but he is too often reminded of the color of his skin.
"All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear," Rivers said. "We're the ones getting killed, we're the ones getting shot, we're the ones who are denied to live in certain communities."
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Lakers star Anthony Davis struggled in his postseason debut, finishing LA’s Game 1 loss with a -20 +/-, tied for worst on the team. However, the seven-time All-Star quickly silenced any doubters as he recorded a 31-point, 11-rebound, +32 showing in Los Angeles’ Game 2 victory. This past weekend, Davis and LeBron James ousted the Blazers in relatively smooth fashion—though Damian Lillard had left the bubble due to injury prior to the series’ elimination game —following the series-opening defeat. Questions still remain about if LA’s backcourt is good enough to take home a championship, but the franchise’s star duo can also overcome shortcomings. And in the process, the pair will continue to raise awareness to social justice issues.
“It’s about being able to shed light on things that are going on in our communities, things that are going on around America, things that are going on around the world, to be able to have this platform, the NBA’s platform, and we’re together,” James said after LA’s series-clinching win. “Every single day we get to talk [to the media] and continue to bring awareness to situations.”