The NBA only hands out one individual postseason award every year and that’s the vaunted Finals MVP. So why not hand out a few more? Here is some hardware for the 2021 NBA playoffs.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Two weeks ago, Antetokounmpo’s knee bent inward in what looked like a potential season-ending injury. Sunday night, he led the blitz of the Suns in Game 3 of the NBA Finals for the Bucks’ first win. He needed only 38 minutes to throw together his second consecutive 40-point double double.
In these playoffs, Antetokounmpo beat last year’s ECF champs the Heat, defeated Kevin Durant and the Nets, overcame chronic inconsistent performances from his secondary stars Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, returned from his hyperextended knee and now seems to have moved past his free throw struggles after shooting 13 of 17 in Game 3.
There have been plenty of big games: a 20-point triple double to close out Miami, a 40-point double double in Game 7 on the road to beat Brooklyn, and now two 40-point outings in the NBA Finals, which put him in rare company with Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. But what’s been most important for Milwaukee is that, when healthy, Antetokounmpo always shows up.
The only knock against Antetokounmpo is that he missed two and half games with a knee injury. His team stepped up and won without him, but so did the Suns without Chris Paul, the Nets without James Harden, and many other teams with All-Stars in this injury-riddled postseason.
Antetokounmpo has been the best player on a team that’s three games away from winning the NBA Finals and putting up truly incredible numbers.
Most Improved Player: Reggie Jackson, Clippers
Jackson went from being a postseason afterthought to earning and living up to the nickname Mr. June for his postseason heroics in a calendar year.
He came off the bench for the first two games against the Mavericks and after a poor showing in Game 1, his Game 2 performance earned him a spot in the starting lineup that he held for the remainder of the postseason in Ty Lue’s ever-changing rotation. Jackson flashed in the biggest moments of the Clippers’ playoff march. In a must-win Game 6 on the road against Dallas, he went for 25 points and nine rebounds. And with under two minutes remaining in Game 7 of that series, he put the game out of reach with a clutch three-pointer.
In the closeout game against the Jazz, Jackson poured in 27 points and added 10 assists to help carry the Kawhi Leonard–less Clippers to the Western Conference finals. He averaged more than 20 points for the series against the Suns and was a model of consistency for a team that was ultimately sunk by its inconsistent performances. For the better part of nine games, Jackson was the second-best player on a team that almost went to the NBA Finals. It’s impossible to overstate how far he came from registering a DNP-CD in Game 5 of the conference semifinals last season.
Best Rookie: Facundo Campazzo, Nuggets
Campazzo was entertaining to watch in the regular season. His through-the-legs passes were a delight, and he was good for some pesky defense and a few acrobatic finishes every night. Campazzo’s role was to back up Nuggets star point guard Jamal Murray, but Murray went down with a season-ending ACL tear in early April, which thrust Campazzo into the starting role. When it came time for the postseason, Denver trotted out its 30-year-old rookie against some of the best point guards in the league, and Campazzo never looked out of place.
His signature playoff performance was a near triple double on the road against the Trail Blazers (11 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) in a pivotal Game 3 that swung the series back in the Nuggets’ favor. He was hesitant to hunt for his own offense, but when opposing defenses allowed him, he would walk into the occasional three-pointer.
Campazzo started Game 1 against Phoenix with a quick six points on his way to a playoff-career-high 14 points. He matched that in Game 4, but it wasn’t nearly enough against the backcourt starpower of Paul and Devin Booker. Campazzo was an undrafted rookie who signed with Denver in November, but he had the greatest impact of any first-year player on his team’s postseason run and was perhaps given the toughest assignment.
Best Coach: Monty Williams, Suns
Six weeks ago, the Suns looked ready to roll over against the Lakers. Phoenix held a 2–1 deficit in the series and appeared bound for a first-round exit. From there, the Suns ripped off a nine-game winning streak.
The Suns haven’t had to navigate injuries to the same degree some of their opponents have, but the road to the Finals hasn’t been without bumps, either. Williams was forced to start Cameron Payne for Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals while Paul was in the league’s health and safety protocols. Phoenix not only avoided splitting without its leader, but took a 2–0 lead on the Clippers, who were without Leonard. And in the closeout Game 6 on the road in L.A., Williams did not let up as the Suns pounded the Clippers in a 27-point blowout.
Now, Williams’s squad holds a 2–1 advantage in the Finals. Much of the credit for Phoenix’s turnaround is given to Paul. But Williams, in his second year coaching the Suns, took the team somewhere it hasn’t been since 1993 and navigated the journey, at times, without Paul. He’s overseen a massive leap from Mikal Bridges and helped Deandre Ayton figure out the perfect role in the offense. This team is reaching its ceiling and it was Williams who unlocked that potential.
Sixth Man: Danilo Gallinari, Hawks
Gallinari gets paid handsomely by the Hawks to come off the bench and get buckets in bunches. This postseason, he did just that, consistently rising up over smaller defenders to bury jumper after jumper. But the most important play Gallinari made in the postseason was a defensive stop.
There were less than 60 ticks on the game clock in Game 7 and Gallinari stood on an island against MVP runner-up Joel Embiid. Atlanta led the 76ers by four points and Embiid was driving to the hoop to cut that deficit. But Gallinari, hardly known for his defensive prowess, poked the ball free when Embiid attempted a spin and leaked out for a fast-break dunk to put the Hawks up six. That play propelled Atlanta to the Eastern Conference finals.
Two games earlier, Gallinari hit a fadeaway jumper over Seth Curry to give Atlanta a three-point cushion in the final minute of Game 5 on the road, which it would go on to win. Trae Young was having one of the best games of his life, but the Hawks trusted Gallinari in the post and he came through. Gallinari did not take over games entirely—he only surpassed 20 points twice in 18 postseason games—but he was always there down the stretch to make a big play when Atlanta needed it.
That’s the value the Hawks saw in bringing in Gallinari last offseason. That strip and dunk in a Game 7 on the road alone made the investment worth it. All the other three-pointers and fadeaways were just icing.
More NBA Playoffs Coverage: