Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week through the end of NBA Playoffs.
In the Clippers‘ Game 7 loss to the Nuggets, Kawhi Leonard went 6 of 22 for 14 points, zero of which came in the fourth quarter. Let’s just say this: If LeBron James put up that stat line in a Game 7, win or lose, he would get skewered. Kawhi’s getting talked about for his lackluster performance, but not killed.
For the record, I don’t think he should be. I don’t think he choked. I think that word gets thrown around way too lazily. A variety of factors lead to results. Did Leonard and Paul George get a little tight down the stretch? I’m not in their heads, but I think it’s safe to say anyone feels heat like that to some degree.
Pressure increases as options decrease. You’re up to bat in the ninth inning of an elimination World Series game with two outs and two strikes and the tying run on second base, you are out of options. You’re down to your last strike, your last out, in the last inning of the last game. Yes, there’s pressure. But if you strike out on a 92 mph slider, you didn’t choke. You got beat.
The Nuggets, to me, threw a 93-mph, late-breaking slider on the black. They got the Clippers off balance, and then flat out beat them with their own dominance. They made shots. They played together. They defended. They also had periods of bad play in this series, but we didn’t say they choked because, one, we didn’t attach the same expectations to them from the start, and two, the bad stretches of their play weren’t the last thing we saw from them. In the end, they deserved to win because, over all seven games, they were the better team, not because the Clippers choked. I really believe that.
That doesn’t mean the Nuggets are definitively better, or that if they played again, perhaps in actual NBA arenas with actual fans, the Clippers wouldn’t win. I don’t know. What I do know is that once you start expecting a certain kind of performance from the best players and most talented teams, all the time, and certainly on the biggest stages, as if this is all part of some script rather than actual real life, you are by definition taking those performances for granted when they happen.
Pressure isn’t what the people not playing in the games make it out to be. It’s a factor, but not nearly to the degree we make it. It’s an easy narrative absence the ability to actually play in the shoes of the supposed choker, but the simple truth is sports are hard, even for those who make them look easy. They don’t always go your way, particularly when those on the other side are also among the best basketball players in the world. If you could just pencil in great players for great performances in big games, there wouldn’t be any reason to play the game.
But this is where the LeBron double standard comes in. He doesn’t get this benefit of the doubt. Like I said, Kawhi is catching some heat for his Game 7 shortcomings, but he’s also getting a pass as people cite his track record of big-time performances in big-time games. LeBron, despite his all-time track record, would be on a spit roast if he put up a donut in the fourth quarter of a Game 7. Remember that the next time you try to put another player in LeBron’s category. Deep down, you know you expect more out of him that anyone else.
Pretty much everything I just said about Kawhi applies to Paul George, too. I will say, there is a longer history of George fading in big situations than there is with Kawhi. Even coming out of college that was his knock, that he could disappear from time to time, a passive player with superstar size and skills. I had one scout tell me a story about a bunch of high front-office types going to see George play at Fresno State, where he was clearly the most talented player on the court, and he scored like six points.
He just has that personality where it’s probably fair to question whether you can completely depend on him from a psychological standpoint in the biggest moments. Suffice it to say, going 4 for 16, including 2 for 11 from 3, for 10 points in a Game 7 is one of those eggs people were always leery George could lay from time to time.
I would still take Paul George on my team any day. I would bet on his talent, gladly. I think the Clippers will, and should, be among the title favorites against next season. Do I think he can be the best player on a title team? Perhaps not. There does seem to be a gear he’s missing, hard as it is to identify. But he’s a great player. Not perfect, mind you. Those are two different things. If you’re betting he won’t have another bad game at the wrong time the rest of his career, you’re probably going to lose that bet. But he’ll have some great ones, too. And when that happens, your narrative will look a lot thinner, same as it did when you said Dirk Nowitzki or John Elway “couldn’t win the big one.” Until they did, and you had to find another story to pre-write.
Imagine your teammate scores 40 points in a Game 7, you score 16 on 5-of-13 shooting including 0 for 4 from 3, and still the argument could be made you were the best player on the floor. That was Jokic in Game 7, where even Jamal Murray’s 40 spot wasn’t enough to keep the focus on how incredible Jokic was, and is, and will continue to be for a long, long time.
Jokic posted 22 rebounds, 13 assists, three blocks and two steals in Game 7. To call his passing, patient as it is precise, a work of art is an understatement. He’s a three-level scorer, equally dangerous in the low and high post, his high-arcing jumper a constant threat from the mid-range to 3-point land. All that demands double teams, which in turn fuel Jokic’s passing. What a brilliant player. It will be very interesting to see if the Lakers, who have more collective size at the five than the Clippers, are able to make it any harder on Jokic to operate as a facilitator on the perimeter when he can’t just see right over his defender.
Murray still isn’t optimally consistent, but right now there are only two point guards in the league that I’m certain I would take over him in a one-game scenario: Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. You could make a case for Chris Paul, or a healthy Kyrie Irving, or James Harden, but not a definitive one. Not in my opinion. That’s the kind of postseason company I believe Murray has entered.
Murray has gone for 50, 42 and 40 points in elimination games during these playoffs. Prior to that, he went for 50 in Game 4 against Utah, and 36 in Game 1. He was sublime in the final minutes of the Nuggets’ Game 7 victory over the Spurs last season and in the playoffs overall. Some people just have a knack for rising to the occasion, and Murray is one of them.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the players who don’t have this knack are chokers (see Paul George above), but it does mean you know clutch dudes when you see them. Murray is that dude — very Derek Jeter-like in that he won’t always have, or to this point hasn’t always had, the best numbers over the course of a season, but when it comes down to it, you feel very comfortable with the biggest games being in this guy’s hands. If you don’t, you’re not paying attention.
Look at Bam Adabeyo’s line in Miami’s Eastern Conference finals Game 1 victory over the Celtics, and it’s definitely good: 18 points on 5-of-12 shooting, nine assists (he might be the best passing big outside of Jokic), six rebounds and two blocks. But that doesn’t encapsulate Adebayo’s impact on Miami’s relentlessly rotating defense and/or diverse, often inverted offense with Bam as the hub.
Also, one of those two blocks was, you know, only one of the greatest defensive plays in NBA history.
After Jimmy Butler muscled through Jayson Tatum for an and-one to put Miami up two with 12 seconds to play in overtime, Tatum returned the favor by beating Butler off the dribble on the other end and getting downhill on an open lane to the rim. He took off, cocked the ball back, and appeared headed for a thunderous game-tying dunk. Then Adebayo did this …
Are you kidding me? Tatum was coming to throw that down with such force that this is what Bam’s wrist looked like when he absorbed it:
Listen, I’ve been known to be a bit hyperbolic from time to time (OK, a lot of the time), but that has to be one of the best blocks, considering the circumstances, in NBA history. LeBron James’ famous chase-down block in the Finals and, perhaps, Tayshaun Prince’s chase-down block on Reggie Miller in the 2004 Eastern Conference finals are the only better ones I can think of off the top of my head.
A true signature moment in the young career of a rapidly rising star.
Tatum posted 30 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in Game 1 vs Miami. Per StatMuse, he is just the fourth player in the last 20 years to put up a 30-10-5 line in a playoff game before turning 23 years old. The other three? LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Luka Doncic.
This after Tatum became the second-youngest player in history, behind Kobe Bryant, to post 25-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists in a Game 7, which Tatum did in Boston’s second-round clincher over Toronto. Oh by the way, Tatum was named to the All-NBA third team on Wednesday, which makes him the youngest player in Celtics history to receive that honor, besting some guy named Larry Bird.
Tatum is everywhere right now. What you are seeing is an incredibly skilled player realizing just how great he is, and who is taking the responsibility, and opportunity, that comes with that realization and running with it. There is no hesitation in his game on either end. He’s already an elite team defender and a borderline individual one. He hammers the boards. He’s one of the best off-the-dribble shooters in the world. And he knows it. That’s when it starts to get really dangerous for everyone else.