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#pounditFriday, December 4, 2020

Standout performers of the NBA playoffs so far

Luka Doncic

Following the most unprecedented regular season in the history of the NBA, the 2020 playoffs have officially kicked off. Familiarity truly does breed contempt, and housing all of the postseason adversaries in one compound has only furthered the intensity.

Here are four of the standout performers from the first week of the NBA playoffs.

Halle-Luka

Every generational superstar has a defining moment or game in their career when their greatness becomes abundantly clear. Kobe Bryant’s came during the 2000 NBA Finals when he was just 21 years old, as he led the Lakers to a game four victory in overtime after Shaquille O’Neal fouled out. For LeBron James, it was scoring 25 straight points as the Cavaliers upset the Detroit Pistons in 2007. Despite it only being the first round of the playoffs, Luka Doncic’s Game 4 performance was his moment.

Nothing signifies the gravity of a moment quite like a “double BANG” from Mike Breen. The only thing more impressive than the shot itself was that it served as the exclamation point to cap off Doncic’s 43 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists triple-double effort. After rolling his ankle in the Maverick’s Game 3 loss, there was little reason for optimism in Dallas until Doncic delivered the most memorable game of the postseason so far. Doncic’s game has never been based around quickness; even on an injured ankle he’s been able to penetrate the Clippers’ defense at will.

In the playoffs, the Mavericks have simplified their offense. They regularly allowed Doncic to seek the mismatch he desires by forcing a switch through a ball screen. Watching Doncic dissect the defense is puzzling at times, as it appears almost as if he is lumbering around the screen until the moment he detects the opening and in one powerful burst he’s gone. His underrated explosion and size are reminiscent of James Harden, and factoring in the number of stepback threes each player makes, their shot profiles are remarkably similar.

The ultimate compliment for an NBA player comes from their opponents; look at what some of the NBA’s best had to say about Doncic.

From Stephen Curry to LeBron James, seemingly everyone has taken note of Doncic’s incredible game. The Mavericks are playing with house money against a team that many still think will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. While Doncic continues to skyrocket up the ranks of the NBA’s elite, his performance against the Clippers solidifies his potential to one day become the best player in the league.

LeBron James

The Motivated King

After easing his way into the postseason, LeBron James delivered in a big way in Games 3 and 4 of the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. James spent much of the first two games deferring to his teammates, but the Lakers’ offense has thrived since he seized control of the reigns. You can add both Games 3 and 4 to the King’s extensively long list of classic postseason performances. In two convincing wins, he averaged 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists on 70 percent field goal shooting.

When James penetrates deep into the defense, he remains the most unstoppable basketball player on the planet. Seven of his 11 made field goals in Game 3 came in the paint; look how under control James’ entire body is on these finishes at the hoop.

This play from game four serves as a reminder that James’ elite athleticism remains at 35 years old.

No one welcomes an aggressive James more than the Lakers’ shooters. His aggression forces compromised defenses to concede open shots as they are forced to help off their man on James’ assaults to the rim. It’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ three-point shooting numbers rise the more James attacks. The further the Lakers go into the playoffs, the more vital shooting will become. And without another player that can consistently create his own look from three, James’ aggression will be essential in opening the floor for his teammates.

The nostalgia factor of watching Carmelo Anthony defend his long-time friend is reason alone to tune into this series. Anthony has done a surprisingly good job in limiting James, but like seemingly every team in the NBA, the Trail Blazers don’t have a real answer for him defensively. Portland has also gone with Gary Trent Jr. on James for prolonged stretches of the series, but James has been able to leverage his size advantage over Trent. Lacking a true defensive stopper, Portland can take solace in the fact that when LeBron James is primed to take over, there’s little anyone can do to stop him.

Donovan Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell finding his postseason form

Despite only being in his third NBA season, Donovan Mitchell has already learned just how volatile the NBA postseason can be. Mitchell’s playoff career began in style, leading the Jazz to a shocking upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. Since his playoff debut, Mitchell and the Jazz have failed to win another series. The Houston Rockets delivered the fatal blow to Utah’s last two playoff runs. Last year’s first-round domination began to raise questions about whether or not Mitchell could operate effectively as a number one option on a team with championship aspirations. The Jazz spent the summer retooling their offense to help ease the incredible burden they placed on the back of their 23-year-old franchise guard. The initial results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Young guards don’t usually control the pace of a game the way Mitchell does. He seemingly always knows the perfect moment to channel his other-worldly athleticism.

Mitchell’s play has garnered a lot of comparisons to Dwyane Wade. Like Wade, Mitchell shares an affinity for the mid-range. Look how easily Mitchell stops on a dime and elevates over Jamal Murray for the clutch jumper.

Both of these plays were from Mitchell’s 57-point Game 1 masterpiece that ended in heartbreaking fashion for Utah. Mitchell followed up the third-highest scoring game in NBA playoff with an incredibly efficient 30-point effort in which he knocked down six of his seven 3-point attempts. Mitchell is doing his best to eradicate the memory of his 32 percent shooting from last year’s postseason as he looks to establish himself as a premier postseason scorer.

Luguentz Dort’s Defense

James Harden’s brand of iso-heavy, flopping-filled basketball has been a source of ire for every NBA defense tasked with containing him. While Harden’s list of postseason failures extends far beyond his triumphs, he remains a matchup that no defender wants to see come playoff time. Luguentz Dort, however, has been up to the challenge.

The Houston Rockets thrashed the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the series. Despite suffering another disappointing loss in Game 2, the Thunder left the game feeling optimistic about their chances in the series, due in no small part to Dort’s defense. After pulling out clutch wins in Game 3 and 4, Dort has a legitimate claim as the best James Harden-defender in the NBA.

Standing just 6’3″, Dort embodies a lot of the Rockets own defensive principles, as his incredibly strong frame makeups for what he lacks in height. Dort is great is sliding his feet to keep that robust frame in front of Harden. Harden has made only 8 of his 34 attempts when being guarded by Dort, including three shots that Dort blocked. Plays like the one below are becoming commonplace.

This play by Dort should be studied in defensive textbooks for as long as basketball is played. It starts with him preparing to fight over Robert Covington’s screen, but when Harden declines the screen and begins driving left, Dort is there to cut him off. Dort is excellent at giving Harden no airspace to dribble, and even after Harden spins back towards the middle of the paint, he is there lying in wait. Dort doesn’t lean in to give Harden the contact he’s seeking and swipes down on the ball at the perfect time to avoid the foul call.

Dort has been adept at guarding Harden on the perimeter as well; Harden is shooting an abysmal 6-25 from deep with Dort on him. Harden has drawn eight shooting fouls on Dort leading to 15 free throw attempts, with a portion of those attributed to Harden’s head jerking and incessant flailing of his arms on drives to the basket.

The Thunder knew what they had in Dort; before the NBA returned, they signed him to one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NBA. Dort’s defensive impact is so profound that the Thunder have looked past his offensive deficiencies to ensure he’s the one matching up with Harden. Through constant effort and impeccable defensive skills, Luguentz Dort has gone from an undrafted rookie in the NBA to a former MVP’s worst nightmare.

Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3

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