NBA Playoffs 2019: 5 Best players so far before the NBA Finals

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors - Game Six
Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors - Game Six

Another summer of playoff exhilaration and heartbreaks has almost passed us by, leaving us with two Conference champions. The Raptors have made it through one of the toughest Eastern Conference playoff brackets in recent memory, battling past the Magic in 5 games, the Sixers in 7 and the Bucks in 6.

The defending champions have, meanwhile, continued their dominant run in the Western Conference playoffs to make it to a 5th straight Finals. Notwithstanding injury to their top scorer in the middle of what was slated to be their toughest series, they have made light work of their opponents without going to 7 games once in 3 rounds.

The postseason is where legends are made and legacies forged, which is why the best performers on this stage go down in hoops memory. The 2019 NBA Playoffs have been the stage for some historic performances by emerging and established stars alike, serving up a wonderful recipe for TV despite the looming absence of the predominant superstar of the NBA universe in LeBron James.

Let's take a look at the 5 best performers in the playoffs so far:

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#5 Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic

I never thought it'd come to this in my wildest imaginations 5 years ago, but when watching the Nuggets battle the Spurs, I had to admit it - the best passer in the NBA is a doughy 7-footer who looks like he always has a severe head cold. The best part of this for all of us fat folks cheering from our couches is that we're going to have to live with that for the next decade.

Jokic's play defies conventional basketball wisdom as much as he stands out in skill terms. A true center by size, it would be no hyperbole to call him the greatest passer at his position - EVER! Through the playoffs in 2019, the 24-year-old put up averages of 25.1 points (7th in the playoffs), 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists (3rd) per game, while shooting 50.6% from the field, 39.3% from 3-point range and 84.6% on free throws.

Jokic singlehandedly led the Nuggets to several hard-fought wins in both rounds against experienced playoff opponents in the Blazers and the Spurs. One can only imagine that he'll be even better in the future as he figures out his defensive identity and the franchise develops talent around him.

#4 Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks made their first Conference Finals since 2001 thanks to the Greek Freak's extraordinary impact on both ends of the court. Giannis stands at 6'11" and possesses a wingspan of 7'3". Combined with his extraordinary agility and ability to spin and contort through traffic, he has dominated the paint region, leading the league in dunks through the regular season.

While his raw stats in the postseason (25.5 points, 12.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists) have held up to the standards he has set for himself in previous years, Giannis would undoubtedly be concerned with how the Raptors were able to limit his offensive impact in the Conference Finals. The Bucks' rise may not have taken them to the NBA Finals in the very first step, but the growing pains they're facing are quite reminiscent of the Lakers in the late 90s, and it won't be long before Giannis improves his jumpshot well enough to cause enough trouble from outside the paint.

The drop in his efficiency from the regular season to the postseason has to be alarming, and should he turn out to be MVP, a lot of people are going to label him the same way they labeled LeBron in his Cleveland years.

#3 Stephen Curry

Steph Cury
Steph Cury

The 'Stephster', as Reggie Miller is wont to call him to everyone's collective cringe, has been quite the revelation over the last 6 games he's played in the playoffs. After blowing hot and cold in the first 10 games when he failed to crack the 20-point barrier in 2 of his first 3 games against the Rockets and 3 times overall, Curry raised his game at the exact moment that Golden State needed him to play like a unanimous MVP.

Trailing against the Rockets at home in the 3rd quarter of Game 5 with Kevin Durant off the court, Steph shepherded them through the game with 25 second half points before lighting it up again in the next game and ensuring the Warriors' 5th straight Conference Finals appearance. The favourable matchup with the 3rd seeded Trail Blazers gave Steph all the practice he needed to be in peak form for the Finals as he torced Lillard and CJ to the tune of 142 points through 4 games on 47% shooting from the floor and 42.5% on, wait for it, a mind-numbing 15 3-point attempts per game!

Curry will be the default first option for the Warriors in the Finals whether or not #35 comes back in full fitness and form. He'd better prove he's up to the task against the best defense in the league - the Raptors will throw every kind of puzzle at him. Expect him to average 30 points a game no matter what, though.

#2 Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant

Following a Game 2 of a first round series in which the Warriors blew a 31-point lead and Kevin Durant took only 12 shots, he responded to questions post-game with an emphatic "Y'all know who I am, I'm Kevin Durant."

In the 8 games that followed, Durant had performances in which he scored 38 points in 3 quarters (Game 3 of the first round), 38 points in a half and 50 in a game (game 6), scores of 46 and 34 in losses to the Rockets and a 22-point performance before going off in Game 5 of the Conference Semifinals with injury.

By the time he went off the court, there was no doubt in any onlooker's mind about what they were watching - an all-time great in the prime of his powers, willing his team to victories on days they didn't look fated to.

Durant has expanded his defensive repertoire even further in these playoffs, and was effective against the likes of Eric Gordon, James Harden and CP3 whenever tasked with guarding these high-scoring guards. His help defense wasn't at the same level as last year, but Durant still contributed a fair bit to the Warriors' paint defense.

In all probability, Durant will sign a supermax contract with the Warriors to settle down for an extended period of success, and we can do nothing about it, just as we can do nothing about his jumper from the mid-post region on the right.

#1 Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard

The Klaw's achievements before this playoffs were substantial by themselves, but he has raised his legend to a whole new level this summer. When everyone else on the court was visibly tired out and shooting short, Kawhi played through injuries to carry the Raptors through to the NBA Finals - a stage they've never experienced in 25 years of existence as a franchise.

Through 18 games of the playoffs, Kawhi is averaging near about 31 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists a game. But as is the case with a truly elite two-way player, these figures only tell half of the story. The Klaw has faced the likes of Giannis, Middleton, Aaron Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and Malcolm Brogdon at various points in the postseason, and none of them save for the first-time Bucks All-Star (Middleton) was able to play to their usual standards.

He heads to the offseason of 2019 with his stock at its highest as it has ever been. Irrespective of what happens in the Finals, he has proved that he can carry a prepared team with experience to the ultimate stage in a manner only LeBron has proved among current players. He'll undoubtedly be the big catch of the summer, and the Raptors should count their lucky stars and Masai Ujiri for making this next step in their progress possible.

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Edited by Raunak J
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