NBA Playoffs 2019: Damian Lillard, Jared Dudley among league's first-round playoff heroes
A look at the players who have defined the first round, from Pascal Siakam to Mike Scott
Playoff heroes come in many forms. This time last year, we were celebrating Jrue Holiday's two-way excellence, wondering if Joe Ingles would ever miss a shot and admiring Terry Rozier's chutzpah. I will never forget watching Bismack Biyombo grab 26 rebounds in a conference finals game three years ago, and Orlando Magic fans will never forget the four-year, $72 million contract he signed that July. With the first round winding down, here are the players who have defined the postseason so far:
Hearing Billy Donovan praise Lillard and McCollum on Sunday, I felt bad for him. The exasperated Oklahoma City Thunder coach called them shifty and crafty and lamented that, even when his team directed them to the midrange, they made shots. Left unsaid was that his shooting-impaired team has hardly been able to make its open ones.
According to McCollum, the Portland Trail Blazers have been hardened and emboldened by last year's first-round sweep. According to Lillard, their late-season adversity -- Jusuf Nurkic's broken leg, McCollum missing three weeks -- brought them closer together. The two guards have spent the last 12 months preparing to pick apart the aggressive brand of defense that Oklahoma City plays, and they have done it with a steely confidence that can't be rushed or faked.
Lillard and McCollum headline this list not just because they have outplayed Russell Westbrook and the unluckily aching Paul George through four games, but because of their mature, businesslike approach to the whole season. They knew that regular-season success would no longer be seen as impressive, but fought for the third seed anyway. And they're sure as hell impressing people now.
A hero in Brooklyn and a villain in Philadelphia, the 12-year veteran has not needed to average more than four points and three assists to make headlines. An honest articulation of his team's strategy against 76ers star Ben Simmons in between Games 3 and 4 started a delightfully bizarre feud.
On Saturday, Dudley charged at Joel Embiid and ignited a mini-melee. He and Jimmy Butler were ejected, and Embiid called him a nobody on TNT. "If anything, I should've got him worse," Dudley said, shocked that his punishment was so punitive.
If not for that skirmish, the lasting image of Dudley from this series would be him raising his arms after making a 3-pointer in Game 4, the same way Simmons raised his arms when Dudley airballed a similar shot two days earlier. I've never heard Barclays Center louder.
After the scuffle, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson ran up to Dudley and said, "We need you." Dudley makes Brooklyn a smarter, more communicative and more patient team, as evidenced by its plus-21.8 net rating in his 64 playoff minutes.
For reasons that include his improved but not playoff-proven jump shot and the intensity of postseason scouting, there was some uncertainty about whether or not Pascal Siakam's dream season would continue unabated after Game 82. Not anymore.
On defense, Siakam is everywhere at once, helping and recovering and denying and disrupting. In transition, he is a blur. In the halfcourt, the Magic's length is not getting in his way. When Kawhi Leonard played through the flu in Game 3, Siakam bailed Toronto out with 30 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 42 minutes.
If the skyrocketing Siakam has, Leonard has been remarkable because Orlando can't speed him up. As poised and precise as ever, Leonard played his best basketball as a Raptor in Games 2 and 4. This MVP-caliber version of Leonard looks like he's playing a different sport than everybody else -- he can create a clean look or make a defensive play seemingly at will. When you watch them work together as part of Toronto's killer starting lineup, you might find yourself wondering if this team has a ceiling at all.
White is the reason the San Antonio Spurs have a chance to upset the Denver Nuggets. His Game 3 explosion -- 36 points in 33 minutes, 15-for-21 shooting, five rebounds, five assists, three steals -- can't even be called his coming-out party because he was so effective in the first two games. It felt significant, though, because of how he did it. White didn't get hot from long range; he continually found seams in Denver's defense and attacked the paint. And he defended Jamal Murray like a maniac the whole time.
The Nuggets did a better job cutting off White's drives in Game 4, and it is unclear if he'll be able to burn them the same way again. What's important, though, is that he has their attention -- and he probably has yours, too.
If you didn't pay close attention to the Spurs this season, you might not have known that White is their best and most irreplaceable defender. If you did, then you're probably already giddy about him and Dejounte Murray making opposing backcourts miserable next season and beyond.
Brown was the star of Game 3, scoring 23 points on 8-for-9 shooting. Hayward finished the Indiana Pacers off on Sunday, scoring 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting in Game 4. For the Boston Celtics, this is the way it should be. In the regular season, their collection of playmaking options made them combustible. In the playoffs, it has made them unpredictable.
Both wings have been whipping boys at various points in the season. Maybe, early on, Brown was uncomfortable with his role and in his own head. Maybe, even now, Hayward is in the process of regaining the confidence and trust in his body that came naturally to him before his injury. The playoffs can be clarifying because they offer a clean slate and a sense of urgency. Even against a sweepable foe, every win requires narrow, intense focus.
Brown's standout defense and Hayward's decisiveness with the ball in his hands are the two clearest indicators that Boston can still be the team it wants to be, even if it is prone to dry spells on offense. This is why Kyrie Irving wanted a fast-forward button in February.
The legend grows, even if this chapter has been uneven. Scott shot 63 percent -- and 56 percent from 3-point range! -- in his last two trips to the playoffs, but missed seven of his eight shots, all from deep, in the Sixers' series-opening loss. He bounced back with a 5-for-7 performance, but missed all four of his shots, again all 3s, in Game 3.
All of Scott's misses, however, will be forgotten as long as Philadelphia doesn't blow its 3-1 lead. What will be remembered is his go-ahead corner 3 in crunch time to secure that lead. On Saturday, he revealed that he was supposed to be a decoy on that play, but he was ready to shoot when Joel Embiid temporarily lost the ball and shoveled a pass his way.
"Jo made a hell of a hustle play," Scott said. "Saw me in the corner. Cashed out."
Shortly after delivering that quote, Scott posted a photo taken right after his playoff moment on Instagram. I can't print the caption here.
Honorable mentions: Caris LeVert can do no wrong … Andre Iguodala is apparently ageless … Kevon Looney is earning himself a raise … Jonathan Isaac is going to be special … Eric Bledsoe has exorcized last year's playoff demons … I'm still thinking about Danuel House's drive and dish from Game 1 … If I had written this a week ago, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell would have been at the top of the list.
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