NBA Playoffs Star Power Index: Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant on another level; Kyrie Irving taking the blame
Also, Giannis is suddenly knocking down 3-pointers? Good luck
Welcome back to the NBA Playoffs Star Power Index -- a weekly gauge of the players who are controlling the postseason buzz. Note: Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing. It simply means 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 the Finals.
Harden said he "" after briefly leaving Houston's Game 2 loss to the Warriors with a lacerated left eyelid. Harden gutted it out and still managed to score 29 points on relatively efficient shooting marks, but the Rockets are still in a 2-0 hole and now face what is, in all reality, a must-win in Game 3 on Saturday back in Houston. The Rockets already have to win four of the next five games to win this series. There is no chance they are coming back from a 3-0 deficit.
Harden and the Rockets made headlines after their Game 1 loss as well,and the multiple 3-point attempts on which they felt they were fouled but that went uncalled. Harden said he just wanted a "fair chance" against the Warriors, which had a lot of people shaking their head of a guy who has spent years completely blurring the line between what is and isn't a foul, duping refs right and left and benefiting outrageously for it, talking about fair chances. Ask yourself: Is this a fair chance?
The good news is the officials were no part of the story in Game 2, as it should be. Everyone thought there waswhen Scott Foster was assigned to the game, because of the Rockets' history with Foster and Harden having said he shouldn't even be allowed to officiate Houston's games any more because of his bias against them. But there were no fireworks. Just good, hard playoff basketball on both sides. If the Rockets thought pleading for more calls was their way to get back in this series, they better figure out a new strategy before Game 3.
Kawhi Leonard played nine games for the San Antonio Spurs two years ago. He came to Toronto this season and was great, but still flew somewhat under the radar because he was "load managed" a lot and it's the regular season and all that. But, man, these playoffs have been a slap-in-the-face reminder that Kawhi is still absolutely in that "best player in the world" conversation.
It's a big distinction between that level and just an All-Star level, which is what Toronto was getting out of DeMar DeRozan. Kawhi is with Kevin Durant and LeBron James in that he can do whatever he wants on the court, on both ends. He's getting to spots for mid-range jumpers. He's posting and going to the rim. He's hitting 3s at an absurd rate. He's all over defensively.
For the playoffs, Leonard is averaging a career-best 31.3 points on -- you ready for this? -- 58 percent shooting overall, including 47 percent from deep on more than six attempts a game. In the second round against Philly, he's averaging 40 points a game after going for 45 in Game 1 and 35 in Game 2.
"Everything has come together for Toronto," a scout told CBS Sports after the Raptors' Game 1 win over the 76ers. "They make the move for Marc [Gasol], and you can see the defense he's bringing in the paint and the passing, you see [Pascal] Siakam taking off. But Kawhi is just on another level right now. He's been the best player in the playoffs in my eyes. Him and Durant."
The Raptors took a home loss in Game 2 to the Sixers and are now headed back to Philadelphia having lost the home-court advantage for the time being. Game 3 is Thursday night.
If this is Durant's last run with the Warriors, what a way to go out. K.D. is flat-out dominating, averaging 34.4 points in the playoffs (by far his career high) on 52 percent shooting and 40 percent from 3. Over the years the debate has raged on as to whether the Warriors are Durant's team or Stephen Curry's. They'll always be Curry's team in the hearts of the fans and certainly at any point he can, and often does, become the focal point of what they do. But for all functional purposes right now, Durant is the man in Golden State.
"To me it's like this: Durant is a guy that is going to take you to the Finals year after year," an Eastern Conference scout recently told CBS Sports. "I mean, winning a title, that's kind of its own story. So much has to go right. But being there year after year, in position, Durant gives you that stability because what he brings is so dependable. He can get any shot he wants any time, and it's always a good shot. It's like LeBron. Nothing changes for them in the playoffs. The defense gets tougher, it's more physical, and those guys are still able to do what they do. You look at a guy like Steph, or James Harden, you can win a title with those guys as your best player, but I think it's more like a one in four or five years-type thing. They get on a run and you ride it. But Durant, it's there every single year, every game. The consistency is the difference."
Giannis hasn't found driving lanes nearly as easily against Al Horford and the Celtics, but his relentlessness paid off in Game 2 as the Bucks bounced back to tie the series 1-1. Giannis is still forcing the issue going downhill, and while his passing out of those clusters of defenders that are so often surrounding him is something that'll need to continue to improve, he has done well to find teammates for shots. Perhaps the biggest surprise in these playoffs?.
Giannis is 5 for 9 from 3-point range through the first two games of the Boston series, and he's shooting 39 percent on over five attempts per game in the playoffs. That is terrifying. Good luck dealing with this guy when he starts taking and making this shot on a more regular basis.
"Giannis is a worker," A Western Conference scout told CBS Sports when asked about Giannis' chances of developing a consistent 3-point shot. "You know he's going to get in the gym and put the work in, and you can tell he already has. He's the kind of guy who knows basketball is the most important thing. I'll always bet on a guy like that."
Kyrie was terrific in Boston's Game 1 win over Milwaukee, then went in the tank in their Game 2 loss -- when he shot 4 of 18 for nine points and was just generally out of rhythm and making lazy plays throughout. Some of his quotes from after the loss:
"It starts with the example of me being down in that paint and making the right reads. And I failed to do that tonight. That responsibility falls on me, in terms of that just controlling the tempo a lot better."
"There's no extra burden. This is what I signed up for. This is what Boston traded for me for."
"For me, I've just gotta be more efficient in controlling the tempo of the game, pace, where I want to get to on the floor and making reads better around that midrange area," Irving said. "They did a great job of switching tonight, forcing me left. Getting to the paint wasn't hard. It's just getting in there and making the right decisions. And the way I started off the game as well, of just getting downhill, just set an example for my teammates the way we want to play, I just didn't put my stamp on that."
Irving has been really good throughout the playoffs, but it's not going to matter if he follows up his Game 2 performance with another stinker in Game 3 and Boston loses control of this series with Milwaukee. I don't expect that to happen. Kyrie is in a great rhythm right now. He just had a hiccup. He's one of the best big-stage players in the game, and he knows this is a photo-finish series with Milwaukee. I like Boston to win Game 3.
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