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 the playoffs.
Paul became the oldest player in NBA history (35) to post a Game 7 triple-double with 19 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds on Wednesday. But the Thunder lost. As hard as this is to say, Paul just flat-out didn't get it done in crunch time on the heels of his "some people built for it, some people shy away from it" postgame comments following Game 6.
The Thunder only scored six points over the final seven minutes in Game 7, and Paul had three opportunities to either tie the game or give OKC the lead in the final three minutes. First, he turned the ball over trying to dazzle Eric Gordon with his handle:
Then he came up short on a wide-open 10-footer that would've given OKC the lead with under a minute to play:
Then he completely butchered the game-deciding possession by basically walking himself into a soft double team and having his panicked pass deflected, which broke the whole play down before it even got started:
It was a tough way to go out. Paul was incredible all season, and in this series, and for almost all of Game 7. But he stumbled big-time when it mattered most, and now OKC is going home.
Harden's Rockets are still alive, but the contingent of folks who love to play up his, shall we say, big-game disappearing acts have a whole load of ammunition after his Game 7 performance: 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting, including 1 of 9 from 3. This came after Harden made no effort to go get the ball on the deciding possession of Game 6, instead choosing to let Russell Westbrook make the final play. Westbrook turned it over.
Give Harden credit for the defensive play he made on Lu Dort to close Game 7. Take a look below, and watch how Harden stays attached to Steven Adams in the paint for as long as he can as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is probing, knowing if he leaves Adams he'll be open for a lob, but also knowing he has to close all the way out to Dort if the ball is swung cross-court, which it is. And he still gets there:
Considering the situation, Game 7, game-deciding possession, and again, the multiple responsibilities Harden had to fulfill on the fly, you can make a legit argument that this was the best defensive play of Harden's career. The Rockets now get LeBron James and the Lakers in the second round, and that could be a whale of a series.
The Utah Jazz became the 12th team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead, falling to the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 on Tuesday. But Mitchell can hold his head high. A tough Game 7 in which he needed 22 shots for his 22 points notwithstanding, Mitchell posted over 36 points per game on 53 percent shooting, including 51.5 percent from deep and 95 percent from the line, for the series.
Per StatMuse, Mitchell is the first player in history to post at least 35-50-50-90 in the above categories for an entire playoff run, albeit a short one for Utah. Mitchell is up for a rookie max extension this offseason, and Yahoo's Chris Haynes reported on Wednesday that Mitchell and the Jazz will indeed settle on a five-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $170 million when free agency opens. He earned every dollar of that deal these past three years, and certainly in this Denver series.
Murray was nearly as magnificent as Mitchell in this instant-classic series, averaging 31.5 points on 55 percent shooting, including 55 percent from deep and 92 percent from the line; he posted two 50-point games with a 42-pointer sandwiched between. The 142 points Murray scored in Games 4-6 represents the third-highest total in three consecutive playoff games in NBA history, trailing only Jerry West in 1965 and Michael Jordan in 1988.
Like Mitchell, Murray slogged through a tough, physical Game 7, posting 17 points on 21 shots, but he got into the paint for a pair of huge buckets that turned a tie game into a four-point Denver lead with under two minutes to play. Forget the shooting percentages. Those are gut-check buckets.
Between the two of them, Mitchell and Murray scored 475 points in this series, which is the most combined points by opposing players in a single series in NBA history, per ESPN Stats and Info, topping the 463 Jerry West and John Havlicek scored in the 1969 Finals. And Murray isn't done yet. Denver gets the Clippers next.
In a Game 7 where offense was basically nowhere to be found, Jokic put up 30 points and 14 boards and hit what proved to be the game-winning shot, a feathery baby hook with under 30 seconds to play:
Jokic found the range on a pair of 3-pointers and shot 12 of 23 from the field. The impact of his offensive aggression cannot be overstated. Denver had nowhere else to go after Murray took a knee to his thigh toward the end of the first half that pretty clearly impacted him the rest of the way. This will go down as Murray's series from Game 4 on, but Jokic brought it home.
The Celtics are up 2-0 on the Raptors and Tatum has been the best player in the series, averaging 27.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and four assists on better than 50 percent shooting, including 6 of 11 from 3-point range.
Boston, which remains undefeated in the playoffs after sweeping Indiana, is getting a lot of great performances, typical of its egalitarian attack. Kemba Walker was great in Game 1, Jaylen Brown has been good, Marcus Smart hit five fourth-quarter 3-pointers in Game 2 and Robert Williams has provided really nice minutes off the bench and offers an entirely different athletic dynamic that Daniel Theis. But this is officially Tatum's team. And he is living up to that responsibility at just 22 years old.
After shooting a career-worst 24 percent from 3 during the regular season, and eventually almost entirely wiping jump shots from his arsenal, Butler found his stroke at just the right time by hitting a pair of second-half 3-pointers and three crunch-time jumpers en route to 40 points (a playoff career high) to seal a win for Miami over Milwaukee in Game 1.
In Game 2, Butler was a lot quieter on the offensive end, finishing with 13 points on just eight shots as he focused on facilitating while letting Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro, both of whom played brilliantly, seek their offense. But it was Butler who won the game with the first of two free throws with no time on the clock -- after he drew a (very arguable) foul on a potential game-winning jump shot as time expired.
And the winner:
Miami is up 2-0 on the top-seeded Bucks.
On paper, Giannis' stats look fine through two games against the Heat: 23.5 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, better than 50 percent shooting, even 2 of 6 from deep. But don't be deceived. He is not playing well in this series. The Heat are throwing sturdy size and length at him with Jae Crowder and Bam Adebayo. They are completely frustrating him with timely doubles and by surrounding him with what amount to bubbles of defenders, encasing him, or at least his vision, and waiting to suck in and create an actual barrier the moment he puts his head down to drive.
The operative words here are put his head down, because right now that's about all Giannis can do. He doesn't have a jumper, even if he makes a few here and there, and he isn't going to create space with his handle (Miami is smartly playing him tightly instead of sagging off him, as a lot of defenses do with non-shooters, which gives him a runway to get a head of steam).
With a strong defender crowding his space and no real way of creating separation with his handle, in terms of making plays with the ball, Giannis really only has one option outside of posting up: to put his head down. And that is a frustrating way to play, literally banging your head against a wall time after time.
He's still going to break through now and again. He's indefensible with a head of steam, and his Euro step is straight-up nasty. He gets some offensive boards and put-backs. He does some nice work as a roller. He's a beast, no question. By the end of the game he's going to have his stats. But Miami is making life very difficult on him, and so far, it doesn't look like Giannis has a truly reliable counter.