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.
If you thought all the talk of the No. 8 Blazers upsetting the top-seeded Lakers was overzealous, think again. Damian Lillard went for 34 points on Tuesday and Portland took a 1-0 series lead with a 100-93 Game 1 victory. And, yes, Lillard was once again raining 3s from the edge of the universe like they were layups.
So far this season, LIllard is shooting 41.5 percent on shots from at least 30 feet, per NBA.com's shot tracking data. But you really want your mind blown? On shots from at least 35 feet, he's shooting over 52 percent. On shots between 35-39 feet, he's shooting ... wait for it ... 66.6 percent (8 for 12)!
Who knows if the Blazers will beat the Lakers three more times and actually win this series, but they've already proven they're for real because of the otherworldly impact of Damian Lillard, who, at this particular moment in time, is playing like the best player in he world. I know that sounds like a knee-jerk thing to say, but really, can you dispute it?
James posted a historic triple-double in the Lakers' Game 1 loss -- 23 points, 17 rebounds and 16 assists -- making him the first player in NBA history to put up at least 20 points, 15 assists and 15 rebounds in a playoff game. But he did not dominate the game to the degree that stat line would suggest.
The aggression to score, for one, wasn't there. He had the classic look of a floor general waiting for the game to come to him, and it just never quite did. He put up giant numbers because he's an obscenely great basketball player who has the ball a ton, but he rarely put a stamp of dominance on the game. He rarely put his head down and forced his way to the rim. He missed two crucial free throws late in the fourth quarter. He flat-out wasn't the best player on the floor, and that's not something we're used to saying about LeBron, let alone in a playoff game.
Don't think for a second this isn't churning in LeBron's mind. Game 2 is going to be incredible.
After getting hosed in a Game 1 loss to the Clippers (I will never get over how ridiculous that Kristaps Porzingis ejection was), the Mavericks bounced back to win Game 2 and even the series. And what do you know, Luka Doncic played really great basketball.
How great? Well, he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most points scored over the first two playoffs games of a career with a cool 70 (42 in Game 1, 28 in Game 2). All told, Luka is averaging 35 points, 8.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals through the first two games of the series. It continues to be certifiably stupid how good this guy is at 20 years old. At this moment, only Lillard is playing better.
Mitchell's 57 points in Utah's Game 1 loss to Denver represent the third-highest playoff scoring output in NBA history, behind only Michael Jordan's 63 and Elgin Baylor's 61. Utah bounced back to win Game 2 behind 30 points and eight assists from Mitchell, who is shouldering as heavy an offensive burden as any single player in these playoffs, and that includes Lillard.
With Bojan Bogdanovic out for the year and Mike Conley having missed the first two games of the series for the birth of his son, the Jazz don't have a single other player (outside of perhaps Jordan Clarkson, who was terrific in Game 2, off the bench) who can create consistent offense. Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neale are guys who can knock down shots, but Mitchell has to create the majority of them.
All the while, Mitchell has to fight his own occasional inefficiency demons. He's been known to settle for too many contested mid-range pull-ups, and he's been an inconsistent 3-point shooter, notably off the dribble. In Game 2, Mitchell was 10 for 14 from the field and 6 for 7 from 3. That'll work.
Even without Russell Westbrook, the Rockets hummed through their Game 1 victory over the Thunder. Harden finished with 37 points and 11 rebounds on 12-of-22 shooting, including 6 of 13 from deep. Harden's line will get the attention, but it was the play of Eric Gordon (21 aggressive points) and the Houston switching defense that was most encouraging as we ponder the prospects of this Rockets team as a potential championship threat.
Tatum has been sensational through Boston's first two games of the playoffs (both wins over the Sixers): 32 points in Game 1, 33 points in Game 2. As Tatum appeared to make the jump into the superstar realm around the beginning of February, the question became whether he could carry an offense in the playoffs. To be fair, no one player has to carry this Boston offense, but if one did need to do that, Tatum certainly appears up to the task. The smoothness of this guy's game is almost unrivaled in the league today.
Butler finished with 28 points on 8-of-15 shooting in Miami's Game 1 win over the Pacers. You might recall Butler's beef with T.J. Warren from earlier in the year, and Butler reminded us again that Warren -- though apparently some kind of bubble superhero -- still isn't in his league. And that's not a knock on Warren. Butler is just as tough as they come.
Butler has gotten to the free-throw line at a career-high rate this season, and he continued that trend in Game 1 going 10 of 12 from the stripe. But what you really loved was seeing him knock down two late 3-pointers. Butler put together the worst 3-point shooting season of his career this year, and it got to the point where he would hardly take a shot outside 15 feet. In Game 1, he knocked this triple down with just over three minutes to play:
Shortly thereafter, he dropped this one:
If Butler starts to gain confidence from deep, particularly as a pull-up shooter off pick-and-roll, this already-dangerous Heat team goes to another level with him operating late-game offense.
Embiid's averages look great through the first two games of the playoffs: 30 points and 13 rebounds on 48 percent shooting. But it hasn't gotten the Sixers anywhere. They're a mess -- a total failure of roster construction and execution.
The offense is stuck in the mud; nobody moves, nobody cuts, nobody can shoot, Embiid spends way too much time 25 feet from the basket, Al Horford jams his space when he does go inside, Tobias Harris is making $180 million to be borderline invisible, and Brett Brown seems to have conceded to the considerable flaws of the personnel at his disposal by running inefficient offense akin to beating his head against a wall.
After Game 2, I was going to write about just how bad this is for Philly, both in the short and long term, and all the reasons for that (namely all the shooting the Sixers have given away, the ill-advised contracts they have handed out, and the elephant in the room that is the fit between Embiid and Ben Simmons), but then I re-read this piece I wrote prior to the start of the playoffs, and, well, it all still stands.