Welcome back to NBA Star Power 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. It's worth noting that this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating.
Trae Young's remarkable run through his first postseason continued on Wednesday. In leading Atlanta to a 1-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, Young scored a career-high 48 points. He added 11 assists, via which the Hawks netted 24 more points. Do the math and Young just made NBA history.
Young also joined some pretty elite under-23 scoring company:
Even getting rid of the age qualification, Young's 48 points are tied for the fourth-most ever in a conference finals game and just six points shy of Michael Jordan's all-time record.
Want more? Young is the only player in NBA history to record a 45-point, 10-assist conference finals game, and the second-youngest player in history to do so in any playoff game, trailing only Luka Doncic. That these guys were traded for one another on draft night in 2018 is wild.
We're reaching the point where it's not hyperbolic to put Young, who didn't even make the All-Star team this season, among the best players in the game right now. He gets anywhere he wants to get on the court. His defense isn't nearly the liability it was supposed to be. He's a brilliant passer with an unbelievable floater and an uncanny, last-second feel for when to deploy each skill. His confidence is off the charts. His teammates have gone from quietly questioning his shot selection and overall ball dominance to trusting him with their basketball lives. His coach, Nate McMillan, who took over midseason for the fired Lloyd Pierce, said it best after Game 1:
Nate McMillan on Trae Young: "I think he just has the skills that these top players have in this league. You have to put him with the top guys in the league."— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) June 24, 2021
The confidence Young plays with is astounding. I mean, the guy threw a shoulder shimmy on Jrue Holiday after crossing him up BEFORE splashing a 3.
Young also threw an in-traffic, off-the-backboard alley-oop to John Collins:
Young did these things in the second half of a tight conference finals game as though he were playing pickup in his driveway. You can't teach that kind of confidence and swag. You either have it or you don't, and Trae has all kinds of it. Right now, there is not a more fun basketball player on earth to watch.
It wasn't quite as crazy as Young's performance, but Devin Booker put up a 40-13-11 triple-double (the first of his career, incidentally) in his conference-finals debut on Sunday.
Booker had a tougher time in Game 2 as the Clippers threw everything at him, but Cameron Payne was there to take advantage of the extra space, finishing with 29 points and nine dimes. Booker finished with 20 points and one busted nose that left him looking like this after colliding with Patrick Beverley:
Booker will take the battle scars any day in a victory, and even with that nose, he wasn't afraid to stick his face in the mix again when his back-screen on Ivica Zubac freed Deandre Ayton for the game-winning lob dunk in Game 2:
The Suns have now won nine straight playoff games dating back to Game 4 against the Lakers in Round 1. They are likely getting Chris Paul back for Game 3 on Thursday night as they try to take a 3-0 lead on the Clippers and move one win from the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance since 1993.
Ayton has been a revelation in these playoffs in large part to a newfound work ethic, which he credited for his improvements after Game 2. He's shooting 83 percent inside the restricted area. He's been terrific as a defender and on the boards. He's setting the right screens and playing within his role to perfection. I can't remember the last time he took a bad shot.
"[Suns coach] Monty [Williams] definitely made me a super gym rat," Ayton said. "There was times where I wouldn't even come in on days off. He used a thing called, 'smell the gym,' touch the ball at least, and he really instilled that in me where I constantly wanted to just sharpen my skills and be the best player I could be.
"Knowing the type of level and the type of play style we have to come with night in and night out and to be consistent in what I do, I have to be in the gym. Just to see results now at a high level and where we are right now, I don't want to get out of the gym. That's what he really instilled in me, and I kept it going."
Ayton had his signature moment with the "valley-oop" that won Game 2 in Phoenix:
Our Jack Maloney gave a great breakdown of everything that went into this play, which exploited a little-discussed rule that offensive goaltending cannot be called on an inbounds play.
Paving the way for Ayton's valley-oop were Paul George's two shanked free throws eight seconds earlier.
Those freebies would've given the Clippers a three-point lead. Even one of them would've been huge, as a two-pointer for Phoenix on the other end would've only sent the game to overtime. It's too bad because George had hit two monster shots -- a coast-to-coast layup to give L.A. a one-point lead with 30 seconds to play, and a pull-back jumper with 22 seconds to play to pout them back in the lead again -- prior to those free throws.
George -- who has been great this postseason, but whose reputation as a playoff choker (however unfair) precedes him -- isn't going to hear the end of this for a long time if the Clippers indeed go on to lose this series.
The 76ers were eliminated in seven games by the Hawks, and Ben Simmons is taking the brunt of the criticism. Fake trades are all over Twitter. Our Sam Quinn explored how much Simmons' value has dropped and who might be interested in trading for him. (I would be surprised if the Sixers don't seriously explore moving him, and their first call should be to Portland for CJ McCollum).
There's no other way to say it: Simmons absolutely disappeared when the Sixers needed him most. Over the entire seven-game series, Simmons took just three fourth-quarter shots, zero of which came in the final four games, three of which the Sixers lost.
Simmons also shot 25 for 73 from the free-throw line during the playoffs. That is the worst free-throw showing over the course of a single postseason (minimum 70 attempts) in NBA history.
When asked whether he still believed Simmons could be a championship point guard, Sixers coach Doc Rivers, who has been Simmons' most committed defender all season, simply said: "I don't know the answer to that."
Indeed, the Sixers and Simmons will both be looking for a lot of answers this offseason.