And then there were four. The NBA playoffs have eliminated 12 teams so far, and only four very good squads remain.
The Milwaukee Bucks edged out the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, while the vaunted Golden State Warriors have sprinted out to a 2-0 lead against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.
Which players are contributing especially positively or negatively to their team’s fortunes? Let’s go through some key player risers and fallers from the past week.
NBA Playoffs Week 5 Risers
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Warriors leading 2-0 against Portland Trail Blazers in Western Conference Finals)
Curry was heavily scrutinized for his play against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, and rightfully so. He is a superstar, but he wasn’t putting forth the superstar performance that Warriors needed to dispose of the Houston Rockets quickly.
However, the former MVP started to get going in the Warriors’ series-clinching Game 6 win with 33 points in the second half alone. He has continued his strong play in Games 1 and 2. Steph has dropped efficient performances of 36 points and seven assists and 37 points and eight assists in the first two contests in Kevin Durant’s absence.
With Durant’s status for the rest of the playoffs in doubt, it’s certainly a major blessing for the Warriors that Steph has found his confidence and shooting stroke again.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (Bucks leading 1-0 against Toronto Raptors in Eastern Conference Finals)
The man they call “Splash Mountain” for his immense size, sweet shooting stroke and love for Disney was the X-factor for the Bucks in Game 1 against the Raptors. Lopez dropped in a season-high 29 points to go with a pretty all-around line of 11 rebounds, two assists, four blocks and no turnovers on a true-shooting percentage of 66.3.
It was definitely an unexpected performance that boosted Milwaukee in its eight-point victory, but it does highlight the amount of strong talent the Bucks have on their roster. Lopez has averaged more than 20 points per game four times in his career and isn’t completely over the hill at 31 years old.
Because the Bucks already have guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, they don’t need Lopez to put up 20 points every night. However, if Splash Mountain can drop in more big scoring nights, this Bucks-Raptors series could be over quicker than expected.
Maurice Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers (Trail Blazers losing 1-0 against Golden State Warriors)
Harkless is a hustle player who is pretty reliable on defense, but inconsistent on offense. He is not a guy who can create his own shot, but he will hit the occasional spot-up three and sometimes score in transition or on cuts.
The Warriors are focusing heavily on getting the ball out of Damian Lillard’s and C.J. McCollum’s hands. Harkless has responded well when he’s gotten the ball off these traps, totaling 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting in the two games combined. He has stayed active on defense with three blocks and two steals.
Is Harkless playing at this level good enough for the Blazers to come back from a 2-0 deficit against the Warriors? No. Other role players also need to step up. However, if Harkless isn’t playing confidently, the Blazers don’t really have any shot to make this series somewhat competitive.
NBA Playoffs Week 5 Fallers
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors (Raptors losing 1-0 against Milwaukee Bucks in Eastern Conference Finals)
Leonard probably should have made the “risers” list once in the first four weeks of this series. However, he was just so consistently impressive that it was hard to identify any major uptick in his performance at any point.
In his last two games (the Game 7 clincher against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Game 1 loss against the Bucks), Leonard has crossed the fine line between from “deadly high-volume scorer” to “chucker.” His series-winning shot against Philly was incredible, but he has shot 26-of-65 from the field and 3-of-14 from three-point range in his last two contests. He has also passed for just five total assists while turning over the ball seven times.
Leonard is a bona fide superstar, and there’s no doubt that he deserves a lot of touches and shots. However, when his shot isn’t going in at a super-efficient clip, he needs to do a better job of getting his teammates involved instead of just forcing his own shot every time down.
Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks (Bucks leading 1-0 against Toronto Raptors in Eastern Conference Finals)
Bledsoe isn’t too bad of a three-point shooter. For his career, he is a 33.6 percent shooter from behind the arc with 1.1 makes per game. However, in these playoffs, he is just 12-of-49 from downtown, or 24.5 percent.
He was far too content to settle for his outside shot in Game 1 against the Raptors. Bledsoe’s shot was just way off, but he still took six threes, missing all of them. He also had just two assists in his 30 minutes.
Milwaukee was able to survive an off game from Bledsoe in the first contest, but the Bucks could really use a bounce-back game from their 29-year-old point guard. Bledsoe has an elite mix of quickness and strength that helps him as a finisher, but he didn’t use his advantages in Game 1.
Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors (Raptors losing 1-0 against Milwaukee Bucks in Eastern Conference Finals)
In the risers section, we mentioned Brook Lopez, who had an amazing Game 1 against the Raptors. His counterpart, though, is Gasol. Gasol is another skilled veteran big man with shooting range, but his shot was off on Wednesday. He finished the game just 2-of-11 from the field with six points in 40 minutes. He also had only seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in 45 minutes in Game 7 against the 76ers.
Toronto’s offense relied far too heavily on Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam in Game 1, while no one else even scored seven points. Meanwhile, seven Bucks players reached that seven-point mark.
Gasol is 34 years old and has never been very quick. However, he needs to get better at closing out on Lopez on defense. He also needs to show a better shooting touch and continue to stay involved in the offense as a passer, where he is usually excellent.