NBA Star Power Index: Luka Doncic has Mavs on brink of big first-round upset; Trae Young’s star never brighter


Welcome back to the 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. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. 

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LeBron is averaging 22.2 points per game vs. the Suns. That’s the third-lowest scoring playoff series of his career, besting only the 2011 Finals (17.8 PPG) and the 2007 Finals (22.0 PPG). The Lakers need more. We were all waiting for James to take over in Game 5 with Anthony Davis on the shelf, and it just didn’t happen. He had seven points at halftime (five of those came in the first two minutes) and the Lakers were down 30. 

It’s fair to wonder whether LeBron can still access the superhero gear on demand. He’s still a superstar, don’t get it twisted. But right now, he’s not the guy who can just muscle his way to the rim whenever he feels like putting his foot down. Is it age finally showing itself? It has to happen sometime. Is he not completely healthy? Perhaps. Are the Suns packing the paint on his drives? Yes. Do the Lakers have the shooting to punish that strategy? No. 

Add all this up, and LeBron, rather than banging his head against a wall he used to be able to plow right through, is relying on 3-pointers more than ever; 43 percent of his attempts vs. Phoenix have come from behind the arc, by far the highest frequency of his postseason career (last season 31 percent of his postseason shots were 3-pointers, and before that he never topped 28 percent in a single postseason). 

The Lakers are in obvious trouble. They’re down 3-2 and face elimination Thursday night, with LeBron having lost consecutive first-round games for the first time in his career. The good news is LeBron has played five Games 6s in his career while trailing the series 3-2 and in those games, he’s 5-0 with the following numbers:

  • 46 PTS, 11 REB, 9 AST 
  • 41 PTS, 8 REB, 11 AST 
  • 32 PTS, 10 REB, 11 AST 
  • 45 PTS, 15 REB, 5 AST
  • 32 PTS, 12 REB, 6 AST

Does LeBron have another masterpiece in his bag? We shall see. 

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The home team is yet to win a game in the Mavericks-Clippers first-round series, as Dallas stole Game 5 in L.A. on Wednesday to take a 3-2 lead on the Clips. Game 6 is set for Friday in Dallas, which, statistically speaking, is in the driver’s seat. In a 2-2 series, the team that wins Game 5 goes on to win the series over 82 percent of the time. 

Doncic was incredible, yet again. He finished with 42 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds. It took him 37 shots to get there. He came out of the gate on fire but stumbled down the stretch as Dallas damn near gave the game away late with turnovers. But all’s well that ends well. 

Doncic is right. The Mavericks were fantastic in this game, their shaky ending notwithstanding. They defended. They took care of the ball until the end. They hit big shots even though nobody really had a hot hand. They went big with Boban and he gave them a vertical outlet in tight possessions. Tim Hardaway Jr. was a man. I hate to go all Mark Jackson on you, but this guy is absolutely not afraid of the moment. THJ wants the big shot every time. He borders on having irrational confidence in the best way possible. That was an old-fashioned “find a way” gutsy win. 

But Luka, man. What a player. Our Sam Quinn wrote late Wednesday night that Doncic might already be the best player in the world, and I’m not sure I can completely disagree. He gets wherever he wants on the floor, whenever he wants. He manipulates switches. His pace and feel for angles are beyond elite. His knack for knowing the exact moment to sling passes to corner shooters is remarkable. His pick-and-roll game is a master class. When he has his 3-point shot going (as he did in Game 5, going 6-for-12 from downtown), forget about it. 

Dallas is on the brink of a major first-round upset, and Luka’s star has never been brighter. Just think about this little nugget of info regarding Doncic’s Game 5 performance, via ESPN’s Tim McMahon: 

“[Doncic] made or assisted on 31 of the Mavs’ 37 field goals, accounting for 83.8% of Dallas’ buckets, the highest percentage ever in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.” 

Nobody in basketball right now shoulders a heavier burden than Doncic, who is everything to the Mavs. And they couldn’t be in better hands. 

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Lillard put one of the most amazing shows you’ll ever see on Tuesday, going for 55 points and 10 assists with an NBA postseason record 12 3-pointers, two of which tied the game in the waning seconds of regulation and the first overtime. 

Somehow the Blazers let this all go to waste as they fell to the Nuggets 147-140 in double-OT to fall behind 3-2 in the series, thus saddling Lillard with the dubious distinction of being the only player in history to record at least 55 points and 10 assists in a loss, regular season or postseason. 

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Young and the Hawks finished off the Knicks on Wednesday, winning the series 4-1. They’ll face the top-seeded Sixers in the conference semifinals. Young finished Game 5 with 36 points and nine rebounds, putting his name alongside Michael Jordan as the only two visiting players in history to score at least 30 points in three straight playoff games at Madison Square Garden, per ESPN Stats and Info

With under a minute to play, as the Garden crowd — which was in a Reggie Miller-like back-and-forth with Young all series — was giving the Knicks a standing ovation, Young buried a dagger 3 and proceeded to take a bow. 

That is a stone-cold boss move. As was Young’s quote after the game. 

Check Young’s numbers for the series:

As the great Gus Johnson once said as a skinny sophomore sharpshooter named Stephen Curry was taking over the 2008 NCAA Tournament: “Folks, we got a star!”

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Lost in Lillard’s heroics was an MVP performance from Jokic, who finished Denver’s Game 5 win with 38 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks. The Blazers have, for the most part, resisted double-teaming Jokic, forcing him to beat them as a scorer rather than allow him to get everyone else going by slinging passes all over the court with a man-up advantage (his 4.2 assists per game are the lowest mark for any postseason series thus far in his career). 

Jokic is obliging with buckets, averaging over 32 points per game vs. Portland, which bit the bullet in the closing minutes of double overtime and sent two defenders to the big man. He earned the compromise. He was scoring with ease against the single coverage of Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter and Robert Covington. 

But this is what happens when you double Jokic. Watch as he patiently waits for Aaron Gordon to cut through the lane, which occupies the attention of the corner defender (Covington) for just a split second, enough time for the Joker to float a perfect pass over the top to a waiting Micahel Porter Jr., who buried perhaps the biggest shot of the game taken by anyone other than Lillard. 

This is your MVP, and the Nuggets, without the services of Jamal Murray, are one win from the second round. 

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The Nets eliminated the Celtics on Tuesday. Over the final two games of the series, Irving went for 64 points on 53-percent shooting, including 47 percent from 3. But Kyrie’s numbers are not what got him in the headlines. 

After Brooklyn’s Game 4 win in Boston, Irving, who has, shall we say, a somewhat prickly relationship with Boston fans, sort of half stomped, half squished his shoe as though killing a big on the Celtics mascot affectionately known as Lucky. 

Former Celtics Kevin Garnett and Glen “Big Baby” Davis were not happy. Never mind that Garnett once referred to former NBA player Charlie Villanueva — who suffers from a condition called Alopecia Areata, which causes hair loss — as a “cancer patient” during a game. So he seems like the right guy to be drawing the line of what constitutes disrespect. 

Big Baby, meanwhile, tweeted to “keep that s–t basketball before somebody get hurt in real life,” which seems super mature to be threatening actual violence against an actual human being for stepping on a cartoon. 

Speaking of violence, as Kyrie was leaving the court, a fan hurled a water bottle at him. That was not a good decision. The 21-year-old is now reportedly facing felony charges, as he should. 

Here’s what Kyrie had to say about the situation. 

Durant said the same thing, that players are getting treated like they’re in a zoo, and it’s true. You don’t go to the theatre and chuck stuff at the actors. These are human beings. Boo them all you want. That’s sports. But dumping popcorn on Russell Westbrook, spitting on Trae Young, throwing water bottles at Kyrie, get the hell out of here with that stuff. 

These fake tough guys in the stands, man. They wouldn’t dream of harassing these players outside the arena. They know they would get pummeled. Cowards. Every one of them. I don’t agree with Charles Barkley’s basketball takes in a lot of instances, but consider me fully on board with his proposed rule change (which he voiced after the Westbrook-popcorn incident) to deal with these idiots who like to act tough from the comfort of their seats knowing the players can’t actually come after them. 





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