NBA playoff notebook: Winners and losers from a wild weekend of playoff ball

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Kevin Durant posted one of the best multi-game playoff performances in NBA history, but it's Giannis with the clear path to an NBA title now. (Getty)
Kevin Durant posted one of the best multi-game playoff performances in NBA history, but it's Giannis with the clear path to an NBA title now. (Getty)

The final four teams left in the 2021 NBA playoffs are the Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a fake television graphic in the background of a movie scene written by someone who clearly has never watched a single minute of basketball.

Here’s a look at the winners and losers from an exhilarating weekend of playoff basketball as the conference finals swing into full gear this week:

⬆️ Kevin Durant

The best player in the world, according to Giannis Antetokounmpo, delivered one of the greatest Game 7 performances in NBA history on Saturday. Kevin Durant played all 53 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks, scoring 48 points, including a ridiculous jumper at the end of regulation to force overtime. This was how close Durant’s shot was to sending the Bucks home:

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The Bucks rebounded and won a sluggish overtime, where they outscored Brooklyn 6-2. Durant missed a go-ahead jumper late in the period as fatigue started to set in, and could only blame his “big-ass foot” after the game.

The wildest thing is that Durant usually rocks sneakers on the court that are one full-size bigger than what he usually wears:

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Thanks to injuries, the Nets went from a superteam at the start of their second-round series to a squad holding on for dear life by the end of it. It’s remarkable how close Durant came to carrying Brooklyn to the conference finals. I’m mostly disappointed at the result because watching KD in this series was a spiritual experience.

⬇️ Rudy Gobert

Shame on me for buying into the Utah Jazz as legitimate title contenders last week after they went up 2-0 on the Los Angeles Clippers (life hack: never underestimate a Clippers team facing a 2-0 deficit). Utah lost their next four games and blew a 25-point lead at Staples Center in Game 6 on Friday.

Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, was rendered completely ineffective in the most critical moment of a playoff series once again, as Tyronn Lue and the Clippers downsized and completely eliminated Gobert’s strength as a rim protector.

The series might have still been salvaged if Mike Conley didn’t miss all but one game and if Donovan Mitchell wasn’t clearly limping for most of the second round, but this isn’t the first time we’re having this conversation about Gobert’s postseason impact.

The Jazz had the best record in the regular season this year and blew two chances to beat a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard in this series. At some point, they’ll have to take a hard look at their core group and decide whether they’ve hit a ceiling as a team.

⬆️ Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks were headed towards those same questions but instead managed to squeeze past the Nets by the thinnest of margins. Even with Kyrie Irving injured and James Harden playing with a hamstring injury, Milwaukee didn’t make it easy on themselves in Game 7, trailing in the first half and somehow throwing out a key possession late in the fourth quarter, when Brook Lopez inexplicably didn’t realize the time on the shot clock coming out of a timeout, which opened the door for Durant to send the game to overtime.

Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday rebounded from atrocious first-half performances in Game 7. They came up huge in spots in the fourth quarter and overtime, but Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way with 40 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists. The free throws remained a problem (he did go 8-for-14 in Game 7, albeit with two airballs), but the two-time MVP came up huge with the season on the line.

Milwaukee feels like a team that will just make things difficult for themselves regardless of the opponent. On paper, it feels like we should pencil them as favorites of the four teams remaining, but they’re just really hard to trust over a seven-game series. On the other hand, the Nets series might galvanize this team. The path to the championship is wide open. Let’s see if the Bucks can take advantage.

⬇️ The entire Philadelphia 76ers fanbase

I don’t even know where to start. Props to the Atlanta Hawks for their incredible postseason run, but the postmortem of the Philadelphia-Atlanta series is solely about the future of the 76ers. The number one seed in the East lost three home games in the series, including Game 7 on Sunday, and blew 18 and 26-point leads in back-to-back games to the Hawks.

The future of Ben Simmons in Philadelphia is officially up in the air.

A story in three tweets:

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⬆️ Kevin Huerter

On the flip side, shoutouts to Kevin Huerter, who scored 27 points for the Hawks in Game 7. A playoff legend is born:

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⬇️ Adam Silver

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(But seriously, let’s put the television ratings talk aside and enjoy what is going to be an exciting next couple weeks of basketball.)

⬆️ Devin Booker and Chris Paul

Devin Booker missed the playoffs with the Phoenix Suns in his first five seasons in the NBA and carried a reputation for being an “empty stats” player on a bad team.

Well, the 24-year-old is putting an end to those narratives in these playoffs. With Chris Paul sidelined as he remains in the league’s health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID, Booker led the Suns to a Game 1 win against the Clippers on Sunday to open the Western Conference finals.

It was an impressive display of both Booker’s scoring skills, but his growth as an offensive player, as he took over point guard duties down the stretch and put his stamp on the entire game with a 40-point triple-double, finishing with 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

It had to be a relief for Paul, who is reportedly symptom-free and could be working towards a return early in this series. A Game 1 victory does make it a bit more palatable if the Suns point guard isn’t available on Tuesday for Game 2.

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