Before shooting off emails pointing out omissions of your favorite player, let’s first establish the main parameter for inclusion in this list: their teams must still be alive in the playoffs.
That’s the case for two of the players headlining the list for first-round MVPs with Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics preparing to host Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday at TD Garden in the Eastern Conference semifinals (1 ET, ABC).
Tatum and Antetokounmpo carried their respective squads in the opening round of the postseason. Tatum’s Game 1 buzzer-beater set the tone for Boston to sweep Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets 4-0, while Milwaukee eliminated the Chicago Bulls 4-1 behind a 33-point, nine-rebound effort from the Bucks forward in Game 5.
As we set our sights on the conference semifinals, let’s point out five MVPs from the opening round of the postseason, listed alphabetically:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Playoff stats: 28.6 ppg, 13.4 rpg, 6.2 apg
Antetokounmpo’s postseason scoring average is down 1.3 points from the regular season, but with Bucks’ second-leading scorer Khris Middleton out for an unspecified amount of time with a sprained MCL, the reigning NBA Finals MVP boosted his numbers in rebounding (13.4 rpg in the playoffs, compared to 11.6 in the regular season) and assists (6.2 apg in playoffs, compared to 5.8 in the regular season). The Celtics are well aware of Antetokounmpo’s playmaking abilities, despite his penchant for creating his own offense. “With those guys, he makes it really tough because of how aggressive he is, and how he can get in the lane and not only create for himself, but create for other guys,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart, the 2021-22 Kia Defensive Player of the Year. “Those guys are waiting there ready for him to serve it up on a platter.”
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Playoff stats: 29.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 5.7 apg
Doncic missed the first three games of Dallas’ opening-round series against the Utah Jazz, but the point guard dropped at least 30 points in two of his next three contests on the way to the Mavs’ 4-2 series victory that pushed the club past the opening round for the first time since its 2011 championship run. On the strength of strong play from Jalen Brunson, who averaged 32 points in the first three games, Dallas seized a 2-1 lead over Utah in the first round despite Doncic’s absence. One encouraging sign we saw from Doncic in the first round was his ability to make the right decisions when the Jazz loaded up with traps and double-teams to stop him. “If they’re going to [double-team], somebody is going to be open,” Doncic said.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Playoff stats: 26.2 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 2.3 apg
Embiid put together an MVP-caliber season only to be beset by injuries in the postseason. First, Embiid tore a ligament in his shooting thumb in Game 3 of the first-round series against the Toronto Raptors. Then, on Friday, the 76ers announced Embiid would be out of the lineup indefinitely after suffering a right orbital fracture and mild concussion in the team’s Game 6 win in Toronto on the heels of a 33-point, 10-rebound performance. The freak injury occurred with 3:58 left to play with Philadelphia leading by 29 points. The Sixers didn’t establish a potential timeline for Embiid’s recovery, and that’s unfortunate considering they’re facing top-seeded Miami on the road Monday at FTX Arena (7:30 ET, TNT). The team hasn’t ruled out Embiid for the playoffs, but there’s a good chance he could miss this entire upcoming series.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Playoff stats: 22.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 11.3 apg
The savvy veteran closed out the first round as only he can, knocking down a postseason record 14 field goals without a miss as top-seeded Phoenix eliminated New Orleans 4-2 to set up a conference semifinals clash with the Dallas Mavericks. Top scorer Devin Booker missed Games 3-5 after suffering a strained hamstring, but Paul led the Suns to a 2-1 record in his absence. “When you win and he does that in a close-out game, that’s special,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of Paul’s Game 6 performance. “We celebrate everything, and when a player like Chris, who’s given so much to the game and invested so much to be in positions like that has a night like this, you want to make sure you recognize it.” We certainly do. Paul averaged 14.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 10.8 assists in the regular season, and you can see he’s upped those numbers in the playoffs.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Playoff stats: 29.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 7.3 apg
Tatum showcased his elite two-way ability in the first round to lead the Celtics’ sweep of the Nets, and in so doing elevated his status to bona fide superstar. Aside from his suffocating defense, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Tatum’s opening-round performance was his consistency as a playmaker. Tatum seemed to always make the right plays when Brooklyn ratcheted up the pressure on him. Tatum needs to carry that over into the semifinals against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. In the three regular-season matchups between Boston and Milwaukee, Tatum averaged 31.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists. “[They’re the] defending champs, they’ve been there before, they’ve gotten the job done,” Tatum said of the Bucks. “Obviously, it’s gonna be a great challenge. I’m just looking forward to it. It’s gonna be fun.”
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