NBA playoffs 2021: Which superstar was the MVP of the conference semifinals?

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Monday, June 21, 2021

The NBA's conference semifinals had a bit of everything.

We were treated to two thrilling Game 7s, with the Milwaukee Bucks outlasting the Brooklyn Nets in overtime and the Atlanta Hawks stunning the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers at home to advance.

We got another historic comeback from the LA Clippers, who were down 2-0 against the Utah Jazz before rattling off four straight wins. The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, obliterated 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic via the sweep.

But which star was most valuable during the conference semis?

After their Game 7 duels, where do Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Trae Young rank? What about Paul George, who turned in some of his best playoff performances after Kawhi Leonard went down with a right knee sprain?

Our panel of NBA experts makes its picks.

1. Chris Paul | G | Phoenix Suns

Chris Paul's series against the Denver Nuggets was a masterclass in how to control a series. He had some offensive moments, to be sure, when he erupted for a flurry of midrange jumpers early in fourth quarters to create scoreboard separation. But where Paul showcased his elite level was in game management, applying his steady hand to the young Suns as they carved the Nuggets apart on almost every possession.

Paul's numbers were absurd, especially at the intensity levels that come in a postseason series: 25.5 points on 62.7% shooting, 75.0% from 3, 22-for 22 from the free throw line and an unthinkable 41-to-5 assist to turnover ratio. He took over games from the midrange, prodding and pulling Denver's defense, creating uncomfortable binds that no adjustment seemed to solve. Paul himself made more midrange jumpers (22) in the series than the entire Nuggets team (15).

He had 37 points in the closeout game and 27 the game before it. He had the spectacular 15-assist, zero-turnover game in Game 2. He was a picture of poise, the safety net the Suns looked to in every second half.

At 36 years old, there was a perception that Paul was coming to the Suns merely to be the mentor, the talisman, the leader. He was there to set a tone of professionalism and culture, to enhance the knowledge of a young team as he managed the game. But as he showed in four games against Denver, the Point God endures.

He still can rise to a place of superstardom, taking hold of a game and imparting his will onto it.

-- Royce Young

2. Kevin Durant | F | Brooklyn Nets

It's rare that a player performs to such a level in the playoffs that he is elevated when his team loses the series.

It's also rare for a player to be as special as Durant -- and for a player to play as well as Durant did in Brooklyn's heartbreaking seven-game series loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Durant couldn't have given more of himself than he did in this Eastern Conference semifinal. He played all of Game 5, scoring 49 points, including 20 in the fourth quarter, when he nearly outscored the Bucks by himself. He followed that up with another 48 points in Game 7, playing all 53 minutes and setting an NBA Game 7 record with 48 points, the final two coming on a truly impossible turnaround jumper over P.J. Tucker that was one toe away from winning the game for Brooklyn with a second to go in regulation.

Instead, it just sent the game to overtime, where Durant's understandably tired legs caught up to him.

That, however, shouldn't diminish his accomplishments in this series, or this season. Durant's status as an elite player was questioned entering this season only because of the 18 months he'd spent on the sidelines since tearing his Achilles tendon during Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. And, from the moment Durant stepped on the court this season, he proved he'd come back better than even the most optimistic people could have reasonably expected.

After Game 5, Antetokounmpo summed up Durant's performance simply. "He's the best player in the world right now," Antetokounmpo said.

After Game 7, he said the same thing. And, after seeing how Durant played in this series, it's hard to come up with a reasonable argument otherwise.

-- Tim Bontemps

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo | F| Milwaukee Bucks

Antetokounmpo has endured plenty of slings and arrows over the past two years as he and the Bucks have been prematurely bounced from the playoffs. After leading the Bucks past the Nets in seven hard-fought games, however, he's on a path toward erasing the questions about his ability to lead a team to a championship.

With Milwaukee's backs against the wall after falling down 3-2 to Brooklyn in the wake of Durant's iconic Game 5, all Antetokounmpo did was go for 30 points and 17 rebounds to lead the Bucks to a win in Game 6, and then go for 40 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists in 50 minutes in Game 7 -- including scoring over Durant to tie the game with a little over a minute to go in overtime.

Like everyone else in that Game 7, Antetokounmpo at times looked utterly exhausted. But he managed to power himself through to push Milwaukee into the conference finals.

It wasn't always pretty. Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks got annihilated in Game 2, even with James Harden sitting out because of an injury. He struggled again with his foul shooting, finishing 29-for-60 (42.5%) from the charity stripe, and continues to be an inconsistent jump-shooter.

But when Antetokounmpo is aggressive and in attack mode -- he was in Games 6 and 7 -- the Nets had no answer for him. In those moments, he's unstoppable, making his occasional penchant for settling for those jumpers all the more maddening.

This series, though, saw far more good than bad for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. As a result, the two-time MVP is halfway to achieving the Bucks' ultimate goal.

-- Bontemps

4. Paul George | F | LA Clippers

Utah Jazz fans made a point to remind George of his past playoff failures at every opportunity.

"Over-rated! Over-rated!" the Vivint Arena crowd chanted when George went to the free throw line during Game 1.

George was an easy taunting target that night, when he was 4-of-17 from the floor in a Clippers loss, the 10th time in his career he had shot 25% or worse from the floor in a playoff game. "Playoff P" made for an easy punchline, trending on Twitter.

Suffice to say, George proved them wrong during the Clippers' four consecutive victories to win the series after falling in a 2-0 hole for the second straight round.

George averaged 31.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals in the Clippers' four-game run to get rid of the Jazz.

After the pressure on George picked up significantly due to Leonard's knee injury, he responded with perhaps the best playoff performance in his career. George stuffed the box score with 37 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in the Clippers' pivotal Game 5 win on the road.

That's a pretty good way to shut up a rowdy, rival fan base.

-- Tim MacMahon

5. Trae Young | G | Atlanta Hawks

Compared to his first-round mastery of the New York Knicks, Young wasn't as impressive a scorer in Round 2. He struggled with his efficiency for extended stretches, including an 8-of-26 outing in Game 4 and 5-of-23 shooting in Game 7. Yet the Hawks won both games, a tribute both to Young's timely shot-making and the quality of his playmaking for his teammates.

Let's start with the latter factor. Young's 10.9 APG led all players in the conference semifinals, as he handed out double-digit assists five times. During Game 4, when he couldn't get his shot to fall, the 34 assist opportunities Young created for his teammates, according to Second Spectrum, were the most in a playoff game since camera tracking began in 2014, per ESPN Stats & Information research. (The 18 assists Young actually handed out weren't too shabby; they were the most by any player this round.)

Now to Young's role as a closer. In a series in which all four Atlanta wins were decided by seven points or fewer, Young was key down the stretch. His 21 points in what NBA Advanced Stats defines as clutch situations (final five minutes, score within five points) tied Durant for most in the conference semifinals and accounted for 41% of the Hawks' total scoring in those moments.

Most of those points came at the line, where Young went 11-of-12 in clutch situations, but his deep 3-pointer to give Atlanta a 93-87 lead with 2:31 left in Game 7 stands out as perhaps the biggest shot of the series. This time, Young didn't wave goodbye to Philadelphia, but the Hawks did as they reached the conference finals.

-- Kevin Pelton

6. Joel Embiid | C | Philadelphia 76ers

Don't blame Embiid for the Sixers' second-round loss to the Hawks. Despite playing the entire series with a small meniscus tear in his right knee, Embiid was easily Philadelphia's best player. As in the 76ers' 2019 loss in the conference semifinals to the Toronto Raptors, they dramatically outscored the Hawks with Embiid on the court (plus-51 in 262 minutes) but were dominated in the 74 minutes he sat out (minus-31, or minus-20 per 48 minutes).

Unfortunately, the inability to find or pursue a workable lineup with Embiid on the bench exacerbated the biggest challenge he faced playing through injury: fatigue. Embiid dominated the first halves of games as Philly built big leads but wasn't the finisher the Sixers needed with Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons struggling to provide a late-game offensive punch.

Still, Philadelphia wouldn't have been in position to lead in games or the series without Embiid's rapid return from the meniscus tear that forced him to miss the closeout game of the 76ers' first-round win over the Washington Wizards. He came back with a vengeance, combining for 79 points on 25-of-46 shooting in the first two games and adding 27 (plus eight assists, a playoffs career high) in Game 3 as Philly went up 2-1.

Embiid shook off a dreadful 0-for-12 shooting performance in the second half of Game 4 -- during which he did grab 21 rebounds -- to come back with 37 points on 12-of-20 shooting in yet another losing effort. Add in his 31 points in Sunday's Game 7 and Embiid's three 30-point games in losses were tied with four other players, including Durant and Donovan Mitchell in the conference semifinals, for the most in a series this postseason.

-- Pelton

Others receiving votes:

Devin Booker, Suns; Khris Middleton, Bucks;Donovan Mitchell, Jazz.

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