The 2021 NBA playoffs took many of us by surprise. Aside from the unexpected finals matchup, we witnessed multiple series upsets and top performers making a name for themselves. These turnouts will surely have a strong influence over free agency and the upcoming draft.
While we have yet to declare an NBA champion and Finals MVP, we have already seen a great deal of basketball. Over the past few months, we’ve seen stars be born, and superstars reassert themselves. Given all the games played and the narratives that followed throughout, it leaves to question who stood out the most.
That said, I’ve compiled a shortlist of performers who I believe played the best in the NBA playoffs. Obviously, how far their team went plays into the rankings. I also consider the teams each player competed against, how often they played up to par, and what the majority expected from them going in. Honorable mentions include Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, and Nikola Jokic. These are the top five performers from the 2021 NBA playoffs.
After three straight years of underperforming in the playoffs, Paul George finally got back to being Paul George. Especially after the Clippers’ exit in the 2020 playoffs, George received a bevy of criticism for his play. You may remember the nickname “Pandemic P” trending on Twitter at one point.
While uncalled for, the teasing stemmed from an understanding that George was capable of more than what he’d shown. Since leaving the Indiana Pacers in 2017, George often underachieved in the playoffs. Many of the pundits who levied criticism towards him for it were forced into silence this time around.
As Kawhi Leonard went down with a knee injury late in the Jazz series, Paul George stepped forward. He played a pivotal role in the Clippers’ comebacks from 2-0 down against the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. For all his efforts, the Clippers earned their first-ever trip to the conference finals. Locked in with LA for the foreseeable future, he’ll have a big part to play in their push to win a title.
While in Golden State, we’d see Kevin Durant dominate time after time. However, playing next to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, it became difficult to truly appreciate his performance. The talent he played with made it easier for him to put up the numbers he did. We got a different story this year, though.
It’s not to say that we didn’t know Durant could do what he did this year. But a fine line exists between believing in something and seeing it thrive firsthand. The onus lay in Durant’s hands with Kyrie Irving and James Harden limited in the Nets playoff run. And though his team ultimately bowed out in round two, he clearly outperformed the competition along the way.
Should the Nets make the necessary adjustments this offseason, they’ll likely enter next season as championship favorites. Averaging 34.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game on 51.4 percent shooting from the floor, Kevin Durant single-handedly led the Nets to the conference finals. With him leading the charge, a banner could soon be on the horizon for Brooklyn.
None of us could have expected the Atlanta Hawks to pull off the run that they did. Despite their mid-season surge into the playoff picture, we couldn’t fathom this team finishing in the final four. The man leading the charge, Trae Young, exerted himself as an NBA superstar this postseason. He sparked his team at every turn during the playoffs to the tune of 28.8 points and 9.5 assists per game.
While the Cinderella run came to an end in the conference finals, Young has done more than enough to earn a spot as one of the top performers in these NBA playoffs. Whether this core can stay together, we have yet to see. But regardless, the fate of Atlanta’s future in the postseasons to come will rest largely on his shoulders.
Chris Paul has had to wait a long time to make his first NBA finals. A big reason as to why he failed to reach such heights before had to do with injuries. This time, except for a brief bout with COVID-19, Paul has stayed healthy enough to last the entire postseason.
Shooting over 40 percent from three and being the lead playmaker on offense, Chris Paul has proven heroic for his team multiple times in these playoffs. At times assuming full control of games against Denver and Los Angeles, Paul has led this young Suns team to its first NBA finals appearance since 1993. And standing on the verge of his first championship, I wouldn’t bet on him stopping.
As one of the all-time greats, Chris Paul has long since deserved his time at the top. This run, possibly ending in a championship victory, would further cement the already great legacy he’s forged throughout his NBA career.
After consecutive years of regular-season success and MVP victories, all that remained for Giannis Antetokounmpo was a deep playoff run. This year proved to be the time where it all came together for him.
Led by his outstanding play, the Milwaukee Bucks swept the defending conference champions in Miami. They then took a tightly contested seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets. Finally, though he would miss the last two games of the series, his performance played an essential role in the Bucks’ triumph over the Atlanta Hawks.
Leading his team in points and rebounds per game this postseason, Antetokounmpo has the Bucks in a prime position to win their second-ever championship. Accomplishing this would put him on track to become one of the greatest players in league history. Still, his performance thus far earns him a spot on this list.