• We’re down to the final four teams now, with one Eastern Conference team appearing to come apart at the seams and the West’s top seed asserting themselves with a relatively easy win in Game 1. Don’t worry though — down in the series is right where the Nuggets want to be. As for the rest of the league, we had our NBA MVP announcement, which generated some “fun” (read: exhausting) discourse today. Let’s go through it.

    Back-to-Back

    In an announcement that should surprise absolutely nobody, Giannis Antetokounmpo was named MVP on Friday afternoon. It’s his second straight MVP award and one that’s richly deserved given the insane season Giannis had. The Greek Freak averaged 29.5 points on .553 shooting to go along with 13.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.4 3-pointers in just 30.4 minutes per game. He led the Bucks to the league’s best record and set a new NBA record for highest Player Efficiency Rating.

    While the timing is uncomfortable given Milwaukee’s latest playoff flame-out, the MVP is a regular-season award and Antetokounmpo was the obvious choice. He led the league in double-doubles and put up an astonishing 17 games with 30 points and 15 rebounds. He joined LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players ever to win multiple MVPs by age 26. Speaking of LeBron…

    James said he was “pissed off” about only getting 16 of the 101 first-place votes for the award. Anthony Davis complained about the players’ lack of say in the vote. Let’s all pretend like the players do even a half-decent job about All-Star voting. Now, there is a compelling case that the goalposts keep moving here. LeBron has frankly been the best player on the planet for well over a decade, and while “best player” doesn’t necessarily mean “most valuable” depending on who you talk to, you could easily envision LeBron having more MVPs on his mantle than he does. Him being discounted for playing in the “weaker” East didn’t seem to apply to Antetokounmpo. It should also be pointed out that LeBron took the Lakers from the lottery to the top seed in the juggernaut Western Conference.

    On the flip side, the West might not be quite as good as we thought given how tough the top three teams in the East are and how some of the supposed top Western teams folded up like cheap suits, and the Lakers were in a playoff spot before James was sidelined by a groin issue in 2018-19. That argument also basically discredits Davis’ arrival, even if it’s pretty clear that LeBron is the transformative talent. He did bring up a very, very, very valid point in that the award is often decided by narratives that can swing wildly from week to week. We’ll see if the league and/or the voters takes that sort of thing into consideration going forward.

    Ultimately, given that this is a regular-season award, Antetokounmpo is still probably the right choice — at least to the extent that there’s a right or wrong here. And although James has definitely been robbed of the honor in the past, he’s probably happier competing for a Finals berth than an MVP award.

    Lakers Take Game 1

    The Lakers haven’t really seemed to capture the court of public opinion so far in the postseason. There were a surprising number of people picking the plucky Blazers in round one. The Rockets’ uniqueness provided and easy excuse to pick against the favorites in round two. The Nuggets are riding a big wave of momentum, providing a very interesting choice as an upset pick. And yet, it’s the top-seeded Lakers who have cruised through the first two rounds despite losing Game 1 to both Portland and Houston. It’s not quite disrespect, but it seems like there’s some mental gymnastics happening to try and avoid giving the Lakers their due.

    (And that’s fine; good, even! The playoffs are more fun when an underdog throws the bracket off. #TeamChaos)

    After the Nuggets exited the first frame with the lead, the Lakers appeared to completely lock in on both ends. Denver’s defense has been suspect throughout the season, and Anthony Davis strolled to 37 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and a 12-for-21 shooting line. An offensive-minded big is one challenge that the Nuggets have yet to encounter this postseason and they failed the first test. LeBron took just 11 shots in 31 minutes, double-doubling with 15 points and 12 dimes.

    LA got some secondary contributions from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who chipped in 18 points and three triples, and Dwight Howard, who was back in the rotation. After the matchup against Houston kept him out in the cold, Howard got back into the mix with 13 points, two steals and two blocks. Less impressive was JaVale McGee, who also returned to the rotation but finished minus-11 with a block and no other stats in 11 minutes. The Lakers look to be at their most dangerous defensively when they go big, so the Nuggets will need to lock it in on their end of the court if they want to change the calculus in their favor.

    Denver didn’t get much outside of their big two. Nikola Jokic had 21 points in 25 minutes but just two assists, with the Nuggets really cooling off after the first quarter. Jamal Murray really had to work for his shots tonight but still came through with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting. After that, Michael Porter Jr. was the top scorer with 14 points, also adding 10 rebounds, four assists, a steal and a triple. No other Denver player hit double digits, which is going to make for a tough road if the trend continues. The Nuggets seem to thrive on being discounted, and Mike Malone has a few ways they can attack the rest of this series to get back in it.

    Firstly, playing the “no respect” card has been the golden goose, and Malone has a free play there with the officiating tonight. The Lakers had 32 free throws in the first half alone, though they got just five more the rest of the way. Whether or not the referees were correct in those calls is largely irrelevant — Malone can publicly gripe about the whistle with a disparity that large. As for the tactics, the Nuggets would be wise to try and limit LA’s transition play. The Lakers outscored Denver by seven in points off turnovers and by six in fastbreak points. The Lakers have yet to cobble together an effective halfcourt offense for a full 48 minutes in these playoffs, and the Nuggets should feel comfortable turning the game into a slog given Jokic’s playmaking. It’s an uphill battle to be sure, but Denver has shown that all they need is a puncher’s chance.

    Injury Report

    Rajon Rondo (back spasms) was initially questionable but played just under 22 minutes, cooking up seven points, nine assists and two steals. That’s another player the Nuggets might want to try and exploit, though he has been a quality player since a rough first game in the postseason. Dion Waiters (groin) was doubtful and did not end up playing.

    Gordon Hayward (right ankle sprain) is questionable for Saturday’s Game 3, and it sounds like he has a real shot at playing after going through on-court work on both Wednesday and Friday. He’ll be under some sort of minutes restriction given that he’s missed four weeks, but the Celtics need all hands on deck with the Heat in total control as of right now. Javonte Green (right knee) is probable but won’t play unless the game gets way out of hand.

    Andre Iguodala (back spasms) is probable. Most probable tags are just a waste of time at this point in the year but a player with Iguodala’s history of maintenance days might present a little more sit risk than usual.

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