Both of the games on Monday night were very exciting, and while the Grizzlies were oh-so close to tying up their series, Al Horford helped the Celtics do just that in Game 4. Before Monday’s games, the most important individual award was handed out, and Nikola Jokic is officially the 2021-2022 Most Valuable Player, making it back-to-back wins for the big fella. More on that below:
Nikola Jokic wins second straight MVP award
The legend Zak Hanshew (@ZaktheMonster on Twitter) posted a Dose on Monday morning that broke down Jokic winning the MVP, and did a phenomenal job with it (you can check out his Dose here, and trust me, you should). I’ll just discuss some other things that I’ve noticed, and I think it starts with Zak’s main point: the supporting cast (if you prefer a closer look at the numbers and accolades and all, Zak’s column is the one to read).
This award has been interpreted differently throughout the years, but my discussion will be focused on the true meaning of the term “valuable.” All voting and finalists aside, I think it’s safe to say that the three clear-cut MVP candidates this season were Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, so we’ll focus on those three. Giannis’ team finished the best out of this trio (tied with the 76ers record wise at 51-31), and I truly think as long as the Bucks stay competitive, he’s going to be in the running at the very least. The Bucks would be nowhere near as successful without Giannis, of course, but he also had a ton of help. Khris Middleton, his teammate, was one of 37 players in the league to average at least 20 points per game (20.1 ppg), and other teammate Jrue Holiday was one of 51 players to average at least 18 (18.3 ppg). Not to mention Milwaukee got consistent production from Bobby Portis (14.6 ppg) for the majority of the season with Brook Lopez only playing 13 games in the regular season, and with all that, one could easily argue that a Giannis-less Bucks team could still be competitive. They wouldn’t be a top-3 seed in the East, but they surely wouldn’t be a bottom feeder either.
Now onto Joel Embiid. The big man was just outstanding when he played, and unlike previous seasons, he played far more often than not. Embiid played in a career-high 68 games in the 2021-2022 season, which is exactly 17 more games than he played in each of the two preceding seasons. He led the league in scoring, was fifth in rebounding per game (not including silly season hero Jaylen Hoard’s seven games), and was just visibly the most dominant he’s ever been all while staying relatively healthy. I’ll make a similar case for Embiid as I did with Giannis: he had help. Emerging stud Tyrese Maxey (17.5 ppg) and solid-as-always Tobias Harris (17.2 ppg) were both in the top-60 in scoring this season, and I haven’t even included the guys involved in the trade, one of them being James Harden. If you average out the points from Seth Curry (15.0 points per game, 676 total points in 45 games as a 76er) and James Harden (21.0 points per game, 442 total points in 21 games as a 76er), you get another 16.9 points per game (on the Seth Curry topic, he underwent arthroscopic left ankle surgery on Monday and is expected to be fully recovered by the time training camp rolls around). I am in no way taking away from Embiid’s dominant and historic season, but the takeaway is the same: Embiid had plenty of help, pre- and post-trade deadline.
Now onto the back-to-back MVP, Nikola Jokic. To reiterate, I’m really honing in on the word “valuable”, and I think the Joker runs away with being the most valuable player in the regular season and it’s not particularly close. Jokic’s 27.1 points per game were over 80% more than the next highest Nuggets scorer, which is Aaron Gordon’s 15.0 points per game, and slightly more than Will Barton’s 14.7 points per game. After that, we have Monte Morris, Jeff Green and impressive rookie Bones Hyland, who combined to average 33 points per game over the course of the season, which isn’t even that far above Jokic’s individual number. All of these guys were solid, yes, but they were no more than steady role players for the No. 6 Nuggets, who somehow avoided a play-in berth despite not having their second and third best options. Jamal Murray didn’t play one game, and while Michael Porter Jr. did play in nine games, he didn’t even average 10 points per game when he played, so it’s safe to say his minimal presence is negligible. Now, there’s almost no way to compute how well a Giannis-less Bucks team, an Embiid-less 76ers team or a Jokic-less Nuggets team would do this season, but there has to be some sort of logic implemented into the voting. You could very well argue that the Bucks and 76ers could still be competitive without their respective MVP candidates, but how close to the bottom would Denver be? As I said, there’s no way to truly know any of this, but I don’t think the Nuggets would be anywhere close to competitive without Nikola Jokic. He exemplifies “valuable” in near-perfect fashion, and while none of the others would have been a wrong choice, I think this was the best one by a decent margin. For all you bettors out there (all odds via PointsBet), the Joker opened the season at +1400 odds to win the award - these likely came at a discount due to him winning it in the 2020-2021 season as well, but those who believed in him to not only be just as good, but better, in the following campaign are walking away with a good chunk change. Jokic’s odds dropped to as low as +2000 back on December 30 when Embiid was freakishly good despite missing three weeks in November, so those that took a mid-season chance on him will be walking away with even more cash. Jokic closed the season with convincing -355 odds to win the award, and with him leading his subpar teammates to a playoff (not play-in) spot, the award was his to lose.
Alright, onto the games.
Celtics 116, Bucks 108 (Series tied 2-2)
On a Boston team in need of a win that has a duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Monday night’s series-tying Game 4 was all about Al Horford. The 35-year-old went off for a playoff career-high 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting, adding eight rebounds, three assists, one block, five 3-pointers and one turnover in 42 minutes. He’s not only dipped into the fountain of youth in these playoffs but at this point is fully submerged, and keep in mind this career night is on the heels of a 22/16/5 effort in Game 3. Sixteen of Horford’s points came in the fourth quarter, which ties the most for any quarter in both the regular season and playoffs, and he helped the Celtics score 43 points on 84% shooting in the fourth to clinch the win and tie up the series. What he’s doing right now is unbelievable, and one could say he benefitted with Robert Williams (left knee soreness) being a scratch, but he’s been absurd even with Time Lord in there. Old man Al hit two huge threes in the fourth quarter and even threw down this dunk on Giannis that really got the Celtics going, and it’s not even crazy to wonder where this team would be without him. Regarding Williams, this is the same knee that he had meniscus surgery on back at the end of March, and he came back well before his initial timeline, so some soreness is to be expected. Hopefully the night off will help him get ready for a crucial Game 5 on Wednesday. Tatum was pretty remarkable himself, tying team-high honors in scoring with 30 points (11-of-24 shooting), 13 rebounds, five assists, three triples and two turnovers. Tatum, like most of his squad, really found his footing in the fourth quarter after a bit of a slow start, and this was the bounce back everyone expected after he shot just 4-of-19 in Game 3. Jaylen Brown only made it through 32 minutes due to being in some foul trouble but still scored 18 points (5-of-11 FGs, 6-of-6 FTs) albeit with little else across the board, and Marcus Smart notched the same point total but had a much better line with two rebounds, eight dimes, two triples, two blocks and three turnovers in 41 minutes, with his 8-of-13 shooting clip being equally as impressive to every other stat in that line. Grant Williams got the start for the injured Williams, but had a nightmarish start and didn’t do a whole lot overall with nine inefficient points, four boards, one triple, two turnovers and nothing else in 25 minutes, and Derrick White (11/4/3 with one block, one triple) played the most minutes he has this postseason, which is not a coincidence with Horford playing more five while Rob Williams was sidelined. Daniel Theis played a ton to start off the game but missed all five of his shots in 11 minutes before being deservingly benched, while Payton Pritchard joined the scoreless club in his 13 minutes but at least had three boards, four assists and a steal.
Giannis Antetokounmpo left everything on the court tonight, finishing the loss with a 34/18/5 showing with no defensive, no triples and four turnovers in 41 minutes. He shot 14-of-32 from the field and continued to struggle from the line with just six makes on 11 attempts from there, and it was immensely apparent to see that he was exhausted by the time the fourth quarter came around. He really missed Khris Middleton tonight, especially with Jrue Holiday taking a 41-minute ride on the struggle bus in this one. Holiday shot a lousy 5-of-22 from the field for just 16 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, three steals, one 3-pointer and two turnovers, and while the aggressiveness was nice, it was his worst shooting performance of this series. Holiday has actually attempted at least 20 shots in each of these four games, but he’s only converted on 33.7% of them, which needs to skyrocket if he’s going to help the Greek Freak going forward. Brook Lopez was solid in his 29 minutes, recording 17 efficient points, seven boards, one block and one turnover, and even Wesley Matthews got into double figures in the scoring column with 12 points to go with three treys, two swipes and a block in 29 minutes. Grayson Allen (seven points), Bobby Portis (four points, six boards) and George Hill (five points, one FGA) all did a whole lot of nothing which can’t be the case with Milwaukee missing one of their three best guys, and Pat Connaughton was the best reserve by a massive margin with 11 points, seven boards, one steal, one block and three 3-pointers in 30 minutes.
Warriors 101, Grizzlies 98 (GSW leads series 3-1)
Golden State came into Game 4 with a ton of momentum after thumping Memphis by 30 points in Game 3, and while they carried basically none of it over, they still went up 3-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals. It wasn’t pretty by any means, as the Dubs opened the game missing their first 15 shots from range and only put up 62 points through the first three quarters, but a 39-point fourth quarter helped put them in charge of the series. The box score wasn’t basking in beauty either, but Stephen Curry came up big when it mattered, especially at the line. Steph drained eight free throws in a row in the last 45.7 seconds of the game, which was the point the Warriors took their first lead of the whole game. He struggled like many of his teammates as he shot just 10-of-25, but notched a solid line including 32 points, five rebounds, eight assists, one steal, four 3-pointers and three turnovers in 38 minutes. He also became the first player ever to drain 500 postseason triples, and with likely many series left to go in his career, he’s going to make that number very difficult to reach. Klay Thompson reverted back to his struggling ways and shot a miserable 6-of-20 from the field for a 14/7/2/1/2 evening, but Andrew Wiggins was everywhere once again with an efficient 17-point, 10-rebound double-double to go with one steal and two swats in 39 minutes. Draymond Green scored as many points as he attempted shots (two) but did have 11 rebounds, five assists, and a huge block on JJJ in the final seconds in 33 minutes, and rookie Jonathan Kuminga started for the second straight game but played five scoreless minutes before being sent to the bench for the night. Otto Porter started the second half for the second straight game (for Kuminga, of course) and was the only one to hit triples at any sort of respectable rate, going 4-of-6 from downtown (the rest of the team shot 5-of-31 from distance) for 12 points, two rebounds, three assists, two steals and one turnover in 26 minutes. I’ve said it before and I still stand by it, but while Kuminga is going to be so much fun one day, I think this sort of high-intensity basketball is just too much for a 19-year-old and giving his minutes to someone like Porter makes a lot of sense. Finally, Jordan Poole shot just 4-of-12 from the floor for a 14/6/5 line with four turnovers and nothing else in 32 minutes, while Kevon Looney did more stuff than usual with a 8/9/0/1/1 showing in 15 minutes.
As we know, Ja Morant didn’t play in this one, and if the Warriors shot as poorly as they did (40.0% overall) with Ja in there, the result would have been vastly different. There hasn’t been any news on what Ja’s actually dealing with, as it’s being called right knee soreness at the moment, but there’s seemingly no way it’s just a sore knee and the Griz are keeping it very hush-hush. He was also seen with a pretty noticeable limp when the team went to the locker room at halftime, so it would be a huge surprise to see him out there for Game 5 on Wednesday. Jaren Jackson Jr. didn’t get his points efficiently as he went just 7-of-21 from the floor (7-of-8 from the charity stripe) but he had his handprints all over this game with 21 points, five rebounds, two steals, five blocks and no turnovers in 34 minutes. He did commit five fouls, per usual, but he still saw a decent share of playing time and it’s no surprise he’ll need to do more on offense for however long Ja is in street clothes. Steven Adams re-entered the starting unit after falling out of the rotation and was awesome with a 10/15/3/1/1 line, and while Memphis still lost the rebounding battle by six boards, who knows what the disparity would have been without him. Tyus Jones (19/6/5 with three triples and a block) filled in admirably for King Ja and will probably start again in Game 5, while Kyle Anderson (17/8/2/2/2) was fantastic off the bench in his 23 minutes, missing just one of his eight shot attempts (2-of-7 FTs, however). Dillon Brooks was downright awful, hitting just 5-of-19 shots for a 12/5/8 line with a block, two treys and four turnovers, and two of his makes came in the last minute of the game -- a driving layup and a heave from 38 feet away that probably has Grizzlies fans saying “of course you make THAT one, Dillon.” In his three games played this series (suspended for Game 3), Brooks has shot 8-of-35 (22.9%) from the field, and while his defense is generally solid, it’s truly hard to watch him on the offensive end. Desmond Bane wasn’t much better either, scoring just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting with six dimes, three steals and two triples in 37 minutes, and he just hasn’t been the same since we heard he had a lower back issue and it’s evident that it’s bothering him. Ziaire Williams scored seven points in 18 minutes, Brandon Clarke was nearly silent with a 4/4/1/1/1 in a dozen minutes and Xavier Tillman didn’t even get in the game after being their starting big man over the last handful of games.
- 76ers @ Heat (series tied 2-2) - Philadelphia has stormed back from a 0-2 deficit, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve looked worlds better with Embiid back in the mix. Miami defeated Philly by an average of 15.0 points in the first two games of this series, and while everyone thought some brooms could be brought out, Embiid had other plans and has made this a competitive affair. Miami is listing half of its team as questionable and I have no idea why, as it’s only Kyle Lowry (left hamstring strain) and Dewayne Dedmon (head cold) in real jeopardy of missing Tuesday’s Game 5. Joel Embiid is technically questionable, but expect him to play despite being on every injury report possible as long as his team is still afloat.
- Mavericks @ Suns (series tied 2-2) - very similarly, Dallas came back from a 0-2 deficit as well to make this a best-of-three scenario, and it actually looks like they have some real life in them. The non-Luka guys like Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith were both far better in the wins, and they’ll need to post similar production if they want to try and steal a Game 5 victory on Phoenix’s home floor. The only non-regular on either side of the injury report is Torrey Craig, who is probable to play after missing the last two games with a right elbow contusion.