The NBA Conference Semifinals are underway and regular season awards are already being dispersed.
A new crop of NBA stars are breaking out, while a few members of the old-guard stand in their way.
Before we address any secondary storylines, let’s check-in with how things stand so far in the 2nd round.
Top 2 seeds in the West starting off strong
The overall No. 1 seed, the Utah Jazz, took game one over the Los Angeles Clippers by a narrow 112-109 margin.
Utah overcame a double-digit first half deficit thanks to some timely three-pointers.
Guard Donovan Mitchell was terrific, posting 45 points to go with six threes. More on his evolution later.
Rim protection and rebounding are a deficiency with LA’s small-ball lineup, but they also may have faded late coming off a seven-game hangover.
We’ll see how they adjust in game two.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns looked very impressive in their game-one victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Four Suns players finished with more than 20 points scored, leading to a 122-105 victory.
Phoenix played stifling defense and only allowed Denver six free throws attempts, down from their regular season average of 19.7.
Maybe adjustments can be made, but the Suns just look better and are definitely healthier than the Nuggets.
Brooklyn looks unstoppable, even without Harden
In the East, the Brooklyn Nets have distanced themselves from the Milwaukee Bucks after two games.
Guard James Harden went down with hamstring tightness on his first drive of game-one, but the Nets still managed a 115-107 win.
In game two, again without Harden, Brooklyn dominated Milwaukee en route to a 39-point victory.
Forward Kevin Durant is averaging 32 points, seven rebounds, plus two blocks on 55/50/91 shooting percentages.
Brooklyn has overwhelmed the Bucks by committee, particularly with a resurgent Blake Griffin in the mix.
This series will resume Thursday in Milwaukee.
Lastly, we’re tied up at one apiece between the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers.
The upstart Hawks looked phenomenal in the first half of game one, before barely hanging on to sneak the win.
Game two was an impressive victory for the Sixers, led by a 40-point double-double from center Joel Embiid.
The MVP runner-up appeared to find his rhythm in game two. If the Hawks don’t come up with a solution for him, their chances of winning the series are slim.
Young stars turning into household names
For the first time in 11 years, the second round of the playoffs does not feature multi-time champions LeBron James or Steph Curry.
In their place is a new wave of budding superstars.
This class is led by the aforementioned Donovan Mitchell or “Spida” has yet to miss the postseason in his four NBA seasons.
Consecutive appearances like this increase his exposure, but the kind of performances he’s had is building his legacy.
Averaging 28 points for his career in the playoffs is a number to be very proud of.
Joining him is the Sun’s pair of young studs, Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton.
In his sixth season, Booker finally broke into the playoffs and he has made his presence felt.
A 47-point showing on 8-for-10 from three to close out LeBron and the Lakers in round one was special.
No other team can say they’ve bounced the King in the first round.
Booker was helped immensely by his big man, Ayton, 2018’s No. 1 overall pick.
The Arizona product entered the league with questions about his motor and intangibles, but he’s blossoming into a two way stalwart inside.
His ability to finish games on the court as a traditional big is a great sign for his career.
Guard Trae Young is performing similar heroics in the Eastern Conference. Public enemy No. 1 for New York Knicks fans is a badge of honor he’s earned.
Standing in his way is 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons, who is making his third appearance in the conference semis.
His team also has not missed the playoffs when he’s played.
Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic and the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum have been eliminated, but also belong to this group.
They’ll have to go through the likes of KD and the "Klaw," Kawhi Leonard, to reach the next plateau, which is no easy task.
But with a group like this plus many more on the cusp, the league is in great hands.
Your 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic & other award recipients
In a season truly unlike any other, the MVP goes to a man who is unlike any player before him.
That man is Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
In the process, he became both the first Dever Nugget, and the lowest draft pick ever to win the award.
He finished the campaign averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game - all career highs.
Per ESPN’s insider stats, Jokic’s player efficiency rating was a league-high 31.36, also good enough for tenth best all-time.
In the discussion all year long, the Joker’s case was undeniable after not missing a single game in this condensed season.
He was third in minutes played this season to go along with 16 triple-doubles.
This MVP award goes to a true one-of-a-kind player.
The overall league-leader in minutes played, New York Knicks’ Julius Randle, took home the most improved player award.
Randle was a first-time all-star and helped resurrect the suffering Knicks franchise. He averaged career highs across the board as well.
Joining him in bringing hardware to New York was his coach Tom Thibodeau, the 2021 coach of the year.
Winning the award for a second time, Thibs also owns a share of the credit for the Knicks’ revival.
The Suns’ Monty Williams was a very deserving runner-up.
The final award announced, so far, goes to Utah’s Jordan Clarkson, the sixth man of the year.
Clarkson was a fire-starter off the bench all season, averaging a career-best 18.4 points.
A worthy starter on many teams, Clarkson bolstered the Jazz’s second unit. This advantage certainly helped them finish the season with the best record in the NBA.
The winners for defensive player and rookie of the year are yet to be announced.