By: Jacob Shindel, Columnist
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Throughout the NBA Playoffs, fans have been able to watch the league’s youngest stars battle for a title. As the playoffs begin drawing to a close, one thing is certain: the future of the NBA is in very good hands.
Since the 22 teams arrived in Orlando, there has been a lot of action. Fans have witnessed Devin Booker carrying the Phoenix Suns to an 8-0 record before losing their opportunity at a postseason run after being defeated by the Memphis Grizzlies. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. faced off against the Portland Trail Blazers before eventually losing in the play in game. Fans got another limited scope of the New Orleans Pelicans’ new look with Zion Williamson, despite his limited minutes. And these players, all under the age of 25, all happened to miss the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets young star Jamal Murray clashed with Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, as the two youngsters became the highest scoring opponents ever in a single playoff series. They combined for almost 68 points per game, amounting to 475 points in the series. The pinnacle of this historic first round series came in game four when Murray and Mitchell each scored 50 respectively. This game created a new record, as they became the first pair to each score 50 or more points in the same playoff game. Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokić, despite being considered as one of the best centers in the game, played very well in the series but got overlooked due to Murray’s breakout string of games.
The Los Angeles Clippers were able to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, but not before Luka Dončić hit a stepback 3-pointer at the buzzer to win Game Four, capping off a 43 point, 17 rebound outing for the 21-year-old Mavericks. 25-year-old big man Kristaps Porzingis missed three games with a knee injury, but still contributed at least 14 points per game. The Clippers were able to take the series in six games, but would not be able to defeat the Nuggets in the second round due to a more balanced Nuggets attack.
Murray and Jokic combined for 47 points per game, but the biggest factor in the Nuggets’ second round success was the return of Gary Harris, who averaged four points over the last two games of the first round. Harris, who was injured for the first five games of their first round matchup, averaged 10.7 points in the second round, in which the young Denver team came back from another 3-1 deficit to defeat the Clippers.
This series put on full display the battle of young talent versus proven talent. The Clippers, with an average age of 28, started out strong, but the Nuggets, with an average age of 26 years old. In the series, Clippers stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were outplayed by Murray and Jokic. The Nuggets core of young stars fought until the end and beat the Clippers in Game 7. The Nuggets, despite their young team and lack of playoff experience, became the first team in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 deficits in the same postseason.
The Eastern Conference, while not nearly as competitive as the Western Conference, still had their fair share of young talent. 22-year-old Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics faced off against 26-year-old Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors, in a series that saw the Celtics win in Game 7. On the other side of the conference, the Miami Heat shocked the NBA world by defeating Giannis Antetokounmpo and his top seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The Miami Heat, led by 31-year-old Jimmy Butler, 23-year-old Bam Adebayo, and 20-year-old Tyler Herro, are facing off against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Very few people saw the Heat as title contenders at the beginning of the season, and even up to the beginning of the postseason, but the emergence of their young players helped them bulldoze through the Indiana Pacers and the Milwaukee Bucks. In an Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, Herro and Adebayo combined for 41 points per game as the Heat won in six games. On the Celtics side, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for almost 50 points per night, but it wasn’t enough to win the series.
This year’s playoffs have shown that the NBA might be shifting into a new era of young stars. Even James has taken a more secondary role, yielding some of his usual scoring load to 27-year-old star Anthony Davis. James is averaging the second-most assists per game he has ever recorded in a postseason at 8.9, second to his last playoff run in 2018 in which he averaged 9 assists per game.
As the 2020 NBA season comes to a close in one of the most unconventional seasons the league has ever seen, fans can be certain that the balance and skill in the league are very strong as long as players like Murray, Mitchell, Tatum and Herro are still playing.