Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo might very well win the MVP award this season for the first time in his career. Or maybe Houston's James Harden will win it for the second consecutive season.
But if you’re looking for the best player of the 2019 postseason, it’s neither of those players. It’s not Warriors guard Steph Curry or Portland guard Damian Lillard either.
Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard are the best players so far. Both have been phenomenal.
Who has been better? That depends on taste, but you can make an argument for both players given what they have done. Read the cases from USA TODAY Sports' NBA reporters Jeff Zillgitt and Martin Rogers and decide.
The case for Kawhi Leonard
If it doesn’t look like Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard is breaking a sweat, it’s only because he’s making it look so easy to score against Philadelphia.
"That's not fair to the Sixers. I'm definitely breaking a sweat,” Leonard said after a 39-point, 14-rebound, five-assist performance in Toronto’s 101-96 victory against Philadelphia in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series Sunday.
In the series, which is tied at 2, Leonard is averaging 38 points, nine rebounds and four assists and is shooting 61.8 percent from the field and 46.4 percent on three-pointers and has scored at least 30 points in all four games.
Where would the Raptors be without Leonard? Well, the Raptors would probably be down 3-1, if not already swept, against the Sixers.
As single-handed as it gets in a team game, Leonard is keeping the Raptors in the series and giving them a chance to advance.
Not only is he the best player on the court, he might be the best player in the playoffs regardless of conference. Better than Durant. Better than Antetokounmpo.
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (Photo: Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports)
His six games with at least 30 points this postseason are the most by a Raptor in franchise history, and he is the fifth player in NBA history to generate 150 points, 30 rebounds and 15 assists in the first four games of a series, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The other four: Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
Leonard, who is also an elite defender, is second in playoff scoring through both rounds at 32.3 points per game, 3.3 shy of Durant’s average. But Leonard is also taking two fewer shots per game and shooting 7.2 percentage points better from the field (58.7 percent to 51.5 percent) and 6.2 percentage points better on three-pointers (50 percent to 43.8 percent).
Leonard also averages more rebounds (7.7 to 5) and trails in assists to Durant (5 to 3.4). Leonard is also playing three fewer minutes.
Leonard’s effective shooting percentage (which gives added weight to made three-pointers) is 66.2 percent to Durant’s 58.6 percent, and Leonard’s true shooting percentage (which accounts for all made shots including free throws) is 70.4 percent to Durant’s 66.6 percent.
Leonard has three double-doubles and of the 16 quarters he has played against Philadelphia, he has scored at least eight points in 14 quarters.
And let’s be frank: Durant is on the better team surrounded by more talent. The Sixers are doing everything they can to stop Leonard, and Leonard is still getting his points.
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant celebrates with forward Draymond Green. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
The case for Kevin Durant
Best player in these playoffs? Yep, that’s you, Durant. Best player in basketball right now? Absolutely, check that one off the list too. And it’s not close.
With all due respect to Leonard and anyone else who has pulled on a pair of sneakers this postseason, there is one man who forms his own wrecking crew and who has the singular capacity to win an NBA title by himself.
It is Durant, whose performances have been good enough this postseason to obscure the fact that, aside from him, the Golden State Warriors aren’t playing particularly well, let alone playing like defending champions.
Durant spent most of the regular season being angry. After being ignited by the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverly in the first round he has spent the last few weeks being ignited, and Golden State is immensely grateful for it.
He is averaging 41 points over his past five games and just takes over contests in the kind of fashion reserved for the true greats of the game. When Warriors coach Steve Kerr likened him to Jordan, let’s just say this: it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.
Let’s not pretend that these are the same Warriors of old. They’re not. The reason why they once went 73-9 but this season lost 24 games isn’t because they’re bored of winter basketball, it’s because they’re not as good. With Durant firing, however, they are more than likely still unbeatable over seven games, because there is no one in the game defensively proficient enough to blunt his magic.
If Golden State cares about Stephen Curry’s ego, they’ll keep spreading out play calls in an even-handed and democratic fashion. If they care about adding another championship – and this is a choice they may soon need to make – they’ll put the rock in Durant’s hands far more often.
He’s as good as it gets, and he’s the undisputed king of these playoffs.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno and Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt
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