Explosive performances highlight NBA conference semifinals

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At the midway point of the NBA’s Eastern and Western conference semifinals, two series are tied 2-2 (Phoenix-Denver and Philadelphia-Boston) and two are 3-1 (Miami up on New York and Los Angeles Lakers ahead of Golden State).

There have been some good games and some blowouts, but the conference semis have been marked by incredible individual performances from Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, Philadelphia’s James Harden and Joel Embiid, Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and New York’s Jalen Brunson.

Let’s take a look at the winners and losers halfway through the conference semifinals:


Phoenix’s Devin Booker

The superlatives are stupendous. Booker is an elite scoring master. In two consecutive Suns victories that tied their series against Denver at 2, Booker scored 47 and 36 points on a combined 34-for-43 shooting − an unbelievable 79%. If the Nuggets don’t find an answer, Booker is going to shoot the Suns right into the conference finals. For the series, he averages 36.3 points and shoots 63.7% from the field and 57.1% on 3-pointers. Don’t dismiss his 8.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.

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Miami Heat

The Heat can become just the second eighth seed in NBA history to reach the conference finals (New York did it in 1999) if they beat the Knicks one more time. Miami gets just enough offense, and it has the No. 1 defense in the conference semifinals. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and a collection of hard workers accomplish tough tasks.

Philadelphia 76ers

Los Angeles Lakers’ role players

The trade deadline deals the Lakers made are working. D’Angelo Russell had 19 points in Game 1 and 21 points in Game 3. Rui Hachimura is 5-for-7 on 3s, and while their offense isn’t a factor, Austin Reaves and Jarred Vanderbilt have contributed defensively. Dennis Schroder has had his moments at both ends, and Lonnie Walker IV scored 15 fourth-quarter points in Game 4.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic

Jokic has been one of the two most impressive players in the playoffs. Here are his four games against Phoenix on 57% shooting from the field and 42.9% on 3-pointers:

Game 1: 24 points, 19 rebounds, five assists; Game 2: 39 points, 16 rebounds, five assists; Game 3: 30 points, 17 rebounds, 17 assists; Game 4: 53 points, 11 assists and four rebounds.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown

Buried in Boston’s inconsistency is Brown’s play: 23.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 57.4% from the field and 40.9% on 3-pointers. Along with Jayson Tatum, the Celtics have the best offense in the conference semis at 123.6 points per 100 possessions, five points better than No. 2 Denver and almost nine points better than No. 3 Phoenix.


Golden State Warriors

Too many turnovers. The Warriors are worst in the conference semifinals at 14.8 turnovers per game, and they give up the third-most points off of turnovers at 15.3 per game. Those mistakes always have grated on coach Steve Kerr. Sixteen turnovers, including six in the fourth quarter and two in the final nine seconds with a chance to tie the score, hurt the Warriors in Game 4. They have been able to overcome them for the most part. That’s tougher for them to do against the Lakers.

Golden State’s Jordan Poole

Poole didn’t score in Golden State’s Game 4 loss. He missed the four shots he attempted, two of them 3-pointers, and Poole didn’t play in the fourth quarter. In the past two games, he shot 2-for-13 from the field. He’s averaging just 10.5 points in the playoffs (8.0 against the Lakers) and shooting 27.8% on 3s in 11 playoff games. That’s way below the stats from his 2022 playoff performance which helped him land a four-year, $128 million contract in the offseason.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics have an unfortunate knack of getting in their own way. They have the superior talent and more playoff experience. But turnovers, questionable plays and a rookie head coach in Joe Mazzulla have allowed Philadelphia to tie the series at 2.

Denver Nuggets

All Denver needed was a split in Phoenix to take a 3-1 series lead. Instead, the Nuggets had zero answers for Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, and now it’s a 2-2 series headed back to Denver for Game 5.

New York’s Julius Randle

Randle is averaging 18.3 points (seven points below his season average) and shooting 43.5% from the field and 22.2% on 3-pointers − also below his season averages of 45.9% and 34.3%. Randle had a better Game 4 (20 points, 61.5% shooting, nine rebounds), but fouled out at 3:08 of the fourth quarter. The Heat play tough defense, but the Knicks need more from Randle.

Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton

Ayton was benched at the end of Game 3 and left the arena without talking to reporters even though the Suns won. He was torched by Nikola Jokic in Game 4 so much so that backup center Jock Londale is getting some of Ayton’s minutes. Jokic was 10-for-13 and scored 26 of his 53 points and had five assists against Ayton, according to tracking data. The Suns invested too much (four years, $132.9 million) for petulance at playoff time.

3-point shooting − for some players and teams

New York’s Jalen Brunson is shooting 27.3% on 3-pointers, Boston’s Jayson Tatum 32%, Denver’s Jamal Murray 28.6%, Phoenix’s Kevin Durant 25%, Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James 30%, the Knicks 27.2% and the Heat 30.8%. Golden State is normally a great 3-point shooting team but made 12-for-41 (29.3%) in Game 4.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are the higher seed but are down 3-1 and the game they won in the series was when Miami was without Jimmy Butler. They committed too many turnovers (16), gave up too many offensive rebounds (13), were outscored 17-7 on second-chance points and 22-15 on points off of turnovers in Game 4.

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

This post appeared first on USA TODAY