NBA All-Playoff Teams: The top performers of the postseason

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 18: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of Round One during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 18, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 18: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of Round One during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 18, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The NBA playoffs have a way of warping the sense of time for all of us deep enough into them to lose track of all else going on. With so many games that require close attention packed closely together, series begin to blur together and the postseason’s early rounds feel like eons ago. (Remember the Minnesota Timberwolves?)

As a way of reflecting on those first games of the postseason and memorializing the individual performances that made them captivating, here are the Step Back’s 2018 All-Playoff teams.

First, a few notes:

  • As rotation spots and playoff berths become more scarce as the season trudges on, so too do these All-Playoff recognitions. With a smaller pool to choose from than with regular season All-NBA teams, the number of spots gets cut down accordingly.
  • Weighing individual excellence and team success is a tricky balance to strike. There are only 10 spots here, and good players will inevitably get left off. A player who didn’t necessarily dominate but took his team to greater heights might edge out a peer who flamed out in the first round despite a monster showing, or vice versa.
  • Positional designations become less relevant in the playoffs, and are therefore adhered to less closely here than on All-NBA ballots.

All-Playoff First Team

LeBron James (MVP)

Kevin Durant

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Anthony Davis

Al Horford

All-Playoff Second Team

Chris Paul

Steph Curry

Victor Oladipo

James Harden

Draymond Green

Honorable Mention: Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier

We’re running out of ways to describe what LeBron has done in these playoffs. He has consistently been so awe-inspiring that it’s hard to react with anything other than a chuckle of amazement at this point. Comparisons to Jordan be damned, no one has ever had a postseason quite like this one. James leads all playoff participants in minutes, field goals, assists, win shares, Box Plus/Minus, value over replacement player and a thousand other categories too numerous to list off at once. His greatness is above reproach. LeBron has been the most dominant player and storyline throughout these playoffs, and no one has threatened his Playoffs MVP crown.

In a normal year, Durant might come the closest. He and the Warriors tore through the first two rounds without much of a hitch and largely without Steph Curry. Durant was unstoppable during that run, and even after a lull in the middle of the Conference Finals, he’s still averaging a tidy 29/7/4 line on a 59.7 true shooting percentage. He was never as detrimental to the Warriors’ offense in the Western Conference Finals as some have made him out to be. Sometimes giving the ball to one of the greatest scorers of all time against an overmatched defender is a good strategy, and at worst, Durant is still a reliable shot-creator in a pinch. Still, Golden State was better for dialing that back a touch in favor of that humming, unselfish style only they can access.

They finally struck the right balance against Houston and carried it into the Finals, in part because Curry has been more involved and aggressive. The Peak Warriors only take form when he leads the attack. That alone is enough to merit consideration for an All-Playoff roster spot, as is nearly 26 points per game on characteristically ridiculous efficiency. Curry has played enough on the back end of the Warriors’ run to outweigh six missed games at the front end, and he’s been instrumental in earning them those extra games. (It feels strange to relegate Curry to the second team in this exercise as he hurtles toward his first career Finals MVP, but such can be the case when taking the entirety of the playoffs into account.)

Paul missed fewer games than Curry, but the timing was far more crucial. Paul was every bit Curry’s equal until the final two games of the Conference Finals. It is the cruelest possible fortune for a player whose legacy has been unfairly defined by the absence of a Conference Finals appearance to finally reach the penultimate stage of the playoffs and play well, only to miss out on an opportunity to seal a trip to the Finals in the last two games. Still, Paul left little doubt that he still belongs in the upper echelon of NBA floor generals by doing a little bit of everything (and, in some cases, a lot of everything) without an outsize drop-off in efficiency.

That dip was more drastic for Harden, whose 3-pointer has abandoned him at an especially inconvenient time. He probably didn’t play as well in the playoffs as an MVP should; he never put together a real string of dominant games and had a clunker in every series. But those do not outweigh what he did at the other end of the spectrum, where he had three 40-point games, handed out at least 11 assists three times and drilled the third-most triples of anyone in the playoffs. His seven bouts in the Conference Finals were the most engaged and consistent defensive showings of his career.

For Oladipo, the playoffs were something of a proving ground. After a dismal five-game outing against Houston in a supporting role last year, the legitimacy of his regular season and his fitness as a first option would be measured against Cleveland. Despite Indiana’s early exit, Oladipo unquestionably passed that test. He and the Pacers gave James and the Cavs their best shot, and earned Cleveland’s in return.

That makes Holiday the hardest cut of all. He vexed Damian Lillard in round one, then held his own against Golden State in the conference semis, all while co-anchoring New Orleans’ offense and logging nearly 39 minutes per game. Like Mike Conley did in last year’s playoffs, Holiday hung with some of the game’s preeminent superstars despite largely not being considered one himself. But Curry, Paul, Harden and Oladipo were just a little bit better. The depth of point guards in the NBA sometimes seems impossible.

Antetokounmpo’s postseason will be overshadowed by Milwaukee’s early exit — and perhaps rightfully so — but aside from James and Davis, he might have been the most dominant player in the first round. The playoffs are exactly the sort of setting in which his lack of a dependable jump shot should be more deliberately leveraged against the Bucks, and yet Antetokounmpo thrived in spite of that limitation. He received impossibly little help from his teammates, aside from Middleton. (The dawn of the Budenholzer era should bring welcome change.)

Whittling the field down to just three big men was difficult. Davis was a virtual lock after eviscerating the Trail Blazers in four games. Even an engaged Warriors’ defense could do little to contain him. Capela was a rock, swatting away shots at the rim, gobbling up rebounds and defending every position on the floor. But he was also the third-best player on his team, which keeps him off a team on which there is limited space. Gobert served a similar function on a team that was eliminated a round earlier.

Instead, I leaned toward Horford and Green, two versatile bigs who tie their teams together and elevate the collective talent around them. Their adaptability is a valuable commodity in the regular season, but it becomes even more prized when teams more explicitly target matchups in the postseason. Having a pressure-release like Horford or Green alleviates strain on other stars and unlocks more options than appear readily available. Horford anchored the Celtics throughout a (semi) miraculous playoff run with timely scoring, defense and playmaking. He weirdly struggled against Tristan Thompson after torching Kevin Love in the first two games of the Conference Finals, but only after giving Simmons and Joel Embiid fits for five games. He even managed to stay in front of Giannis at crucial moments in Round 1.

Green remains the league’s most distinguished playmaking big man, and his effort — particularly on defense — noticeably ramped up at the start of the playoffs (he has absolutely rebounded his ass off since late April). He leads the Warriors in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the playoffs, and his punishing screens are a staple of Golden State’s offense.

Middleton deserves recognition for his scorching shooting against Boston in the first round, but filling two of these 10 precious spots with Bucks was difficult to justify. Lowry had the best playoff stretch of his career, canning 44 percent of his triples and dishing 8.5 assists per game, but another devastating loss to Cleveland shed more light on Toronto’s shortcomings than Lowry’s individual exploits.

Both Simmons and Embiid produced at slightly lower clips than they did in the regular season and seemed to struggle against more dialed-in playoff defenses. Brown and Tatum became stars faster than almost anyone could have anticipated, serving as dependable and necessary two-way forces at a younger age than anyone else in the playoffs. But strip away the allure of their youth, and they were just a cut below the superstars ahead of them. Rozier tailed off in the Conference Finals after a torrid start. Including just one Celtic on the ballot felt like a disservice to Boston’s run, so I tried to equalize it by bumping Horford up to the first team.

Next: Free agency destinations for Paul George

Splitting hairs between these guys is complicated and enormously subjective. Evaluating different variables against one another can lead to mixed conclusions, most all of which are valid. But only a select few could make this ballot. In the coming days, an even more select few will decide the NBA championship.