Friday, June 21 2024
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The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves open the Western Conference finals on Wednesday, as the series offers plenty of star power and storylines. But let’s be real: the biggest draw is a superstar matchup between the future faces of the NBA — Luka Doncic and Anthony Edwards

One of the beautiful aspects of this matchup is how they’ve featured different styles of play to get to the same destination. Doncic is the master of the deceleration move and will use his size and strength to finish over smaller defenders. He’s going to need all the creativity, including fadeaways and stepbacks, to grind out this knee injury vs. the Timberwolves No. 1 defense. Edwards can do all those things, but he’s also the most explosive player in the league, with a lightning-quick first step leading to thunderous finishes above the rim. Neither player is lacking in confidence or trash-talking ability either, especially Edwards, who waved goodbye to Denver fans after closing out the defending champions on their home court in Game 7. It’s all left them in a position to take the torch in the West in the absence of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic and others. 

Both are worthy heirs to the throne. Doncic is coming off his best MVP finish (third) while putting up the first season with 33-9-9 averages in NBA history. Edwards finished seventh on the MVP ballot while becoming the eighth player all-time with 25-5-5 averages at age-22 or younger. 

Doncic has the second-highest scoring average in NBA playoff history (31.0) behind Michael Jordan (33.4), whom Edwards is drawing comparisons to. Edwards has the sixth-highest playoff scoring average (28.5), while Allen Iverson (29.7), Kevin Durant (29.3) and Jerry West (29.1) round out the top five. 

It’s not only rare to see two players producing like this, but meeting at this young age with a trip to the Finals on the line is unheard of. This is the first-ever matchup in the conference finals or later between players who averaged at least 25 points per game in their age-24 or younger season. Edwards is just 22, and Doncic is now 25 but played the majority of the regular season at 24. 

This may be a first by those measures, but it got me wondering about other young superstars dueling in the late stages of the playoffs. This isn’t a comprehensive list but an assortment of epic showdowns that should serve as a history lesson and hype machine for this year’s matchup.  

Rising superstar Devin Booker (age 24) and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (age 26) did not disappoint in the 2021 Finals where they combined for five 40-point games, including a 50-piece from Giannis to close the series. Antetokounmpo joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only player with three 40-point, 10-rebound games in a single Finals series. Booker was the first player to score 40-plus in back-to-back Finals games, both losses. 

2001 Western Conference finals: Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan

Kobe Bryant (age 22) capped a leap to superstardom in 2001 by averaging 33-7-7 as the Lakers swept the Spurs in the 2001 Western Conference Finals. Tim Duncan (age 25) did his part, averaging 20-10 in the series, including a 40-15 line in a losing effort in Game 2. Both went on to win five championships in their careers.

2001: Vince Carter vs. Allen Iverson followed by Ray Allen vs. Iverson

If I learned anything from this exercise, it’s that 2001 was loaded with young legends. Allen Iverson and Vince Carter (age 24) combined for three 50-point games in an Eastern Conference Semifinal series that went seven games. Then Iverson (age 25) renewed a college rivalry with Ray Allen (age 25) in the Conference Finals. Allen was burning the nets down in the series, averaging 27 PPG on over 50 percent shooting from three. Iverson answered with back-to-back 40-point games to close the series, which also went seven games. The highlight was Game 6 when Allen and Iverson each dropped 40-plus and combined for 87 points!

1989 Eastern Conference finals: Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas

The Bulls and Pistons met in four straight postseasons from 1988-91 in a bitter rivalry with the Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas feud in the middle. The Jordan Rules were in full effect in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals as the Pistons won in six after trailing 2-1 in the series. Jordan (age 26) was slowed down in the final three games of the series after scoring 46 in Game 3. Thomas (age 28) scored 33 points to close out the series and propel the Bad Boys to their first of back-to-back titles. But we know Jordan and the Bulls eventually got the last laugh. 

1984 NBA Finals: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson

The most storied rivalry in NBA history was first featured in the playoffs in the 1984 Finals. Larry Bird (age 27) was coming off his first NBA MVP and would get his second championship to match Magic Johnson (age 24) at the time. Bird was the hero in a pivotal Game 4 as he hit a game-winning fadeaway over Magic with 16 seconds left in overtime to even the series. Bird’s Celtics won in seven games but Magic’s Lakers would win the 1986 and ’88 Finals over Boston. 

1960 Division finals: Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain

If you thought Luka and Ant could put up some video game numbers, check out what Bill Russell (age 25) and Wilt Chamberlain (age 23) did in the 1960 Eastern Division Finals to kick off their NBA rivalry. Russell averaged 20.7 points and 27.0 rebounds in the series. He had 26 points and 39 rebounds in Game 3. Wilt averaged 30.5 points and 27.5 rebounds in the series, including a 50-point, 35-rebound effort in Game 5. Not a typo. Russell and the Celtics won this clash of the titans in six games. 

Okay, so Doncic and Edwards aren’t going to get on the same level as Russell vs. Chamberlain or Bird vs. Magic, but maybe someday we’ll be looking back at these players and this series with a similar fondness.

Source: CBSSports.com

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