Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week through the end of NBA Playoffs. 

When Lillard shorted a pair of free throws that could’ve given the Blazers the lead with 18 seconds to play against the Clippers, a game Portland would go on to lose, you knew he was going to come back with a special blend of vigor. But 112 points over two games? Even for Dame, who regularly surpasses the threshold of believability, this is getting stupid.

First, he dropped 51 points vs. the Sixers, then he followed that up with 61 points vs. the Mavericks. If you’d care to view the math, here are Lillard’s per-game numbers following that loss to the Clippers:

  • 56 PPG
  • 7.5 AST
  • 55 percent FG
  • 45 percent 3PT
  • 97 percent FT
  • 40 fourth-quarter points

Obviously, those are head-turning numbers regardless of circumstance, but it’s only when you factor in the urgency of Portland’s playoff-teetering situation that you can fully appreciate this level of madness. The Blazers have effectively been playing must-win games from the second they stepped into the bubble, and these games are coming down to the thinnest of wires. Every single parking-lot 3-pointer Lillard sinks seemingly rescues the Blazers from the depths of soul-crushing defeat. He simply will not let them lose.  

And it’s working. Entering play on Thursday night, the Blazers, who came into Orlando trailing No. 8 Memphis by four games in the loss column, control their own destiny to make the playoffs. Beat the Nets on Thursday and Portland is into the play-in series as the No. 8 seed, which means they’d only have to beat the No. 9 seed once to secure the final playoff berth in the West. 

Yes, the Lakers would be big favorites in a potential first-round matchup with Portland, but it would be a mistake to count out a team with Lillard doing things like this, regularly, at the height of fourth-quarter crunch time:

The Phoenix Suns are 7-0 in the bubble. I repeat, the Phoenix Suns are 7-0 in the bubble. They’re a better team than most people are likely aware of. DeAndre Ayton is terrific (even though they still should’ve drafted Luka). Mikal Bridges is a perfect modern wing in the making. But absolutely nobody saw this coming. Most people were snickering at the Suns even being invited to Orlando. 

Now they’re tied with the Grizzlies for the No. 9 seed, which carries with it a spot in the play-in series for the final playoff berth, and for all the contributions of those listed above and more, this, my friends, is the Devin Booker show. Say it with me: Superstar. That’s what Booker is. These games feel like a playoff stage, and Booker is taking full advantage to let the world know just how great he is. This guy has a Kobe Bryant ceiling as a pure scorer. And, no, I’m not throwing that out to get a reaction. It’s the truth. He’s a true three-level scorer with incredible footwork, a sinfully sweet post and mid-range game, and 3-point range like, well, this:

At the moment, 35 appears to be Booker’s number. He’s hit that scoring mark four times in the bubble, where he’s averaging 31 points and six assists on 49-percent shooting. Oh, and there’s also this: Booker now owns the Suns’ franchise record for most 30-point games with 91 such showings. He’s 23 years old. 

Giannis won’t be playing in the Bucks’ seeding-game finale after landing a head-butt on Moe Wagner of the Wizards on Tuesday, for which the league suspended him one game. Big deal. Giannis probably wasn’t going to play anyway. Milwaukee already has the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. 

The question is if this were in the middle of the season, would Giannis really have only gotten one game for that? I don’t know, man. That’s legit helmet to helmet. You be the judge. 

No biggie, Doncic is only averaging a triple-bubble in Orlando: 32 points, 11.3 assists and 11 boards per game. He’s also getting to the line over 10 times a game, which you love if you’re the Mavericks. In Orlando, Doncic has a 40-point game, a 20-rebound game and a 19-assist game. He will almost certainly be voted onto the First-Team All-Bubble team (which will be announced this weekend), along with, in my estimation, Lillard, Booker, James Harden and T.J. Warren. 

Seriously, how smooth do you have to be to drop this between-the-legs pass in a one-possession game with one minute left in overtime?

Anthony continues to silence his critics with his outstanding play in the bubble, where he’s averaging 17.6 points on 50-percent 3-point shooting. If you’re interested in a re-litigation of Melo’s value, here you go. Otherwise, let’s just accept, and appreciate, that Anthony is playing fantastic basketball and knocking down truly gigantic shots for the Blazers when they need him most. 

By the way, Carmelo recently passed Paul Pierce for 15th on the all-time scoring list. Had he not missed basically all of the 2018-19 season because a bunch of super-smart people decided he was completely incapable of being of any value to even one team, he would very likely be No. 11 on that list, just ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon. But sure, keep debating whether this guy is a Hall of Famer. 


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