NBA Daily: Stars Under The Most Pressure

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Do you know what was so much fun about the games we saw leading up to the Play-In Tournament? They had a playoff-like atmosphere to them. Anytime Portland, Memphis, Phoenix, or San Antonio tipped, you really felt their desperation in every second they played. The pressure grew on them with each passing game. If those regular-season games felt like the postseason, imagine what the actual postseason is going to feel like!

It’s not going to shake anyone’s world by saying that making the playoffs brings pressure amped up to 100 – and no one is exempt from it either. There’s plenty of pressure on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, but they’ve been through this already, so it’s nothing new to them. Giannis Antetokounmpo is under similar pressure and he isn’t as familiar as his fellow competitors, but he’s only 25 and just started playing for an actual winning team last year. Really, the pressure is more on Milwaukee as a team knowing the Greek Freak’s contract situation that will be coming up less than a year from now.

The degree of pressure varies too. For example, there won’t be nearly as much for some of our newcomers, like Luka Doncic. There will definitely be more on him as his career progresses, but no one is going to hold it over him if Dallas gets easily ousted in the first round this year. He and the Mavericks have proven all they needed to. They are way ahead of schedule, and this is just the first step in what should be an awesome new era of basketball. Better yet, who better to give them a taste of life with the big boys than playoff veterans like Kawhi Leonard and Doc Rivers?

But the following players are ones who have been around the block before; they have monkeys on their back. If they are able to shake them off, that could change their legacy for the better, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for them to do so.

James Harden

Houston has captured that rare status of being one of the most doubted teams in spite of the talent they possess yet has a roster construction so unique that no one can wholeheartedly write them off. We knew it was primarily on Harden’s shoulders to prove that the small-ball full-time strategy can work, but sadly, he’s now facing a tough foe led by a former star teammate with revenge heavily on his mind. To make it worse, he has to do it without his All-Star teammate.

But it’s a good chance to prove he’s improved his playoff chops. Having been an MVP candidate for five of the last six years, Harden doesn’t exactly have the best playoff reputation to his name. Over the last three years, he blew that series against San Antonio without Kawhi Leonard, choked away 3-2 lead against Golden State, then failed to capitalize when the Warriors lost Kevin Durant the year following,

Now Harden has to take on the biggest workload he’s had in three years with his former MVP teammate down. If there’s a time for him to prove that he can step up his game with higher stakes, now is the time to do it.

Joel Embiid

Even with all the issues that have plagued a once-promising Sixers season, Philly miraculously got the matchup they’ve wanted all season. It’s not been the most graceful season – but at least they got the best of their division rival this season, winning their series against the Boston Celtics 3-1, and now they get to face them on a neutral court. Ben Simmons’ injury alone will make them overmatched against the Celtics. That’s why this is perfect for Joel Embiid.

With this being his third go in the playoffs, this is Embiid’s chance to prove that he is the superstar. No one is denying Embiid’s talent as a player, but he still has yet to dominate a playoff series. He’s dominated individual games, but over a series against a strong opponent? Not quite. Simmons’ absence is an all-around downgrade, but we’re going to see what he looks like as the unquestioned alpha of this team.

This time, Embiid won’t have to go up against Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, or Ed Davis. Instead, the best line of defense Embiid will go up against is Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III. Situations like these are when all-timers prove they are everything they were expected to be. The chips are down. The enemy has a weakness. If Embiid is the superstar we’ve talked him up to be, he has to take every advantage he can in this Boston series.

Whether they come up victorious or not, this has to be Embiid’s best series to prove he really is a franchise center. Bar none.

Kemba Walker

The pressure really is on Boston’s top four players, but there is something that puts Walker in the spotlight compared to his teammates – playoff success. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were within minutes of making the NBA Finals two years ago. Gordon Hayward ended Lob City the year before that. Walker has been in the NBA for about a decade and, before this season, he’s made the playoffs twice.

The Double J’s progress has made Boston a sexy pick to make the finals, but what will put the Celtics in the conversation with the top contenders in the league is a playoff-ready Kemba, which is not a given.

The last time Walker made the playoffs was 2016 and his production as the leader was all over the place. One night he was putting up 34 points, the next he was putting up 14 – but the fact that Kemba failed to show up for the biggest game of the season was not a good look.

There’s no need to mention his balky knee. He’s looked fine thus far, so there should be nothing holding the point guard back from giving Boston his all. We could very well see the All-NBA Walker when the playoffs come, but we may also see the one that couldn’t get out of the starting block in much weaker Eastern Conference from 2016.

Paul George

George may very well have the best playoff resume out of everyone on this shortlist – yet, he hasn’t been out of the first round since 2014. In that time, he’s broken his leg, separated his shoulder, watched his All-Star caliber teammates see their careers vanish at the drop of a dime, etc. Some of his playoff failures over the last six years are on him, but not all of it.

Now, he’s on the best team he’s been on since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. This season, Paul George has been about as good as Paul George could be. His numbers are substantially down from when he was making a legitimate MVP bid last season, but the pressure will be on him to bring the Clippers their first championship. But there’s a little extra spice to it too.

Kawhi Leonard left a picture-perfect situation up north to play for his hometown, believing that George would be right there by his side to form one of the better 1-2 punches in all of the NBA. We know Leonard will be at his best come playoff time, but he couldn’t do it alone in Toronto and he certainly won’t be able to do it alone in Los Angeles. The pressure isn’t on George only to help L.A. win. He also has to prove that Leonard made the right decision.

Beyond that, there are plenty of others that’ll face the music this week as well. With the Jazz competing with Philadelphia for the most dysfunctional playoff team of the year, and in the wake of losing their best shooter for the season, Donovan Mitchell’s the undisputed carrier of fates in Utah.

Anthony Davis will face the most pressure he’s ever had throughout his entire career. Teams are going to dare him to beat them while they do everything to blanket LeBron – that can be explained in more detail right here.

Jimmy Butler will be going through George-like pressure when Miami makes its playoff run. He could have stayed with the 76ers and been their go-to guy on a championship-caliber team, but instead, he elected to be the man on his own team.

A lot is going to unfold from now until October. When everything does, we’re going to see exactly what these guys are all made of. They better make the best of it, because next season, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are all coming back into the picture.