Ten Players Facing the Most Pressure in the NBA Playoffs
The postseason has started and after a few Game 1 upsets, the pressure is already picking up for a handful of players participating in the action.
The playoffs are the time of the year where we like to decide what overarching narratives we can apply to players’ careers, so a discouraging effort in April or May can drastically change how the world perceives even the most spectacular regular-season performers.
But the right combination of 30-point games and clutch moments will earn anybody enough stans to defend them on the internet the next time the going gets rough.
So let’s take a look at which players have the most riding on the 2019 playoffs.
Ben Simmons, Sixers
Another astounding regular season from Ben Simmons may soon be forgotten if he is successfully schemed against in the playoffs once more.
After Boston laid out the blueprint last season, much of this year was spent wondering whether the 76ers’ point guard would be a liability in the postseason as long as he refuses to shoot jumpers.
Game 1 against the Nets didn’t go so hot. Although the low scoring output will be easy to criticize as many focus on whether or not Simmons will ever shoot the ball from distance, his three assists to three turnovers were much more concerning in the bigger picture.
Simmons has excelled in this league by being an elite playmaker and stud defender with the ability to cover multiple positions. His defensive range gives Brett Brown the ability to get more creative with lineups, but if there isn’t enough shooting to space the floor, it’s too easy for the opposition to put their attention on slowing down Simmons and walling off the rim, thus completely negating his 56.3% overall shooting percentage.
If Simmons can find opportunities to pick up the pace and get on the break to establish an offensive rhythm, he can take over in the postseason with his skill set, as he showed in last year’s Miami series.
But as his one-point outing against the Celtics in Game 2 last year showed, Simmons can be taken out of a contest. And if you’re a No. 1 pick and the heart of a team’s offense, how much value do you have if you can be shut down so easily in the playoffs?
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
The pressure on Nikola Jokic this postseason isn’t to lead the Nuggets on some amazing run to validate their season, but to make sure he doesn’t create doubts about his ceiling going forward.
You only get one first impression, and Jokic posted a 10-14-14 performance, yet he only shot 4-for-9 from the field.
The big man’s best skill is his passing, so putting that on display like he did in the Game 1 loss to the Spurs exhibits how effective he can be running the offense in a series format. But taking only nine shots in a five-point loss while Jamal Murray went 8-for-24 makes you wonder how capable Jokic is of putting the entire offense on his back to lead his team to the promised land.
That being said, it was one game. You can only learn but so much from a single game. But Jokic’s eight single-digit scoring games this regular season do put into question how much of the scoring burden can be put into his hands until he validates himself a little bit more. The fact the Nuggets went 5-3 in the eight games Jokic was held below 10 points is telling of how well the team plays together and how much Jokic can do other than score. But the objective of basketball is still to put the ball through the hoop. And similar to Ben Simmons, but for much different reasoning, you want to be confident that one of the team’s best players is aggressive enough to put the ball in the basket in the playoffs when his squad needs points.
Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Kyle Lowry’s 0-for-7 contest to open this year’s postseason will live on for a long time.
Lowry will not be able to avoid the shade the internet is going to send in his direction, so he just needs to embrace the idea that he has more to prove in April. For starters, it can only get better after being held scoreless and watching the opposing point guard go for 25 and hit the game-winning three-pointer in his building. But if it doesn’t get significantly better, Lowry’s postseason play is going to be the focus of the entire offseason in Toronto.
His best friend and former coach were sent away after last season, and this year feels like the ultimate crossroads for the Raptors. If they win the East, and potentially a title, the trade for Kawhi Leonard was worth it, even if he doesn’t re-sign in July. But if the Raptors fail to get out of the East again, and Kawhi dips for the States while DeRozan stays under contract in San Antonio, the fate of Lowry and the franchise are then put into question.
The five-time All-Star is not only playing for a championship, but also for his future in Toronto. There is belief the Raptors will blow everything up if they fall short of their goals and Leonard leaves after this season. And at 33 years old, there is no telling exactly when Lowry's natural decline will come.
He took a leap this year as a passer and playmaker, but he still needs to score points.
If we can never expect greatness out of Lowry in the postseason, why keep him and continue the trend of disheartening playoff endings?
Paul George, Thunder
Paul George put together the best regular season of his career after he ended his 2018 postseason by putting up five points in an elimination game.
But now it’s time for PG to show us if "Playoff P" actually deserves to be feared. He’s been the best player on a team that made back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances, so it’s not that he hasn’t demonstrated an ability to dictate his team’s playoff future. But, after how poorly last season ended, George needs to convince the world that he didn’t re-sign for four years just to extend his current three-season streak of getting bounced in the first round.
Coming off a Game 1 in which he shot 8-for-24 and 4-for-15 from three, George needs a bounce-back game to take the pressure off Russell Westbrook and get the Thunder on track.
His shoulders carried a lot this season, but his decline in efficiency since the All-Star break has been troubling. If George put together an amazing regular season just to be too beat up to make a difference in the playoffs, people will forget he was second in the league and scoring and (likely) on first team All-NBA.
Westbrook will naturally take a bit of the blame if Oklahoma City bottoms out in the first round once more, but it wasn’t Russ that shot 2-for-16 with the season on the line last year.
Kyrie Irving, Celtics
If the Celtics are really going to go as far as Kyrie Irving thinks they will, it will be because Irving turned into the leader he’s been trying to be all season. He didn’t shoot well in the series opener against the Pacers, but he still helped Boston get a win in his first postseason game wearing a Celtics uniform.
After least year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals, expectations in Boston were skyhigh coming into this season. The roster hasn’t naturally fit together as well as Danny Ainge had hoped, but there is still time to make this whole year worth it.
And for Irving, who’s been looking to demonstrate his leadership abilities all season, now is his chance to lead in the most trying time. Whether or not he re-signs with Boston this summer, Irving would like to have one successful postseason under his belt as a team’s top option. We all know Uncle Drew can hit big shots and will elevate his own play in the big moment, but it’s different when LeBron James isn’t wearing the same uniform. Irving is getting what he wanted this season and before he hits the open market, he’ll want to confirm he can handle the responsibility he requested.
Joel Embiid, Sixers
If Joel Embiid is as dominant a warrior as he likes to say, he needs to impose his will against the Nets.
The two-time All-Star is far from 100% as he battles through an ailing left knee, but at this time of the year, nobody is truly healthy. However, when an entire franchise has been hinging on the availability and reliability of Embiid’s massive body, he can’t breakdown after the team traded for two upcoming free agents with hopes of making a deep postseason run.
Embiid posted respectable numbers in Saturday’s loss with 22 points, 15 boards, five blocks and four assists, but he didn’t look like the All-NBA talent we’ve become accustomed to seeing. His insistent three-pointer was on display during his 0-for-5 performance in Game 1. And with All-Star teammate Ben Simmons not playing up to par in the first contest, even more pressure fell on Embiid to help pick up the slack and demonstrate that he and Simmons can coexist on a championship-caliber roster.
If Embiid is going to look gassed in 24 minutes of action again, it might be best to leave him on the bench and pray the rest of the starting lineup can deliver. But if he’s going to be on the court, anything less than Shaq-like dominance is going to create concern that either his body can’t last or the team isn’t constructed well enough around him.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
After his first three postseason trips over the last four seasons ended with first-round defeats, Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to take the Bucks to at least the Eastern Conference finals this season.
It’s a little unfair to put so much pressure on Antetokounmpo, but after Milwaukee earned the one seed behind the strength of Giannis’s MVP-level season and Mike Budenholzer’s coaching adjustments, anything less than the Eastern Conference finals would feel like a failure.
Playoff growth generally comes in stages. But for the Bucks, who have gone from first-round exit to missing the playoffs to back-to-back first-round exits, this is the year they need to take a stride forward. And a massive one at that.
In seven games against the Celtics last year, Antetokounmpo was about as extraordinary as he always is, but it still seemed like he could do just a little bit more. Not necessarily because there was more for him to do, but because that’s the nature of being a superstar player on a team that didn’t advance. This year, his team is better constructed and has a coach who’s already seen some success in the postseason, so not as much will fall on him to get out the first round. But in the second round and beyond, Antetokounmpo needs to take charge like LeBron James circa 2007.
Giannis doesn’t have pressure on him because he’s underperformed, but because he has the potentially to put himself in the upper echelon of NBA talents with a deep postseason run. And this is easily the best chance he’s ever had in his career of winning a title.
DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors
This was the reason DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Warriors in July.
His first playoff game was not what you wanted to see, but he’ll have about two full months to show just how close he is to last season’s form, where he looked like the surefire pick for first team All-NBA before he tore his Achilles.
Showing he can be a team player and avoid losing his cool in crucial moments will be helpful in changing the perception that Cousins is bad for a championship locker room. And displaying his full range of skills and having a few 20-10 games will help secure a long-term contract.
Cousins’s play this postseason will directly affect his next contract and playing situation more than anybody else on this list. Maybe he plays his way back onto the Warriors for next season. Maybe he convinces a team he can be the No. 2 guy on a playoff roster. Maybe he disappoints and finds himself with even fewer suitors than last summer.
With so many eyes on Golden State because of the chase for a three-peat and Kevin Durant’s impending free agency, Cousins will have the opportunity to make a statement in front of everybody who matters.
If he plays a big part and helps the Warriors lift the trophy in June, his decision to bet on himself would have paid off and at the very least he can call himself a champion for the rest of his life. But if he is sitting on the bench for much of the playoffs because of matchups or foul trouble or the Warriors somehow don’t complete the three-peat, he’ll be back at the drawing board this offseason trying to figure out how he can get a long-term deal before his 30th birthday.
DeMar DeRozan, Spurs
LeBron James is not around to end DeMar DeRozan’s season this year, so that should already mean this spring is going to go better for the two-time All-NBA player.
After going for 18-12-6 in a Game 1 victory in Denver, DeRozan helped put the Spurs in perfect position to pull off the upset.
But after going for a combined 23 points on 8-for-23 shooting in his final two games as a Raptor, there is still some worry about just what DeRozan can do in the playoffs. With LaMarcus Aldridge splitting responsibilities next to him instead of Kyle Lowry, DeRozan can put more emphasis on being a top-notch distributor and facilitator like he was throughout the regular season.
Now that he has Gregg Popovich on his bench and a proven vet by his side, DeRozan needs to look good in these playoffs if he’s going to regain his status as an All-Star going forward in the West. By showing out in this postseason, the opinions around DeRozan could shift and the single-digit scoring performances in Toronto could be forgotten.
But if he struggles to help maintain one of the league’s top-five offenses when the chips are down, all the hot takes will come flying in about how you can’t win in April and May with DeRozan.
It probably doesn’t help that he’s also going to naturally be measured against Kawhi Leonard, who already won a Finals MVP in San Antonio and is in position to take the Raptors to a place DeRozan couldn’t. Even though nobody expects the Spurs to win a title, DeRozan can’t go out in an embarrassing fashion again. The North will always remember being turned into LeBronto, and DeRozan can’t allow something similar to happen to his new home in the South.
Blake Griffin, Pistons
After his last two postseason appearances ended with injuries and first-round departures, Blake Griffin would really benefit from a strong showing this time around. Missing a Game 1 in which the Pistons got demolished certainly won’t help the current narrative though.
And if he does miss the entire series because of the ailment, his perception of being injury prone might be too much to ever overcome.
His last healthy playoffs were in 2015 when he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 boards and 6.1 assists while shooting 51.1% and taking the Clippers within one game of the Western Conference finals. With the first-seed Bucks as the competition in round one, a conference finals berth doesn’t seem too likely, but Griffin can still post some monster games and push an injured Milwaukee squad harder than many initially projected.
These last two seasons Griffin has really expanded his range and become a legitimate three-point threat. He established himself as one of the league’s most versatile bigs long before arriving in Detroit, but now is his chance to truly remind the world of just how dominate he can be on the biggest stage.
Blake and Andre Drummond only have one more season guaranteed together, and a strong postseason from BG could be big in swaying role players to consider the Pistons in free agency. They had a shot at the six seed before cratering to close the season, and with another year under Dwane Casey, there is a real shot the Pistons find themselves closer to the middle or the top of the pack this time next year. A good stretch in the spring could set up something for next season while also putting Griffin back in the conversations he rightfully deserves to be in.