Entering the postseason as the best team doesn’t necessarily guarantee a championship. Throughout the history of the NBA, this is something we’ve seen time and time again. Winning a title is not easy; it takes resiliency, an unbreakable will to succeed, and plenty of lucky breaks. And not always, but most of the time, it requires the team’s star to rise above the noise, endure the immense pressure, and make magic happen.
For all the great players in the game today, not everyone has the chops to handle this sort of burden. Unfortunately, even the ones who do — or rather, have done it before — are expected to get the job done each and every time. Such is the life of an NBA superstar; always having something to prove.
With that in mind, as the 2017 NBA Playoffs continue, here’s a look at the nine players who find themselves in this position more than the rest.
1. Jimmy Butler
Despite being a three-time All-Star and evolving into a bona fide alpha on the court, Jimmy Butler often finds himself living in the shadow of some of the game’s other great talents. Yet, all that ever seems to do is motivate him, as evidenced by the 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.5 assists a game he averaged during the 2016–17 season.
With Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah no longer in the Windy City, the pressure is on Butler to be “the man” and show that he is capable of leading the Bulls to postseason glory. Even if he winds up suiting up somewhere else next season, a superstar showing in these 2017 NBA Playoffs would only make Butler that much more attractive — if that’s even possible — to potential suitors.
Update, 4/29/17: The Boston Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 4-2 in their first-round series matchup.
2. Isaiah Thomas
Without Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics don’t earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference — that’s a fact. This season, the man they call the “King in the Fourth” put up 28.9 points per game, dished out 5.9 assists a night, and came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the top closers on the planet.
He might not be the biggest dude on the floor (he’s 5-foot-9), but you wouldn’t know it by the way he plays (especially in crunch time). Thomas has been the “The Answer” to Boston’s prayers. The only question is, can he deliver the same heroics in the postseason? The pressure’s on.
3. Chris Paul
Even at 31 years of age, Chris Paul remains one of the top point guards in the NBA. The guy is the ultimate floor general, with vision for days and an uncanny ability to drop the hammer with the game on the line. Yet, in spite of all the accomplishments and accolades, CP3 has never managed to advance past the second round in the playoffs. As great as Paul is (and has been), this is not the sort of asterisk a player of his caliber wants on his resume. He’ll continue to feel the heat until this is no longer the case.
Update, 4/29/17: The Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers 4-3 in their first-round series matchup.
4. John Wall
Everyone knows that John Wall is awesome. He’s a lethal scorer, freakishly athletic, and has a nasty handle. Yet, in a league that’s so guard-heavy at the top of the food chain, the former Kentucky standout often gets lost in the shuffle. Which is crazy to think about considering he just made his fourth straight All-Star Game appearance and posted averages 23.1 points and 10.7 assists (second in the NBA) a night. Wall definitely deserves more respect than he gets. Showing up in the postseason will go a long way toward making that happen.
Update, 5/16/17: The Boston Celtics beat the Washington Wizards 4-3 in their second-round series matchup.
5. James Harden
After going 41-41 the season before, the Rockets took flight in 2016–17, finishing with a 55-27 record while earning the third seed in the Western Conference. This wouldn’t have happened had James Harden not fully embraced his new point guard role in Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo system.
Speaking for basketball fans worldwide, we’re sure glad he did. The Beard took his game to the next level by dishing out a league-leading 11.2 assists a night to go along with 29.1 points per contest. But as we’ve noted many times before, while getting it done in the regular season is nice, it’s what you do in the playoffs that truly matters. It’s time for Harden to take another step toward greatness.
Update, 5/15/17: The San Antonio Spurs beat the Houston Rockets 4-2 in their second-round series matchup.
6. Stephen Curry
After earning his second straight MVP award and leading the Golden State Warriors to a record 73-9 mark in 2015–16, Stephen Curry failed to get the job done when it mattered most. Instead, he and the Dubs blew a chance at immortality by choking away a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. It was a collapse of epic proportions. For the Baby-Faced Assassin, the 2017 NBA Playoffs are all about redemption. Fortunately for him, it’s just the whole world watching. No big deal, right?
7. Russell Westbrook
It’s hard to put into words what Russell Westbrook accomplished this year. Even saying he was “magnificent” doesn’t seem good enough. Without KD around, The Brodie ferociously decimated anyone and anything standing in his path, becoming only the second player ever to average a triple-double for the season. That’s just not supposed to happen. And yet, it did.
Of course, if Russ can’t win in the postseason, then all that individual excellence will have been for naught. Westbrook carried the Thunder during the regular season, and he must now do the same in the playoffs. Talk about a heavy burden to bear.
Update, 4/29/17: The Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in their first-round series matchup.
8. LeBron James
The King has already done enough to solidify his place among the game’s all-time greats. Nothing that happens in these playoffs will change that; his legacy is officially secure. That being said, LeBron James is always striving for excellence, and he knows full well the postseason is where the truly elite players make their mark. Since the Cavaliers struggled down the stretch. it’ll up to James to turn on that proverbial “switch” and help right the ship. Funny thing is, he probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
9. Kevin Durant
This one’s a no-brainer. After experiencing a massive collapse in the playoffs last year, Kevin Durant jumped ship and signed with the Golden State Warriors in the offseason. This move was all about giving him the best possible chance of winning something that has eluded him his entire career: a championship. If the Dubs fall short of their ultimate goal, no one will suffer the wrath more than Durant. We hope he’s up for the challenge.