Everybody loves watching a ballplayer with something to prove. And the NBA playoffs are the ultimate proving ground.
With the balance of power reset by LeBron James’ failure to make the postseason, new stars are poised to claim new territory. This ambition can only be validated in the playoffs, when every bucket and stop is harder. More manhood is on the line than during some January sleepwalk in Memphis, Tennessee. Every team is primed to prevent what great players are great at. Each game is a battle, each series a war.
Plus, lots of guys coast in the regular season. Don’t act like you don’t know.
Here are some plotlines to watch during the time of year when the true measure of players, teams and legacies is revealed:
Is this kid for real? The 24-year-old Milwaukee mantis terrorized the NBA this season with his preposterous mix of length, handle, power and Doctor Octopus dunks. Analytics are for nerds, but his Mean-Mug Metric is off the meter. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA, and he should win his first MVP award … all of which would feel wasted if he doesn’t make at least the Eastern Conference finals. Will Antetokounmpo’s lack of a consistent jumper prove fatal against primed playoff defenses? Can the league’s most ascendant star maintain his trajectory against Kawhi “Clamps” Leonard in a likely conference finals matchup? Will Kawhi’s blank stare defeat the Giannis grimace? Only the playoffs can tell.
Dude faced more questions than Jussie Smollett as the Boston Celtics underachieved this year. Why was Boston better last season without an injured Irving? Is his ball-dominant style stifling the talents of young bulls Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier? Should he have punked Gordon Hayward for passing to Tatum at the end of a close loss? Can Irving lead? Irving bolted Cleveland because he was frustrated in King James’ shadow. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. The vultures are circling Irving, and they could chase him out of Boston if things stink any worse in the postseason.
What could anyone with Harden’s unguardable talent have left to prove? Well, for starters, that his style of iso-ball can produce something beyond gaudy stats. Or that he can perform at his step-backing best when it means the most. Harden ran out of gas in the 2017 playoffs. In last year’s Western Conference finals against Golden State, Harden shot 19-for-78 from 3-point range (a bricktastic 24%) as the Rockets lost in seven games. Speaking of Houston, the Rockets as a franchise need to prove that shooting so many 3s won’t end up shooting them in the foot again. In their Game 7 loss to the Warriors, which was in Houston, the Rockets missed a record 37 of 44 shots from behind the arc. Did we mention the game was played in Houston? Yes, Chris Paul was injured for the last two games of that series. His hamstring popped again this year. Paul needs to prove he can remain ambulatory, or he might have to follow the homies Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony into the sunset. And speaking of Anthony — nah, too cruel. Let’s just stay in Houston, where there are a lot of chips on the table. The playoffs will reveal their hand.
Nobody has more to prove in these playoffs than Boogie. Disrespected in free agency last summer, labeled as a problem child, coming off an Achilles tear, Cousins signed a bargain-basement, one-year rental deal with Golden State. He physically performed well after returning to action in January and increased his production at the end of the regular season. Attitudewise, he is now the guy restraining Kevin Durant instead of being restrained from Durant. But the Warriors play far less effectively with Cousins on the court. Will Bad Boogie bubble up if he’s benched? Will his presence help or hinder the Dubs as they chase a third straight championship? Cousins is in his ninth season and has never made the playoffs. Stakes are high as he chases big money and a return to franchise-player status.
The Denver Nuggets point guard burns to establish himself as an elite player at the league’s most stacked position. He’s not satisfied scoring 48 points against Irving — he’s going for 50. He’s taunting Lonzo Ball and scrapping with Russell Westbrook. After five years out of the playoffs, the Nuggets have been one of the surprises of the league this year. Murray is in his third season, with no playoff experience, posting nice Mercedes numbers of 18.2 points and 4.8 assists per game. Let’s see if he can rev his game into Ferrari territory alongside Westbrook, Paul, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.
We all know the kid was phenomenal when he destroyed Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last year. We also know that in Round 2 he shot 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3 as Utah lost the series 4-1 to Houston. Couple that with being snubbed for this season’s All-Star Game and Spida is upfront about proving he’s a real star and not just a high-usage highlight film. “We’ll see,” Mitchell said. “It gives you that hunger.”
All the Brooklyn Nets
Let’s be honest, this is a whole squad of dudes other teams didn’t want. I’m still not exactly sure who Joe Harris is. Who doesn’t have something to prove on this crew?
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum
One of the best backcourts in the league is running out of time to prove it can power a true contender. Portland’s embarrassing first-round sweep last year by the underdog New Orleans Pelicans ratchets up the pressure this postseason. On an individual basis, nobody is doubting Lillard’s ice-cold game or McCollum’s crafty abilities. The question is, are they the right nucleus to compete into May against Houston or Oklahoma City, much less Golden State? Or would the Blazers be better off trading one of them for less duplicative talents? The season-ending injury to center Jusuf Nurkić lowers the Blazers’ expectations for now, but there’s not too much sand left in the hourglass of Portland’s running buddies. Another first-round exit could cripple their future together.
Remember Blake? Used to play in Los Angeles, jumped high, funny guy (sometimes)? He plays in Detroit now. He may be interested in proving that he’s still relevant. Which is hard to do from Detroit. A first-round matchup against the Bucks could be just the right stage.
Can he win a playoff series with players from, you know, America? Maybe Pop goes so hard at President Donald Trump because he needs immigrants to compete. Just sayin’.
This guy talks too much to not dominate in the playoffs. Yeah, his troll game is good for spicing up the regular season. But at some point, like right now, the Philly big man needs to back up the landfill quantities of trash he talks or become his own punch line. After Embiid declared himself “the most unstoppable player in the league,” a motivated Antetokounmpo came to Philly on April 5 and stopped Embiid’s shot at the rim four times. Two of those blocks left the 7-foot, 250-pound Sixer rolling on the floor. Really, bro? With the recent signings of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the Sixers organization expects to win big right now. Nobody in Philadelphia is trying to process another second-round playoff exit.