Traditionalists may disagree, but the NBA is all about star power. While many of us would love to see a team win the championship without a bona fide superstar, it just doesn’t happen very often.
Every team needs a go-to scorer who can take over with the game on the line. Luckily for NBA fans, there are plenty of dominant scorers featured in the playoffs this year, and there will be no shortage of fourth-quarter drama when the first round begins.
Having a dominant star will be especially important for lower-seeded playoff teams this year. The Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks boast their own superstars who can take over a game. Skating past those teams will take some inspired individual performances—not to mention a complete effort from their lower-seeded counterparts.
The same holds true for the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, both of which will be faced with a difficult first-round matchup against an extremely difficult opponent.
We’ll take a look at three stars who must play their best basketball in the first round in order to ensure a deep tournament run. Without a strong showing from these players, Golden State, Los Angeles and Houston can’t expect to escape the opening round.
Stephen Curry: Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry’s remarkable season culminated in a new record in the final game of the regular season. The 25-year-old nailed four three-pointers against Portland in that contest, bringing his total to 272 for the year—three more than Ray Allen made in the 2005-06 season.
Curry has been deadly from behind the arc all year, finishing the regular season with a 45.3 percent mark from behind the arc. Paired with Klay Thompson, the Warriors can do plenty of damage from long range.
And they will have to be deadly in the playoffs.
The Denver Nuggets weren’t expected to be this good. The stars have aligned for George Karl’s squad, though, and Denver has become a true title contender in a very short period of time.
With tremendous depth and balance at nearly every position, the Nuggets can beat opponents in any number of ways, most notably by scoring more points than any team in the NBA this season (106.1 PPG).
If the Warriors are to upset the Nuggets in the first round, Curry has to continue his dominance in the first round with huge performances night in and night out. Golden State is a strong squad, but it doesn’t have the depth to upend Denver without big performances from its brightest star.
Dwight Howard: Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant’s early exit has paved the way for Dwight Howard to be the player everyone expected him to be when he joined the Lakers this season. The pressure is on in Los Angeles, and Howard has to be the player to shoulder that pressure if his team is to escape a first-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers’ season has been marred with rumors, skepticism and underwhelming performances. It’s time for their biggest stars to silence the critics with Bryant on the shelf.
Tim Duncan is banged up, but don’t expect the future Hall of Famer to be easily pushed around in the playoffs—even by the league’s most physically dominant center. Howard has to come up big against Duncan and the Spurs if Los Angeles is to have any chance of a second-round berth.
Howard was tremendous down the stretch when the Lakers needed him most (23.3 points and 14 rebounds per game in the final three), and he’ll need to continue playing with that same intensity and focus in the postseason. Los Angeles’ season now rests on his shoulders.
James Harden: Houston Rockets
Houston is a terrific team, but it still may be another player away from being a true contender. The Rockets need someone who can ease James Harden’s burden.
Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons can certainly help the cause, but Harden has to be the player to do the damage against his old teammates. With 25.9 points per game in the regular season, Harden will be expected to fill it up in the first round.
For fans looking for a lot of scoring, this will be the matchup to watch in the opening round. Both teams average better than 105 points per game, and Harden is the biggest reason for the Rockets’ explosive offense. They won’t make it very far without some inspired performances from their best scorer.