10 NBA Stars Under the Most Pressure to Deliver in the 2014 Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

10 NBA Stars Under the Most Pressure to Deliver in the 2014 Playoffs

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    NBA superstars feel the burn of playoff heat for different reasons.

    Just 16 steps short of championship glory, the stakes couldn't be any higher. Except for the 10 players on this list—for them, the journey means even more.

    The regular season builds names. It puts a face to a player, perhaps bringing with it some notable numbers, individual accolades or both.

    The postseason is different. It creates icons.

    Championships give historical context. There's only so high a stock can soar on a ringless hand. Players can still be celebrated without one, but not without an asterisk attached.

    For most of the names on this list, the pressure to perform comes out of this realm. Some are building a legacy, others have yet to lay the foundation. In a league where titles talk, these stars are desperate to drive that discussion.

    That's not the only source of this heat, though.

    Some are looking to validate a breakout campaign with an elite-level effort on the biggest stage. One is fighting for his coach's job, while another is attempting to justify the highest luxury-tax bill in league history.

    The cameras are on, the lights are at their brightest—it's go-big-or-go-home time for these 10 stars.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.

Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

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    There may not be a heavier burden than the one Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry is carrying into the postseason.

    His coach, Mark Jackson, is sitting atop a raging inferno on the sideline. The action-over-patience team owners are antsy for playoff success. That success would have to start with a second straight upset of a No. 3 seed, this time around the 57-win Los Angeles Clippers.

    Oh, and he'll have to stop Lob City without the help of his team's top rim protector, Andrew Bogut (out indefinitely with a rib fracture).

    "Curry will have to play perhaps the best series of his life in order for the Warriors to advance," Bleacher Report's J.M. Poulard wrote. "There are simply too many question marks for the Dubs, and Curry must become the equalizer."

    Curry needs to find some upward mobility with his numbers, which won't be easy considering where the bar is set (24.0 points on .471/.424/.885 shooting, 8.5 assists per game). If that challenge wasn't tough enough on its own, it jumps up another difficulty level (or two or three) with five-time All-Defensive selection Chris Paul crashing his personal space.

    Scoring another major upset would send Curry's star shooting into another galaxy, but that's the least of his concerns right now. He has a coach, a franchise and a city starving for success to worry about.

Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kevin Durant told us this was coming.

    "I'm tired of being second," he told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins last April. "I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it."

    These weren't gripes, but warnings rather. With a historically significant stat line of 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists, KD obviously hasn't settled. All he's done is yanked the MVP award out of LeBron James' grasp.

    But this isn't the ascension Durant is after. Being the top regular-season player means nothing.

    Now during his seventh season in the league, it's time to start measuring the 25-year-old with playoff success.

    "Criticizing Durant is viewed as sacrilegious, an insult to one of the NBA's greatest powers," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote. "Yet shouldn't we expect more from Durant, especially now, after what he's done ahead of the playoffs?"

    What he's done is develop into a two-way force, a scoring savant (32.0 points per game) that can punish with passing (5.5 assists) or dominate with defense (7.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks). He's performed at a championship level—now he needs to do the same on a championship stage.

Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers

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    Paul George's 2013-14 campaign has been as hard to decipher as that of his Indiana Pacers.

    He's been incredible and forgettable. He's looked, at different times, ready to crash the MVP party and way in over his head.

    Perception paints his Pacers as vulnerable as a top seed can get. Reality (Indiana dropped 13 of its last 23 games) doesn't do much to change that view.

    George can change that narrative. With 6'8" and 210 pounds of athleticism, drive and determination, he's shown both the ability and the confidence of a superstar.

    "I want to be great. I want to be the best I can be," George said, via Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "I feel like I'm capable of being a very great player and one of the best players in this league."

    It's time for George, and his Pacers, to put his money where his mouth is. He was a different player after the All-Star break (20.8 points on 39.6 percent shooting, 22.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting before it), but those struggles will be forgotten if he can find his form over these next two months.

    Or they'll be magnified as a sign of his complete collapse. They'll be evidence that he's not ready for the big stage and perhaps not even the type of player that can lead a team.

    It's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of world. George will be built up or torn down for his postseason work—there's no middle ground at this time of year.

Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Blake Griffin's standing as an elite NBA talent isn't at risk.

    He already has his dunk-face adorned membership card. His bathroom reading material has been the exclusive group's weekly newsletter for months. Velvet ropes lift faster for him than they do a Kardashian.

    The Griffin Force is here. All 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists of it. He can take himself out of the MVP race, but his name generated that buzz for a reason.

    So, where's the pressure coming from, then?

    It's the challenge of showing that his approach has matured as much as his game. It's resisting temptation to engage in the mental games opponents throw his way—Golden State Warriors gunslinger Klay Thompson is already firing shots—and fighting through the physical assaults he's sure to receive.

    He'll be tested early and often with the Pacific Division rival Dubs on the docket for L.A.'s opening round matchup. If he can ace those exams, the Clippers could be on the cusp of a lengthy playoff push.

    For now, he's saying the right things.

    "It doesn't matter what anybody does or anybody says," he said, via ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne. "Go out and play basketball."

    We'll see if it's as simple as it sounds.

Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets

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    Dwight Howard left an all-time great, a rich history and $30 million when he ditched the Los Angeles Lakers for the Houston Rockets last summer.

    He's been all smiles ever since, but playtime is over.

    For Howard, this is bigger than basketball. It's the chance to save a reputation tarnished by both an uncomfortably long exit from the Orlando Magic and a disastrous one-year experiment in Hollywood.

    His carefree attitude was once something to be appreciated. For all the talk of professional sports being a business, the big man looked like he enjoyed his job.

    The joy is back in his game, but his image remains tarnished. Winning has a way of curing all ills (see: LeBron James), and Howard has maintained the Rockets give him the best chance to do just that. 

    "All I want to do is win," Howard said, via USA Today's Sam Amick. "That's the only thing that matters to me. If we win, then everything falls into place."

    Howard sacrificed money and respect to get where he is. This postseason is his chance to validate that move.

    As long as his defensive effort isn't tied to his offensive involvement, he's talented enough to carry his team down the path to the podium. Anything less won't silence his critics.

LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat

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    Mark Humphrey

    LeBron James sent shock waves through the basketball world when he chose his NBA Mount Rushmore during an interview with NBA TV's Steve Smith—and told everyone to leave out the tools to carve his face when he hangs them up.

    If he guides the Miami Heat down championship road for the third straight season, his space on that mountain could be saved before the summer is over.

    He could walk away from the game now and already be remembered as an all-time great. Four MVPs, two rings, a scoring title—his resume is that kind of special.

    Leading a successful three-peat bid is different, though. That's when the amount of names mentioned in the same breath as his grows incredibly thin. That's when you wonder if one-of-the-best might actually become the undisputed best.

    Winning three consecutive championships obviously isn't easy. There's a reason only three NBA franchises have ever lived through that experience.

    Miami's challenge might be even more daunting than normal, though. This ride began with an unsuccessful trip to the 2011 NBA Finals—they've played 67 playoff games over the last three seasons. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding Dwyane Wade's health and the questions about the Big Three's future in South Beach, and you're talking about a ton of distractions compounding what already may be the hardest fight of their lives.

    "It’s extremely tough trying to do this thing again," Chris Bosh said, via ESPN.com's Israel Gutierrez.

    Not that the basketball world will give James a free pass, of course. With the best-player-on-the-planet label draped on his shoulders, it's another championship-or-bust year for the King.

Joakim Noah, C, Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls have never been a just-happy-to-be-here franchise, but expectations were nonexistent outside the locker room when this team began its playoff journey last season.

    Fast-forward 12 months, and that's remarkably no longer the case: No Derrick Rose (again), no Luol Deng...no excuses.

    ESPN.com asked 19 of its experts to make a prediction on Chicago's opening round series with the Washington Wizards. Eighteen went with the Bulls, and 15 called for a series win in six games or less.

    Did it just get hot in here, or did Joakim Noah just pour over those picks? The Bulls are expected to beat the Wizards, rather easily at that, with D.J. Augustin's 14.9 scoring average pacing this lineup.

    Noah, the lone All-Star selection of the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed, will have to do what he does best, which is to say his assignment sheet will have a single word: everything. He has traditional big man duties like rebounding (11.3) and shot-blocking (1.5), but he's also the team's top setup man (5.4). If the Bulls need scoring—considering John Wall and Bradley Beal are on the schedule, they will—Noah will have to provide that, too.

    "He simultaneously anchors one of the league's premier defenses and serves as the facilitating centerpiece of its offense," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb wrote. "He provides a seemingly limitless supply of energy and leadership, looking a heck of a lot like a point-center who does everything but the bulk of the ball-handling."

    That's quite the list, isn't it? It's also the expectation level we've now set.

    The only way Noah can shock the world now is by not showing up.

Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Chris Paul has largely eluded the ringless talk because he's never really found himself in a championship-caliber situation.

    That excuse is gone now.

    He has an MVP-caliber running mate in Blake Griffin. His center, DeAndre Jordan, has thrown his name into both the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player award races. He shares the perimeter with shooters (J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley) and scorers (Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison).

    He has a coach, Doc Rivers, who's not only been to the game's summit before, but also has been prepping Paul for the hike all season.

    "The first meeting I had with Doc, he pretty much told me I wasn't anything," Paul said in October, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. "He told me I hadn't done anything in this league, and he was right."

    Paul has played like he's on a title quest ever since. His scoring (19.1), assists (10.7) and rebounding (4.3) are all up from last season. His player efficiency rating (25.9) is above his career average (25.6).

    He's driving the league's most efficient offense (109.4 points per 100 possessions) and leading its seventh-most efficient defense (102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). That type of two-way dominance is only seen among the true elites.

    For the first time in his career, that's the type of team Paul has at his disposal. Now the pressure's on for him to deliver championship-caliber results.

Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Russell Westbrook has done everything he can to disprove the detractors who say he's not an ideal running mate for Kevin Durant. Well, everything short of bringing the Oklahoma City Thunder a title, that is.

    So many factors go into raising a championship banner, it's unbelievably unfair to use that pursuit as the lone criteria for a pass-or-fail assessment. Yet, it feels like that's the only way for Westbrook to prove his worth to the public.

    KD raked in hordes of well-deserved press clippings for his work without Westbrook, but why hasn't that same attention been shifted onto the point guard? He had two knee procedures in the offseason and a third in December, but still battled his way to 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

    Know how many other players had a 21-6-5 stat line this season? One: four-time MVP LeBron James.

    Westbrook is a top-shelf talent. He was before the injury and might be even better since. He's not covered that way, though. Durant is the rock in OKC's postseason plans, but Westbrook is always the wild card.

    "In my opinion, the ball movement was so crisp and everyone was involved when Russell Westbrook was out," TNT's Reggie Miller said, via The Oklahoman. "...They are going to have to get better flow. When you go against an excellent defensive team like Memphis you have to have great ball movement."

    Westbrook is a pivotal piece of the Thunder's championship puzzle, but that's not always seen as a good thing. He's the one who makes people worry if this will be the season it all comes together, or if he'll get a little trigger-happy and the whole thing will fall apart.

    If that wasn't enough, he'll face a murder's row just to get out of the West. Assuming there are no upsets, Westbrook's playoff path will pit him against Mike Conley (Memphis Grizzlies), Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers) and Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs).

    Those are matchups he'll have to win for OKC to advance, all under the scrutinous eyes of the basketball world, of course.

Deron Williams, PG, Brooklyn Nets

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    Deron Williams has nearly 200 million reasons he'll have to perform in the postseason.

    His contract might not be the most egregious on the Brooklyn Nets' payroll (Joe Johnson gets that dubious distinction), and he might not be the most talented player on the roster (Brook Lopez looked like Brooklyn's best before breaking his foot in December).

    But he'll have the biggest say in determining whether the Nets can make good on their one-year title pursuit or go down in nine-figure flames. And that challenge starts now.

    "For (the Nets) to make a run, (Williams) is going to have be very, very good," ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "And the person he's going up against in the first series could be the most underrated player in the league this season in Kyle Lowry."

    The Nets will need an all-hands-on-deck effort to make noise from the East's No. 6 seed, but Williams' fingerprints have to be everywhere. He doesn't need to be the Utah Jazz D-Will who challenged Chris Paul's seat as the game's top point guard, but he has to be better than he's been (14.3 points, 6.1 assists).

    Brooklyn has volatile scorers in Johnson, Paul Pierce and even Marcus Thornton. Williams won't have to carry the offensive burden by himself.

    He does, however, need the heaviest piece. He has top-shelf ability, but it's nearly forgotten, thanks to his diminishing returns on the stat sheet.

    The 29-year-old could force his way back into superstar discussions if he can guide the Nets on a prolonged playoff run. If Brooklyn makes another rapid exit, though, Williams could see his door to stardom closed and sealed off.