Updated: Apr 17
The NBA playoffs bring with them a heightened sense of pressure for players, and this year is no different. Several star players have a lot riding on their performances, including back-to-back MVP winner Nikola Jokic. With the Nuggets being labeled as a regular season team, the pressure is on for Jokic to prove himself in the postseason. Meanwhile, Julius Randle of the Knicks is looking to redeem himself after a disappointing playoff performance last year, but there are still doubts about his ability to step up when it counts. Ja Morant of the Grizzlies has to navigate an image reconstruction after a suspension for off-court behavior, while Joel Embiid of the 76ers needs to overcome his string of playoff injuries. Finally, Chris Paul of the Suns, a surefire first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, is looking to finally get his ever elusive championship ring and secure his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
Nikola Jokic has won back-to-back MVPs, that right there is enough to put a target on someone’s back. Pair that with the narrative that the Nuggets are only a regular season team, and you’re talking about immense pressure. This narrative may be a bit overplayed considering the last time the Nuggets were at full strength in the playoffs, they made it to the Western Conference Finals (bubble WCF, but still counts). Overplayed or not, the Twitter Mob and the media are starting to come for Jokic and if the Nuggets disappoint in the playoffs, the critics will only get louder.
Quite frankly, the longer the Nuggets go without at least making it to a Finals, the more Joker's legacy will come into question. He's the caliber of player that deserves a legacy discussion. Only 12 players have ever won back-to-back MVPs, 10 of them have a ring, 2 don't. The 2 who don't are Steve Nash and Jokic. If Jokic can carry his regular-season success into the playoffs and lead the Nuggets to a championship, he can silence his critics forever and cement his place as one of the game's all-time greats.
Julius Randle disappointed Knicks fans everywhere with his play last year. He took a step back in pretty much every facet of the game including his attitude and Knicks fans did not take kindly to his perceived lack of effort. Randle’s play this year has renewed Knicks’ fans faith in him, he was an All-Star yet again and is in contention for an All-NBA spot. Even with his return to form, Knicks fans are reluctant to fully embrace him as a star. For many, the scars of 2020-21 are too deep and they'll need to see him perform to fully believe again. For reference, in the 20-21 regular season, Randle averaged an impressive 24.1 ppg on 45.6% from the field and 41% from three. In the playoffs against the Hawks, his averages dropped to 18 ppg on a HORRID 29.8% from the field and 33% from three.
As you can see, Knicks fans fears that Randle will be exposed again in the playoffs are not unwarranted. I'm one of the skeptics who just cannot believe it until I see it. The hope is that Brunson will be able to share the scoring load and take some pressure off with RJ and Quickley also providing some help. It certainly doesn't help that Randle is hobbled coming into the playoffs, but if he can persevere and rise to the occasion he'll be a NY hero forever. If not, Knicks fans may turn on him again, and this time it could be for good.
After being suspended for eight games for waving a gun on Instagram Live while at a strip club, Morant has to navigate an image reconstruction that's already underway. His public image has been damaged by his self-destructive behavior, and he needs to prove to his fans and the basketball world that he can overcome this setback. His talent is unquestionable, but his conduct off the court has led many to wonder whether he can lead the team on the court. There are also questions surrounding the team's overall lack of maturity as they (mainly Dillon Brooks) seem intent on antagonizing the rest of the league. Teams that haven't won anything typically should avoid making waves like that but the Grizzlies don't seem to care. They are the 2-seed, and they have a deep team with loads of talent. If they can make a run, it will go a long way towards taking the microscope off them.
Embiid is almost certainly going to win MVP. With that, comes expectations. The 76ers have been considered contenders since the 2017-18 season, yet they’ve never even made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. There are legitimate questions of whether they’re contenders or pretenders. Embiid has always played well in the playoffs when healthy. The issue is, he’s been injured every year in the playoffs. I’m not exaggerating, he has literally been hurt every year. Some years he’s gotten hurt right before the playoffs, some he gets hurt during the playoffs, but either way, he’s been hurt every year.
2018 – Orbital Fracture
2019 – Knee Soreness, Stomach Virus, and Upper Respiratory Infection
2020 – Ankle Injury
2021 – Lateral Meniscus Tear
2022 – Torn Ligament in Thumb, Orbital Fracture, and Concussion
Embiid’s run of bad injury luck has to end eventually, right? Right?! I need to see it to believe it. I truly hope he can do it because he is just so good and he deserves a signature playoff moment. The reporting has indicated that Harden is leaving in the offseason, so the time for this Sixers team to make a run might be running out.
Chris Paul is without a doubt a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He’s a 12x All-Star, 11x All-NBA, 9x All-Defense, and he was on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. Yet, the conversation around him always comes back to him not having a ring. The Suns made it to the finals in 2021 but lost in 6 games. Last year, they had a dominant season (64 wins) end in embarrassing fashion to the Mavericks. They lost in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals by 33 points, and it wasn’t even as close as the score makes it seem.
Now, he has KD, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton by his side. With those running mates it’s easy to see why many are picking them to win the championship. Plus, the Suns are 8-0 in games KD has played (yes, I know small sample size). CP3 is 37 years old now and while he is still playing at a high level, the clock is ticking. If he doesn't win one very soon, he may end up on the list of all-time greats with no ring.