NBA playoffs 2024: Six players under pressure to perform this postseason

Playoff pressure exists.

How a player, team or coach deals with it helps determine how that pressure manifests itself and impacts performance.

And if there’s not internal pressure, there’s external pressure based on expectations, which determine success and failure. Even in the most basic terms, the competitive nature of players to excel creates pressure. They don’t want to lose.

The first round of the NBA playoffs begin Saturday with four games, and as usual, the pressure is not distributed evenly. Some absorb the burden more than others.

Let’s look at five players (plus a bonus) who are under pressure this NBA playoff season:

Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard wanted out of Portland. Didn’t want to be part of that rebuild. Wanted to play for a contender. Nothing wrong with that. He got his wish. But the Bucks – for a team that won 49 games – have had a tumultuous season, firing then-head coach Adrian Griffin with a 30-13 record. Milwaukee went 19-20 the rest of the season, and while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lillard produced as a tandem, the wins weren’t there, something seemed off and now the Bucks start their first-round series against Indiana with both players injured and the possibility of Antetokounmpo missing at least Game 1. The Bucks acquired Lillard for moments like this.

Damian Lillard and Jaylen Brown are under pressure to perform in these NBA playoffs.
Damian Lillard and Jaylen Brown are under pressure to perform in these NBA playoffs.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown has played in five conference finals, Jayson Tatum four conference finals and both played in the 2022 NBA Finals. They have been on the doorstep of bringing the storied Boston franchise its 18th title. This season, the Celtics won an NBA-best 64 games and ran away with the Eastern Conference. Tatum will make an All-NBA team, and Brown, who made All-NBA last season, was an All-Star for the third time this season. This is the best team the Celtics have had in the Brown-Tatum era, with the addition of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, and anything short of winning the East and advancing to the Finals will be a disappointment. Tatum and Brown are the foundational players.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert

The Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert before the start of the 2022-23 season and the success they had sought was not immediate. The Timberwolves were 42-40 and not a cohesive group last season, losing to Denver in the first round. It came together for the Timberwolves this season, going 56-26 with the third-best record in the West – just a game behind Oklahoma City and Denver. Gobert anchored the league’s top defense and now he needs to be at his best for the Timberwolves to make a deep playoffs run, starting with their first-round series against the offensively gifted Phoenix Suns.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson

Jalen Brunson is an All-Star and likely All-NBA choice this season. But is he 1A on a contender? That’s the narrative that began when Las Vegas Aces coach and ESPN analyst Becky Hammon suggested earlier this season the Knicks don’t have that kind of player. Well, Brunson gets a chance to prove Hammon wrong, and he faces a strong test right off the start against Philadelphia in a first-round series. The Knicks, who are without injured forward Julius Randle, will need every bit of Brunson's scoring (28.7 points per game on 47.9% shooting from the field, 40.1% on 3-pointers) and playmaking (6.7 assists per game).

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid

The 76ers were headed for the second or third seed in the East and Joel Embiid was on track for his second consecutive MVP in late January. Then, Embiid injured his knee, missed games, became ineligible to win MVP and the Sixers tumbled in the standings, ending up the No. 7 seed. Embiid is back and the Sixers look formidable again. But remember, the Sixers have not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs during the Embiid era. Exits before the conference finals year after year become part of a star player’s legacy.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Which players are facing most pressure in 2024 NBA playoffs?