Who's under the most pressure to perform in the 2018 NBA playoffs?

Yahoo Sports

The 2018 NBA playoffs start this Saturday! Here’s the full Round 1 schedule for all eight matchups.

We started our postseason preview by identifying some X-factors we think could determine how things shake out in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference brackets. Next, we broke out six storylines to keep track of as the postseason unfolds, and considered which top seeds might be in greatest danger of an upset. Now, let’s take a deep, calming breath before diving into a spicy question: Who’s facing the most pressure to perform in the 2018 NBA playoffs?

[NBA Playoffs Bracket Challenge: $1M for the perfect bracket]

James Harden and Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

Harden deserves to be your odds-on favorite to win the first Most Valuable Player award of his career. Despite missing 24 games, Paul was downright dominant in his first season in Texas, nearing career-bests in shooting frequency and efficiency without losing his playmaking touch or disruptive defensive tendencies while fitting seamlessly in Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll attack.

The Rockets smoked opponents by eight points per 100 possessions when Harden plays without Paul, by nearly 14 points-per-100 when Paul runs while Harden rests, and by nearly 14 points-per-100 when they share the floor, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data. This has been the absolute best-case scenario that Daryl Morey could have hoped for when he swung for the fences; the Rockets always have a Hall of Fame playmaker on the court now, and on the rare occasion that one doesn’t have it going, they can just call on the other.

For the big bet to truly pay off, though, they all need that to be as true in the postseason as it was in the regular season.

Behind the brilliant play of Chris Paul and James Harden, the Houston Rockets enter the 2018 NBA playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed.
Behind the brilliant play of Chris Paul and James Harden, the Houston Rockets enter the 2018 NBA playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed.

All year long, the Rockets were unflinching in their insistence that they believed they were just as good as the Golden State Warriors — no, that they were better — and that this was their year. Now’s the time to prove it. Face down those ghosts — Harden’s record-setting turnover debacle in 2015, his absence from Houston’s season-saving comeback in 2016 and Game 6 disappearing act last May; Paul’s Game 5 meltdown in 2015, his presence for the Rockets’ comeback in 2016, the years of injury and circumstance that metastasized into him being Maybe the Best Player to Never Make a Conference Final — and put them to rest. Bury the past, and the Warriors. Kill it all with pick-and-roll audacity and long-range firebombing, if you have to.

Do it, claim the ‘chip, and you’re made men, forever. Fall short, and the weight of history and consequence will only grow heavier. These are the stakes Harden and Paul are playing for; nobody’s got more on their shoulders. It’s a good thing, then, that they’ve got each other.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Like the Rockets’ top duo, we’ve discussed the sword hanging over DeRozan and Lowry before. Their teams have produced the greatest run of basketball success in Toronto’s history, but they have also produced zero wins in the first game of a series in seven tries. This is the primary reason it’s so hard to believe in the Raptors come springtime; no matter how good they’ve been for the past six months, or how good they’ll be for the next week, they always seem to begin their playoff matchups looking like they can’t believe they’re here, either, and extremely concerned that we’re going to find out they’re not supposed to be.

Well, this is the time to stuff the impostor syndrome. You are supposed to be here, guys. You have, between you, eight All-Star nods. You have responded to your history of 40-percent-shooting playoff struggle by agreeing to loosen your grip on your team’s offense in favor of getting things moving more frequently and with better flow. It has paid dividends; your trust has been rewarded, and now you’ve got a deep and dynamic team full of talented contributors who can make your lives easier.

You’re healthy, you’ve had a lighter minutes load, and you lead one of this NBA season’s legitimately elite teams. And the way you prove that is by taking one look at the Washington Wizards — a 43-win team that’s had a negative point differential in 2018 and can’t seem to get out of its own way — and seeing not an invading army, but an uninvited insect in need of shoe-sole-based extermination.

If Lowry and DeRozan do things Saturday the way they’ve been doing them all year — neither trying to grab the game by the scruff of its neck nor shrinking from the moment, but just making the next play — the Raptors should win Game 1, allowing them to throw that grimy bit of statistical trivia in the garbage and move on. Whether or not the collective exhalation will prove cleansing enough to propel Toronto forward to knock off the next opponent in their path — which, sorry, Hoosiers, but will probably be LeBron James — remains to be seen. If nothing else, though, getting that Game 1 goose-egg off the ledger might give Lowry, DeRozan and the rest of the Raptors something to hold onto: That one thing that always happens to us didn’t happen this time. Maybe the other one doesn’t have to, either.

That might not be much to carry into a meeting with the King, but it’s more than the Raptors’ top guns have had before. And against the weakest Cavs team they’ve seen, and with the strongest roster they’ve boasted, maybe a little belief can go a long way.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

There’s a sense, I think, that despite Portland having won 49 games and earned the West’s No. 3 seed, it wouldn’t be all that big an upset if the New Orleans Pelicans knocked them off in Round 1 because, ultimately, they’ve got the best player in the series.

Anthony Davis is unbelievable, science fiction, a 6-foot-11 monster who can seemingly do anything on the floor whenever he wants to. It’s difficult to look at a matchup in which one team has a dude who’s averaged 30 points, 12 rebounds, five combined blocks-and-steals, and two assists on 51 percent shooting for a smooth 2 1/2 months, and think that anybody else can be the best dude on the floor. This year, though? Lillard shouldn’t have to take a backseat to any-damn-body.

This is Damian Lillard’s chance to make a run. (AP)
This is Damian Lillard’s chance to make a run. (AP)

Dame has been downright devastating at the point for Portland, bombing away from deep more mercilessly than ever and getting to the line at a career-best rate while showing a new level of poise and control orchestrating Terry Stotts’ offense. He’s worked hard to improve defensively; the Blazers couldn’t have been a top-10 defense all year with Dame playing 68 percent of their minutes if he hadn’t moved from a clear minus in that category to something closer to solid.

C.J. McCollum remains a dynamite No. 2 option. Jusuf Nurkic has moments where he looks like a two-way world-breaker. Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey deserve praise for the work they’ve done in building and elevating a rotation full of names that don’t pop off the page, but that have produced when called upon. But no matter how well Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner play, everything for the Blazers revolves around Lillard; with him off the floor, according to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, the Blazers have produced the sort of point differential you’d expect from a 28-win team.

They won 49 games because of Lillard, because of the promise of his shot-making, the fear he instills in the hearts of defenses when he pulls up, and the additive influence of his leadership on a roster full of players that just about every other team in the league passed on. He’s that kind of rising tide, a legitimate All-NBA talent who suffers in comparison only by virtue of the many other megawatt stars at his position who have made deeper postseason runs and packed more accolades into their trophy cases.

Lillard opens the postseason looking at a path to the conference finals barred by Davis and Jrue Holiday, and by a Warriors team that’s looked forgettable for a month and might not have a full-strength Steph. This is Dame’s opportunity to make a run, to push himself and his team into the spotlight they’re so often denied, and to prove to a national audience that might not always stay up to hang with Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd that he deserves your respect whenever you have that “best player on the floor” conversation. No matter who’s on the other side.

Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Relative to preseason expectations, the Thunder have been a disappointment. The price they pay for underperforming both their star power and their point differential is an opening-round prizefight with the perma-surging Utah Jazz … and, should they survive, a likely date with the high-scoring Rockets, who briskly eliminated them from last year’s postseason.

That elimination, and the one-man army routine that preceded it, sparked Sam Presti’s all-in summertime gambit of trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana for George. The thinking was, if there’s another top-flight star alongside Russ, he won’t have to do everything, so our offense won’t die whenever he hits the bench, and our two-way attack will have a higher ceiling when our best guys share the floor. That hasn’t totally borne out this year — OKC’s offense has dropped off by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions without Russ, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they’ve been blitzed by 15 points-per-100 when George has played without Westbrook, according to NBAwowy.com — but the Thunder’s best game remains good enough to dismantle just about anyone when Westbrook and George are at their peak.

There’s a lot riding on how things go for Russell Westbrook and Paul George over the next few weeks. (AP)
There’s a lot riding on how things go for Russell Westbrook and Paul George over the next few weeks. (AP)

How frequently can George — mere days removed from saying he feels funny when he shoots and has a mechanical problem with his jumper, only to end the season by shooting 47 percent from 3 over his last three games — get there against a Jazz defense that’s been far and away the league’s best for months? Can Westbrook consistently find the balance between relentless attacking and timely facilitating that animates the rest of Oklahoma City’s weapons?

When the game’s tight late, will Westbrook look for George to help him close it out? Or will he, even despite the additions of George and Carmelo Anthony, go it alone like he did against Houston last year, believing — perhaps not always wrongly! — that the best option OKC can muster is Way More Russ? The answers to those questions could loom large in determining what comes next for all parties involved.

After trading for George with just one year left on his contract, the Thunder got Westbrook to re-up on a maximum-salaried renegotiation that locked him in as OKC’s cornerstone for the foreseeable future. To whatever degree it helped convince him to sign on the dotted line, maybe the George deal’s already a success. But if OKC bows out early, and does so with George having an underwhelming series in which he’s minimized by Westbrook’s tendency to suck the oxygen out of the room … and if George then leaves, landing the Thunder essentially back where they were last April but with fewer lower-cost players, an older/more expensive Russ, and Melo … well, let’s just say there’s a lot riding on this series.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

No, the Wizards weren’t better without Wall when he was sidelined after knee surgery. The healthy, engaged, supercharged version of Wall’s one of the 15 or so best players in the sport, and you don’t get better by replacing that guy with the combination of Tomas Satoransky and Tim Frazier. They did seem to breathe more easily, though, and they haven’t necessarily looked demonstrably better since his return.

His individual numbers have been fine enough: 20.3 points, 12.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 35.1 minutes per game over his final four games, shooting 47.4 percent from deep. But the Wizards were actually pretty roundly outscored in Wall’s minutes over that late stretch, and watched a chance at a signature road win in Cleveland come up short thanks in part to Wall booting two final-minute possessions.

The Wizards need John Wall to have a big series to beat the Raptors. But John Wall might need one even more than his team.
The Wizards need John Wall to have a big series to beat the Raptors. But John Wall might need one even more than his team.

Now, the Wizards head north to Toronto, and while few have forgotten the way Washington wiped for the floor with the Raptors in 2015, both teams are dramatically different now. Whatever your level of confidence in the Raptors, it’s tough to muster much more belief in this iteration of the Wiz; they lack the swagger of previous models, and just generally seem more stunted and sour than they were during the high points of the Randy Wittman era. (Not that there weren’t low points then, too.)

Wall’s capable of being the sort of accelerant that helps the rest of the Wiz catch fire, bending defenses to create passing lanes that nobody else in a Washington jersey can generate, and barreling down the floor like a bat out of hell on a one-man fast-break that’s one of the league’s most entertaining shows. Due to injury and the general malaise around the latter-day Wiz, though, it feels like we haven’t seen that guy much recently.

If we don’t see him over the next couple of weeks, authoring a monster series to either upset the Raptors or push them to their breaking point before bowing out, it could be a long summer for Wall. He’s made no bones about wanting to be viewed as a premier player at his position and a nationally recognized superstar. Without a big postseason showing, he could soon find public perception of his game and value turning south, with people seeing him less as the transcendent talent who can elevate Washington to the NBA’s elite, and more as a $200 million millstone who can’t stay healthy, hasn’t won anything and dooms the Wiz to the purgatory of being merely pretty good.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

The Warriors aren’t The Warriors without Stephen Curry. They’re not going to have him until Round 2, at the earliest, and even when they get him back, there’s a very real possibility that — like two years ago, when he suffered a similar knee sprain against Houston — he won’t be the fully functional game-breaking defense-distorter we’ve come to know.

Golden State, then, will need to find another formula to win. It will lean, obviously, on the brilliance of Kevin Durant, one of the world’s most unguardable players and a reigning NBA Finals MVP who can carry an offense for weeks at a time. But that approach hasn’t worked flawlessly for the Dubs since Curry went down, as Golden State slunk past the finish line with a sub-.500 record and negative point differential despite KD putting up numbers.

No, the answer the Warriors need comes on the other end of the floor, where they’ve been an elite team since Mark Jackson was on the bench, but where they’ve been merely average in preventing points since the All-Star break and were downright abysmal over the final 10 games of the season. Some of that owes to injuries, but a lot of it owes to the Warriors basically not giving a crap for a long, time.

With Stephen Curry sidelined, the Warriors need Draymond Green at his snarling Defensive Player of the Year best.
With Stephen Curry sidelined, the Warriors need Draymond Green at his snarling Defensive Player of the Year best.

And that’s understandable, to a degree. The Rockets were racing ahead to lock up home-court advantage, and the Warriors already believe they can beat anybody anywhere. Cranking it up to make multiple efforts on a bunch of mid-March possessions isn’t going to be a top priority for a team that’s played deep into June for three straight years. But the time for conservation of energy is over. It’s time for the Warriors to — say it with me — flip the switch, and as the emotional anchor of the team, Draymond’s the one who’s got to do it.

The Warriors need Green to snarl. They need him to take personally the challenge of shutting off the water for LaMarcus Aldridge, the only real offensive answer San Antonio has with Kawhi Leonard sidelined. They need him to treat every possession like it matters, because they can’t afford to feel like they’ve got a margin for error. Because, until Curry comes back and looks to be in perfect working order, we won’t know if they have one.

The playoffs are here, and the Warriors need to play like they can’t just outscore everybody. That starts by placing a greater premium on defensive effort, and that starts with Draymond shrugging off a season in which his impact seemed muted — perhaps by a nagging shoulder injury, perhaps just by the general ennui that comes after three straight Finals runs — to turn in a postseason in which he turns the volume up to 11 and rips off the knob.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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