Starting with our first team in the run-down gym at a local park, our coaches told us “basketball is a team sport.” It’s not about the individual, it’s about the team. The whole “there’s no I in team” cliche.
Then we start playing and realize quickly individuals matter. For some teams, they matter A LOT.
Enter the 2019 NBA playoffs. The best team will win, but for some of these teams to make a deep playoff run it will require one of their individuals being dominant. These are teams either built around, or that just require, this one player to be a star and then some.
Here are five players who have to step up and dominate for their teams to make playoff runs.
1) James Harden, Houston Rockets. The step-back three. The drives that lead to floaters or fouls. Collapse on him and he finds the open man at the arc, or the big man rolling to the rim for the lob. James Harden has become an unstoppable offensive force.
He has to be. The man averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds a game this season. He has the highest usage rate in the league (40.5, the only higher one ever was Russell Westbrook his MVP year). Harden had a 32-game streak of at least 30 points. He had to do all of it. When Harden started that scoring streak the Rockets were below .500 and the 13 seed in the West. He carried them to the four seed, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have been as good as any team in the NBA.
Houston has a brutal road ahead: Utah and it’s league-best defense since the All-Star break, with Rudy Gobert in the paint, is first. Win that series (the Rockets are favorites) and the reward is the Golden State Warriors. Harden has carried the Rockets this far, we’ll see if he can carry them up that Everest of a mountain. Just don’t doubt if The Beard is capable.
2) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. We all talk about how Houston’s offense is built around Harden, but the same is true of Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo. The style is just different. The Bucks put four shooters around him to spread the floor and open it up, but that only works because Antetokounmpo is unstoppable one-on-one. That forces help, he makes a pass, the ball swings and the Bucks get a clean look at a three.
It has dominated in the regular season, the Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA.
The pressure is now on Antetokounmpo to carry that offense into the postseason. There he will see new challenges and looks defensively — expect some teams to try zones — and the Greek Freak is going to have to adapt. He is going to have to get his buckets, and more importantly keep drawing so much attention that Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and the rest keep getting good looks.
Plus, he needs to keep making defensive plays. The Bucks are without Malcolm Brogdon for at least the start of the playoffs, without him as a perimeter defender more pressure will fall on Antetokounmpo and Lopez to protect the paint.
3) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard is already Mr. Everything to the Portland offense, a top-20 usage rate of 29.3 and the team’s leading scorer and assist man at 25.8 points and 6.9 dimes a game. There was already a lot of pressure on him.
Then Jusuf Nurkic had his freak leg injury. Portland’s second-best player this season (third if you want to argue CJ McCollum was better, but I think it was Nurkic) was gone. Lillard’s outlet under pressure was gone. McCollum, the other scorer Portland can count on, is back in the rotation but missed time with a plantar fascia issue. It puts even more on Lillard, who will see a lot of traps (just like last playoffs), and will have Paul George draped on him much of the time.
The Trail Blazers got swept out of the first round by the Pelicans last season and it was embarrassing for the franchise. This season they get the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and if the Trail Blazers are crushed again changes could be coming. It’s on Lillard.
4) Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder. Back in December, Paul George was a force of nature: 30.8 points and 8.9 rebounds a game, all on an insanely efficient 63.1 true shooting percentage. It was much the same in January, 29.6 points and a 60.1 true shooting percentage. He vaulted himself into the MVP conversation. In those months, the Thunder were 29-18.
After the All-Star break, battling a shoulder issue, George averaged 26.4 points per game with a true shooting percentage near the league average at 54.3. He wasn’t the same on either end. OKC had a record of 12-13.
Russell Westbrook will put up numbers, but don’t expect efficiency. If the Thunder are going to make any kind of run, it will be because George returned to peak form — and some of that peak was against Portland, he destroyed them this season. Which is why this is concerning.
If George is not elite it could be another quick exit for the Thunder.
5) Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz. Donovan Mitchell admitted that it took him a while to adjust this season. He was now the guy at the top of all the scouting reports, teams were putting their best defenders on him and taking away his preferred moves. In December Mitchell averaged 18.2 points a game (his only month below 20) with a 47.3 true shooting percentage that was well below the league average. He was struggling.
Mitchell watched the film, went to his counters, trusted himself and stepped up his game. After the All-Star break he averaged 26.7 points a game with a very efficient 58.1 true shooting percentage. He was back and the Jazz were one of the best teams in the NBA.
Utah drew Harden and the Rockets in the first round. If the Jazz are going to pull the upset, Mitchell is going to have play near a James Harden level — and get more help (and defense) than Harden does. It’s possible, this should be a close series, but the pressure is on Mitchell to make it happen.