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Pressure’s on: Five players who must dominate for their teams to make playoff runs

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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.

Report: Nets signing Jamal Crawford

Jamal Crawford vs. Nets
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Most points scored in a player’s last game (among non-active NBA players):

  • Kobe Bryant: 60 (LAL-UTA April 13, 2016)
  • Jamal Crawford: 51 (PHO-DAL April 9, 2019)
  • Alec Peters: 36 (PHO-DAL April 10, 2018)

It’s time to remove Crawford from the list.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

A defensive liability who needs the ball in his hands, 40-year-old Crawford can still make difficult shots remarkably well. But most teams can build a lineup and system that consistently create more efficient shots than the tough looks Crawford specializes in.

The Nets aren’t most teams.

Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie are both out. Caris LeVert, Garrett Temple Chris Chiozza and Tyler Johnson are an underwhelming backcourt rotation.

Crawford can add scoring punch. With the point guard-deficient Suns last season, he also showed passing ability, though a good team won’t ask too much of him.

Reminder: The Nets will keep their first-round pick only if they miss the playoffs. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy, Brooklyn would probably convey a later pick to the Timberwolves next season.

If nothing else, this is a tremendous personal achievement for Crawford, who badly wanted to keep playing. He has kept in tremendous shape for his age and built a strong reputation in the locker room, earning himself more opportunities.  If everything goes according to plan, Crawford will join Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Willis, Robert Parish, Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to play 20 NBA seasons.

Stephen Jackson peddles another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, says he’s misunderstood

Stephen Jackson
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Former NBA player Stephen Jackson defended Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who has drawn criticism – including from the Eagles – for posting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory (incorrectly) attributed to Adolph Hitler.

DeSean Jackson apologized twice and pledged to educate himself.

Stephen Jackson insists he’s being unfairly maligned.

Stephen Jackson:

Today’s word is assume. Assume.

To all my Jewish people, I love y’all. Y’all took the video the wrong way. I said he was right stemming from a conversation we had before I got on Live about how they’re handling him and how they handled Cooper when he said the n-word. They didn’t handle them the same way, and that wasn’t right. And that’s what I was talking about. I love y’all. You’ll never find a video or article of me saying I hate anybody. Let me clear that up.

Assume. Today’s word. As a black man, you get pulled over by the police, they assume you’re about to run. They assume you’ve got drugs in the car. They assume you’ve got a gun. They assume the worst, right?

I didn’t say nothing about Jews or supporting Hitler at all in that video. But that’s what they assume I said. And y’all wonder why we’re fighting for equality. Because y’all assume the worst from a black man. I love everybody. I’ve always stood that way. Love for all who have love for all. So, why would you assume I hate somebody?

Too often, apologies get labeled as a “non-apology.” This is a non-apology.

When he said DeSean Jackson is “speaking the truth,” Stephen Jackson sounded like he was talking about DeSean Jackson’s Hitler post – not a private conversation with DeSean Jackson, as Stephen Jackson indicates now.

A reminder of what Stephen Jackson said about DeSean Jackson (emphases mine):

He was trying to educate himself, educate people, and he’s speaking the truth, right? He’s speaking the truth. You know he don’t hate nobody, but he’s speaking the truth of the facts that he knows and trying to educate others.

How do those bolded sections make any sense based on a private conversation between DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson?

If this is a case of Stephen Jackson simply not choosing his words carefully enough, it’d be far easier to forgive him. After all, he has now gone out of his way to say he loves Jews.

But Stephen Jackson doesn’t deserve much benefit of the doubt while he also spreads other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Fred Katz of The Athletic:

Police too often make negative assumptions about Black people. That should be addressed.

But, best I can tell, Stephen Jackson is being judged fairly here. He’s promoting anti-Semitic messages. He’s getting treated like someone promoting anti-Semitic messages.

Do I believe Stephen Jackson wants to be anti-Semitic? No. My best guess is his heart is in the right place while his head is in the wrong place. But Stephen Jackson is still spreading anti-Semitism. Even if that’s due to “only” ignorance, he can’t correct that until acknowledging his errors and learning from them. Blaming everyone else for misunderstanding him is not the answer.

Stephen Jackson is also wrong in his comparison to Riley Cooper, a white Eagles receiver who was caught on video saying the n-word in 2013. Like with DeSean Jackson, the Eagles released a statement criticizing Cooper. They didn’t cut Cooper. They also haven’t cut DeSean Jackson. Even if they eventually cut DeSean Jackson, I suspect they’ll follow similar guidelines: Deciding whether the player is good enough to offset the trouble caused by his reprehensible speech.

Magic player tests positive for coronavirus

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The race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference keeps getting sadder. Somehow.

The Nets are decimated. The Wizards are missing their best players. And the Magic – who already have Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu sidelined – have complications with Markelle Fultz and another unnamed player.

Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel:

The Orlando Magic entered the NBA bubble Tuesday without an unidentified player who tested positive for COVID-19 and guard Markelle Fultz, whose entry was delayed due to a personal issue.

Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a videoconference with reporters on Tuesday that Fultz is dealing with a personal matter unrelated to the virus. His absence is excused and the league is aware of his situation, according to Weltman. He said Fultz is following all safety protocols and expects a “seamless transition” for the guard’s return, although Weltman did not have a specific timetable for when that will be.

It’s unclear whether the unnamed player was among the 25 players the NBA announced tested positive.

Fultz and the other player will have to follow protocols for players travelling to Disney World after their teams arrive.

The Magic have D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams at point guard if Fultz is unavailable. But I’ll take Weltman at his word that Fultz will return to the team smoothly.

Philadelphia’s Shake Milton: “I don’t really think we should be playing”

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There are a lot of players with doubts about the NBA’s restart bubble. They’re going, in part because they understand the financial implications of not going, but there is far from universal enthusiasm for the NBA’s plan.

Put Philadelphia’s Shake Milton in that concerned group.

The Sixers’ two guard, expected to play a significant role in his team’s chances at the restart, expressed real concerns about the bubble in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. Courtesy NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“I don’t really think we should be playing,” Milton said in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday, “but I think the NBA is doing all that they can to make the environment as safe as possible. My teammates want to play so we’re going to go down there and try to win…

“I think [the spread of the virus], and then also I feel like there’s a lot of other stuff going on,” Milton said. “There are issues going on right now in the world that are way bigger than a sport, way bigger than the game of basketball. I feel like we’re on the cusp of finally having people tune in and really try to listen and try to understand more about the things that are happening in our country. I feel like the moment is too big right now and I don’t want the game of basketball to overshadow it.”

Milton said he wanted to know more about how the league plans to highlight social justice and take concrete steps toward making a change.

Milton isn’t the only Sixers player saying he doesn’t like the restart plan, here is what Joel Embiid said on his call with reporters:

“Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of the idea. But then again, I’m going to do my job. I’m not going to let the city down. I’m going to represent my city — that’s what I’ve always done — my family, my teammates. The mindset doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter the fact that I don’t like that idea and I still don’t believe in it. I don’t think it’s going to be safe enough.”

Even with all those concerns, Milton and Embiid are headed to Orlando with teammates.

Milton is going to be asked to play a big role — possibly starting in place of Al Horford — and bring much-needed shooting and floor spacing to the roster. Philadelphia starts the seeding games July 30 as the six seed but is looking to move up in a tight middle of the East. They are a dark horse threat at the restart — with Embiid, a healthy Ben Simmons, and an elite defense — but they need to find a steady offense while defending well, a combo that eluded them earlier this season.