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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.

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.

Report: Klay Thompson could be interested in Clippers if Warriors don’t max him

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Most everyone has expected that Klay Thompson will return to the Golden State Warriors next season. That seemed even more of a lock after Thompson tore his ACL, which might scare off outside teams.

Thompson is certainly a max-level player, and the Warriors will need to decide whether they are going to offer him that contract this summer. It’s not clear whether Thompson would be willing to take a discount, or if he’s finally ready to cash out in a big way.

Golden State will have a hard time keeping their core intact as everyone continues to get more expensive. Finding some leeway with Thompson’s contract has been seen as one way for the Warriors to at least limit their luxury tax bill.

But according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there are other teams interested in giving Thompson a hefty sum if the Warriors decline to offer him a max deal.

Via ESPN’s “Woj & Lowe” special:

“The one team that I think — my information is — he would be very open to going down to sit down with are the Clippers. And if they have a chance to sell Kawhi Leonard with Klay Thompson, certainly that’s an appealing sell for any free agent.”

It seems unreasonable that the Warriors would not try to max both Thompson and Kevin Durant. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe said as much during their special.

But we have seen made promises to spend in the past, and often that decision has been reversed. Golden State might end up choosing a handful of their core players to keep, and either Durant or Thompson could be left looking elsewhere.

There will be plenty of suitors for either of these guys, and both are still max-level players despite their catastrophic injuries. Whether both, one, or neither will be in San Francisco next year is the question heading into July 1.

Danny Green on fans trying to delegitimize Raptors title in light of Warriors injuries: ‘We don’t care’

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The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA champions. For some folks, this title comes with a caveat thanks to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Many fans feel as though there should be some kind of asterisk next to their championship in the record books.

This is, frankly, is sour grapes at best and patently insane at worst.

What-ifs are some of the more fun things to contemplate in a league like the NBA, but reality is inescapable. What has come to pass is the truth, and in front of our very eyes we saw the Golden State Warriors go down in six games to Toronto. And should have been five.

Raptors guard at Danny Green shares the same sentiment, saying is much too the New York Times Marc Stein in his newsletter this week. When asked about the prospect of adding an asterisk to the Raptors championship in light of Golden State’s injuries, Green disagreed.

Via NYT:

In a phone interview Monday night, Toronto’s Danny Green forcefully scoffed at the asterisk question before I could even finish the sentence. “We don’t care,” Green said. “Doesn’t matter to us.”

Should I be surprised that this is an actual conversation happening between NBA fans in 2019? Probably not. I’ve been around for too long. But here I am, and the incessant idiocy of excuses remains ever-present.

Now, if only we knew with this kind of certainty where Kawhi Leonard was going to sign this summer.