The NBA playoffs are always important, but they can mean much more to some players than others.
For example, Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing with house money this postseason. He and the Bucks are ahead of schedule with the East's No. 6 seed, and anything the Greek Freak does is just icing on the cake for his phenomenal season.
Other players, however, have a lot more riding on the postseason. The playoffs are often the determining factor in people's minds when considering whether a player ever truly achieved greatness, and there are plenty of players this season who are on the cusp of greatness but need the added push of a deep playoff run.
Here are the players with the most to prove this postseason.
The Stifle Tower added offense to his game without suffering on the defensive end -- in fact, his defense got even better. Gobert led the league in defensive win shares and blocks while raising his scoring average nearly five points to 14.0 per game. He's becoming one of the best all-around centers in the league, but he needs to prove that he can do it in the playoffs before we can put his name alongside the game's best centers.
Nobody expects Dwight to go out there and put up 30-20 games like he did in his prime -- what we need to see now is whether he's ready to enter the second stage of his career. For the most part Howard has been problem-free in Atlanta this season, but what happens if the Hawks go down 2-0 to the Wizards? Does Dwight suddenly start complaining about not getting enough touches, or does he continue to block shots, rebound and set screens? This postseason, Dwight can prove that he has truly put his ego aside and is ready to do what it takes to help his team win -- even if they lose.
In the era of pace, space and 3-pointers, is there room in the postseason for a dominant scorer who makes his living shooting long 2s? So far, the answer has been no for DeRozan, who has been held to just 21.5 points per game (vs. 22.2 in the regular season those years) on 39 percent shooting in his 31 playoff games. Despite his relatively poor playoff performance, DeRozan, along with backcourt mate Kyle Lowry, led the Raptors to last year's Eastern Conference finals. With the Cavaliers looking vulnerable heading into the postseason, this could be the time for the Raptors and DeRozan to take the next step and get all the way to the NBA Finals. A thorough dismantling of the Cavs in the second round and an Eastern Conference finals victory would erase any doubts about DeRozan being a true franchise player.
A finally healthy, blazing-fast John Wall took the NBA by storm this season, earning another All-Star nod while setting career highs in points, assists and steals. After a lackluster start to the season, Wall led the Wizards to a victory-filled December and January and turned Washington into a legitimate threat to the Cavs' supremacy in the East. But all that goes out the window if the Wizards suffer another first-round exit. Wall is on the cusp of joining the Westbrook-Curry-Harden conversation for dominant guards in the NBA, but he needs a strong playoff performance and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals for people to even think about it.
Hayward made his first All-Star team this season, officially entering the public consciousness as a star player, but many still don't think he can be the best (or even second-best) player on a championship team. A strong performance in his first trip to the playoffs against an experienced Clippers team would do wonders to shake that label -- and help shape his free-agency decision this summer. He'll likely get a max contract anyway, but if Hayward can prove he can be "the guy," he might be more willing to stay in Utah as the primary scorer rather than heading to, say, Boston to share the ball with a ball-dominant guard like Isaiah Thomas. And the better he performs in the playoffs, the more teams that will bid for his services.
After his controversial free-agency move, Durant has to back it up on the court. The injury threw a wrench into the works, but Durant showed no ill effects, picking up right where he left off in the final games of the regular season. Now the real work begins. Of course Durant was great during the regular season -- everyone expected that. But now we get to see how he performs with his new teammates in crunch time, when things get tough. Anything short of an NBA Finals appearance and the blame can, and surely will, fall squarely on Durant's shoulders. That's quite a bit of pressure for your first playoff series with a new team.
Thomas took a huge leap forward this season, much farther than you would think his tiny legs would be able to stretch. So why do we still not believe in him? Despite the prolific scoring and fourth-quarter heroics, Thomas still has people doubting whether he can do it in the playoffs. Boston is the No. 1 seed but not many think it's actually the best team in the East, and that's largely because not many consider Thomas a true playoff alpha dog. With a strong performance and a Celtics trip to the Eastern Conference finals, Thomas can prove that he deserves all of the accolades that he earned during the regular season, and then some.
Mike D'Antoni has tapped into potential that not many knew Harden had, and it has opened the eyes of plenty of NBA fans. But the same knock that applied to Harden before D'Antoni got there (and to D'Antoni before he got to Houston) remains -- all that offense is great during the regular season, but it doesn't work during the playoffs. Harden has been wildly inefficient in the playoffs, dating to his Oklahoma City days, and it has led many to believe that his free throw-heavy, turnover-prone scoring attack just can't lead to a championship. If Harden can sustain the insane level of performance that he set as the standard during the regular season and lead Houston to the NBA Finals with a roster devoid of even one more All-Star, The Beard's critics won't have much left to say.
After everything we saw this season, yes, Westbrook still has something to prove. Sure, the triple-doubles are great and fun to watch, but can you truly be a championship contender with a guard who's that ball-dominant? That's what we're about to find out. Westbrook had a historic usage rate this season (40.8) and scored nearly 40 percent of the Thunder's points, by far tops in the NBA. Despite his gaudy assists totals, some say that Westbrook's style makes his teammates worse, and that a team can't win that way. If Westbrook can lead his team to a win over the Rockets in the first round, it would prove that there just might be a method to his madness, and it would only add fuel to an already fully charged triple-double machine.
Chris Paul's nightmares must all conclude with a giant talking head (probably a clown) screaming, "But he has never been to a conference finals!" at the top of his lungs. In what has been an unprecedented career for a point guard, Paul still has to answer that nagging question of why he hasn't been able to lead his team even to the doorstep of a championship. To silence his critics and for the sake of his own sanity, Paul needs a deep run in this year's playoffs. The only problem is, they have to play the Warriors in the second round -- if they even get that far. A first-round loss to the Jazz would be disastrous, and would play right into the hands of the "Chris Paul can't win" narrative. But a strong first round and a tough performance against the Warriors (a six- or seven-game series) would at least keep Paul in the conversation of the league's best point guards. If Paul goes one better and somehow engineers an upset win over the Warriors in the second round, he'll silence his naysayers forever. At nearly 32 years old and with the Clippers on the verge of blowing up the team if they suffer yet another playoff failure, this could very well be Paul's last chance to pull it off.