Eight NBA stars facing the most pressure down the stretch

Playoff matchups have not yet been set. There’s certainly a whole lot that has not been decided with just a few days remaining in the NBA regular season. In no way does that mean certain star players aren’t already feeling the pressure.

From a guard in Toronto that has failed to live up to playoff exceptations to another player at the same position in the nation’s capital, certain players are facing more pressure than others to perform at a high level. Meanwhile, a former NBA Finals MVP in California is facing a ton of pressure with fellow MVP Stephen Curry sidelined.

Here’s a look at eight NBA stars facing the most pressure heading into this year’s playoffs.

Kyle Lowry, guard, Toronto Raptors

More so than in previous seasons, pressure is on Toronto to come out of the east. With Kyrie Irving’s injury in Boston and the Cavaliers’ season-long struggles, there’s no reason the Raptors should fall short of earning the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance. As the No. 1 seed, Toronto must take to the front runner mentality and not look back.

That’s where Lowry comes into play. As good as he’s been during his career up north, Lowry has been just as bad in the playoffs. He averaged just 15.8 points in the playoffs last season after netting 22.4 during the regular year. The previous two playoffs saw Lowry shoot a combined 37 percent from the field. This has to change if the Raptors want to avoid yet another postseason let down.

Kevin Durant, forward, Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry is unlikely to play in the first round after suffering a sprained MCL back in March. Normally, the defending champs would be able to overcome said injury against lesser competition early in the playoffs. Unfortunately for Golden State, the margin for error just isn’t there. Not only is the Western Conference absolutely stacked this season, the Warriors themselves have been vulnerable with Curry sidelined.

In the past 22 games that Curry has suited up without Durant, the Warriors are undefeated. In the past 22 games Durant has played without Curry, the defending champs are 14-8. This places a ton of onus on Durant to prove that he is indeed an MVP-caliber performer. Limping into the playoffs, Golden State needs him to turn it up a notch or two.

Kevin Love, forward, Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James is facing as much pressure as any player in the Association. That’s been the case since he was a wide-eyed rookie back in 2003-04. This isn’t news. LeBron embraces it. But in order for his Cavaliers to earn a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, James is going to need fellow All-Star Kevin Love to step up big time.

Since returning from injury, Love is averaging 15.4 points on just 42 percent shooting from the field. That’s just not going to cut it against what promises to be competitive Eastern Conference opponents in the playoffs. Remember, this is a guy that shot just 39 percent from the field during the postseason last year. He needs to be up near 50 percent with an average of 20 points per game this season. If that doesn’t happen, the Cavs will fall short of their ultimate goal.

Chris Paul, guard, Houston Rockets

This is more about personal vendettas for Paul. His Rockets are favored to come out of the west, even over the above-mentioned Warriors. An historical regular season pretty much guaranteed this. The issue here is that Paul’s former Los Angeles Clippers squad proved to be fruitless in the playoffs during his six years with the team, failing to make it past the conference semifinals each season.

With a much better supporting cast and a likely MVP in James Harden joining Paul in the playoffs this season, the onus isn’t necessarily going to be on him to provide a ton of scoring. Instead, it’s potential matchups against fellow point guards Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook that has the pressure on Paul heading into his first postseason in Houston.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Boston Celtics

Now that Kyrie Irving is officially lost for the playoffs, Boston’s young core is going to have to step up big time if the team hopes to conclude an injury-plagued season by hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. That includes a rookie in Tatum who has stepped it up big time recently.

In the 11 games since Irving went down to injury, Tatum is averaging 17.2 points and 5.6 rebounds on a splendid 49 percent shooting from the field. Boston just so happens to be a solid 7-4 during this span. Also of importance, the Celtics boast a 9-4 record in games that Tatum has scored 20-plus points. Now that he’s taking on a primary scoring role, the team needs this rookie to average that in the playoffs.

Carmelo Anthony, forward, Oklahoma City Thunder

Square peg, round hole. That’s pretty much the best way to describe Anthony’s first season with Oklahoma City. While Russell Westbrook and Paul George have worked well together, Anthony has seemingly struggled fitting in. That’s been magnified when OKC goes up against the best that the west has to offer.

He averaged just 12.0 points on 33 percent shooting in four regular season games against Golden State. Should the two teams meet in the playoffs, it goes without saying that Melo must up his game in a big way. The same could be said against potential matchups against Portland and Houston.

John Wall, guard, Washington Wizards

After struggling late in an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last week and seeing head coach Scott Brooks call him out, Wall now must step into the postseason spotlight and lead his Wizards to a deep run. Anything short of that would be seen as a major disappointment for both the player and the team.

Washington was battling for a top-four seed most of the regular season, only to see that come crashing down recently. It has lost four consecutive games and eight out of 10 to limp into the playoffs in a big way. For his part, Washington has lost eight of the past 12 games in which Wall has suited up dating back to January. The team is 16-13 in games he’s been sidelined during that same span.

Damian Lillard, guard, Portland Trail Blazers

Apr 22, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) looks down in the second half of game three of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

It it weren’t for the performances we’ve seen from LeBron James and James Harden this season, Lillard would be firmly in the MVP conversation. Dating back to early February, Lillard is averaging 30.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. It’s not a coincidence that the Blazers boast an 18-4 record in those 22 games. He’s a difference maker, and someone who could lead this team to the next level.

As with other players on this list, it’s all about Lillard stepping his game up in the playoffs. Portland has failed to make it past the conference semifinals in each of the past four seasons. Lillard himself is shooting at just a 41 percent mark during his playoff career. He has not helped the team take that next step. Based on what we’ve seen the past two months the time is now for that to happen. Period.