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5 NBA players under the most pressure down the stretch

As the truncated 2020-21 NBA regular season winds down, there’s a number of players facing an enormous amount of pressure. Some of that has to do with the injuries we’ve seen as the Association attempts to complete its 72-game schedule.

Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray suffered a torn ACL recently, meaning that Nikola Jokic will have to continue picking up the slack. A lack of activity on the part of the Golden State Warriors ahead of the NBA trade deadline has put even more pressure on two-time MVP Stephen Curry.

With about a month to go in the season, here’s a look at five NBA players under the most pressure around the Association.

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Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

NBA players under pressure, Damian Lillard
Mar 28, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts to a call during the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing last season with a mere 35-39 record, the Blazers have improved big time during the 2020-21 NBA campaign. It’s rather interesting stuff given that star guard C.J. McCollum has missed 23 games to injury. It also means that Lillard is playing the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging 28.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists on 38% shooting from distance.

At issue here is the Blazers’ playoff struggles during the Lillard era. They have been eliminated in the first round in three of the past four years. Currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference, Portland would love to find itself as a top-four seed when the playoffs come calling. That’s where the pressure is on Lillard over the final month of the regular year.

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Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

NBA players under pressure: Nikola Jokic
Apr 4, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) after the game against the Orlando Magic at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

We mentioned the Jamal Murray injury above. It’s a harsh blow for both a championship-contending Nuggets team and the rest of the NBA. A hero for Denver during its run to the Western Conference Finals in the Orlando bubble last season, Murray had helped his team pick it up recently. How much? Denver was the fourth seed out west when he went down to a torn ACL.

A legit MVP candidate this season, the pressure is now on Jokic to perform at an even higher clip moving forward. He should be helped out by the recently-acquired Aaron Gordon and stud young forward Michael Porter Jr. Even then, the game’s most-skilled big must prove that he can lead Denver deep into the playoffs sans the team’s second-best player.

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Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

NBA players under pressure: Jayson Tatum
Apr 11, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) following his technical foul in the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

To say that the Celtics have underperformed this season after a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in Orlando last fall would be an understatement. As of right now, Boston would be forced into taking part in a play-in tournament. That’s not what general manager Danny Ainge and Co. had in mind.

Unfortunately, the Celtics’ acquisition of Evan Fournier at the trade deadline has done very little to change the dynamics in Boston. It’s now going to be up to the face of the franchise to lead this team out of the doldrums and into a better position heading into the playoffs. Coming off a 53-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Tatum could be that guy. If not, questions will continue to be raised about his status as a legitimate superstar in the NBA.

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Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

NBA players under pressure: Trae Young
Apr 7, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) brings the ball up court against the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We have to give interim Hawks head coach Nate McMillan credit. He’s now 16-5 since replacing a recently-fired Lloyd Pierce. To put that into perspective, Atlanta was a mere 14-20 when Pierce was fired. The primary reason for this turnaround has been Young’s performance coupled with offseason acquisitions stepping up big time.

It now has Atlanta at 30-25 and as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. This has also led to some pretty big expectations for the 22-year-old Young in just his third NBA season. Is the sharpshooting guard up to the pressure that comes with this? That remains to be seen.

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Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

NBA players under pressure: Stephen Curry
April 12, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kent Bazemore (26) pours water on guard Stephen Curry (30) after the game against the Denver Nuggets at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Klay Thompson’s off-season injury put Golden State behind the proverbial eight-ball. The Warriors unwillingness to do anything of substance ahead of the March 25 NBA trade deadline has only added to this. It’s led to Curry being asked to do way too much for a team that’s battling for a spot in the play-in tournament.

Since returning from a tailbone injury, Curry has been downright exceptional. Including a 53-point performance against the Denver Nuggets recently, the two-time MVP is averaging 38.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists on an absurd 46% shooting from distance in seven games. Based on the Warriors’ roster make up right now, Curry will have to keep somewhat close to this pace if they are going to make any noise come playoff time.