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The 2024 NBA postseason kicks off Tuesday night with the Western Conference play-in games (Lakers at New Orleans, followed by Golden State at Sacramento). The play-in tournament will conclude Friday, and the playoffs will officially begin on Sunday. 

Then it's buckle-up time because this figures to be a wild playoff ride. I could make a case for as many as 10 teams who can look in the mirror and honestly tell themselves they have a shot, if things break right, at making the Finals. With that opportunity comes the pressure to seize the moment. 

That pressure falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the best players. Below I have listed six specific players whom I feel are under the most pressure to not just perform this postseason, but carry their teams deep into the playoffs. It's not always fair, this extra pressure and the scrutiny that comes with it. But that's the superstar job description. 

Now, some have already proved themselves on the biggest stage. Anything that Stephen Curry or LeBron James achieves, for example, is gravy. Nikola Jokic is a two-time MVP and a champion. Same goes for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kawhi Leonard has a ring. Luka Doncic is so great and still so young that nobody with a functional brain is going to question the validity of his status. 

Going further. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has the top-seeded Thunder way ahead of schedule. Jalen Brunson is playing with house money. Donovan Mitchell is probably on his way out of Cleveland. Anthony Edwards is a pup. Kyrie Irving has a ring and isn't the best player on his team anyway. Jimmy Butler has nothing to prove and nobody expects much from Miami (I fully expect to regret saying this, again). Tyrese Haliburton isn't saddled with a single expectation of leading a championship contender at this point. The same goes for De'Aaron Fox

Having said that, there are a handful of guys, for various reasons and to varying degrees, who are under a disproportionate amount of pressure to perform in these playoffs. There are six of them, to be exact. I have listed them below. 

There's not one single player under more pressure to perform in this year's playoffs than Lillard, who forced his way out of Portland so he could contend for a title and has largely underachieved all season for a Bucks team that has done the same. 

In Portland, Lillard was on a permanent honeymoon. Nobody expected anything out of the Blazers in terms of true contention, so anything that even approached that level was a feather in Lillard's cap, and anything that fell short was expected. Lillard had a built-in "he doesn't have enough help" excuse for a decade plus. 

In Milwaukee, Lillard was/is supposed to be the upgrade in help for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee gave up everything to get him, including Jrue Holiday, who has now made the Celtics, Milwaukee's chief competition if it has designs on winning the East, even better. Meanwhile, the Bucks have gotten worse. 

Lillard was supposed to represent such an offensive boon that the defensive decline in Holiday's absence would still leave Milwaukee appreciably in the black. That hasn't been the case. They only hung onto the 3-seed because Cleveland pretty much threw the fourth quarter against Charlotte on Sunday. 

But the playoffs are a fresh start, and Lillard has an opportunity to show the basketball world that he can carry superstar weight on the biggest stage with the pressure that comes with the actual expectation of winning, or at least seriously contending for, a championship. 

He'll have his work cut out for him with the possibility of Giannis' calf strain keeping the two-time MVP out early in the first round. Not to mention the fact that Milwaukee is matched up against Indiana, which sports a 4-1 record against the Bucks this season. Plenty of people are predicting a first-round bounce for the Bucks. 

If that happens, Lillard, fairly or not, is going to get saddled with a large portion of the blame. Unless, of course, Lillard somehow plays great and the Bucks still lose early. In which case, Doc Rivers is going to take an absolute media thrashing. 

Harden's playoff shortcomings have been well chronicled. Personally, I would call them exaggerated. But he has laid some high-profile eggs, including last season when he shot 7 for 27 in Games 6 and 7, scoring just nine points in the finale, as the 76ers squandered a 3-2 series lead against Boston. 

Harden thought he was worth a max contract and swore Daryl Morey promised he'd give him one, but that didn't happen and Harden proceeded to force his way off of a third team in four years. He sold the whole "sky's the limit" narrative upon joining the Clippers, just like he did with the Nets and Sixers, and for a bit, that seemed to be true. The Clippers went 28-7 from the start of December through the All-Star break. 

But L.A. closed the season just 15-14, and Harden, who over the aforementioned stretch looked like he could be on his way to an All-NBA appointment, has averaged under 15 points and shot just 30% from 3 and 38% overall since the All-Star break. 

After the way he blew out of Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Harden's reputation is already soiled. If he plays poorly in these playoffs and the Clippers go out early, the idea that Harden can still be a core player on a championship team will officially go out the window. For me, it's already out the window. I don't believe in him one bit. But the Clippers did, and do, and if he's going to prove them right, now might be his last shot. 

Williamson has never played in a playoff game, and he hasn't fared well in the games that have closest to that level of urgency. He was a virtual no-show in New Orleans' In-Season Tournament semifinal defeat to the Lakers, and in the season finale on Sunday, with the No. 6 seed in sight, Williamson managed just 12 points on 13 shots. 

Williamson had a sensational season after there was starting to be legitimate talk about whether the Pels should give up on him as a franchise player and consider a trade. He's in great shape. He's exploding off the floor and finishing with his unique brand of forceful finesse. He's even playing defense these days. 

But it's time for the talent to translate into meaningful wins, and going out in the play-in round after letting their chance to secure a playoff spot slip away would not be a good look. The Pelicans are a good team. They're deep. They play defense. They have two elite half-court shot creators. But most of the potential everyone sees in this team depends on Zion playing like a superstar. It's time for him to do that. 

On one hand, Embiid has something of a hall pass for these playoffs, considering he's only been back for five games since having meniscus surgery in early February. On the other hand, Embiid has averaged 30 points, nine boards and five assists in his five games back, all of which Philadelphia won. This surely will make it tougher to sell that he was rusty if he doesn't play well and the Sixers bow out early. 

Plus, Embiid has used up his benefit of the doubt as he has failed to lead the Sixers past the second round in six playoff appearances while seeing his postseason scoring numbers plummet. He hasn't been healthy for a full playoff run yet. We're talking a broken orbital bone, a meniscus tear, a torn ligament in his thumb, and a knee sprain last year that cause him to miss two games of the Boston series after missing two vs. Miami in 2022. Both times the Sixers were eliminated. 

There's an argument to be made, in fact, that this most recent meniscus tear was a blessing in disguise. After all, Embiid has never gone into a postseason this rested after spending most of the last couple of months on the shelf. 

Also, Embiid is a better player than he's ever been, largely because he's handling double teams better as a passer and his midrange/face-up shooting has become basically indefensible. The guy averaged more than a point a minute this season, for crying out loud. That's Wilt Chamberlain stuff. 

The point is, Embiid has become so great that if he has another relatively rough playoff showing, it's going to be tough to see it as anything other than a choke, especially with Nick Nurse's more diverse and higher-tempo offense being better suited to keep Embiid fluid amid ever-adjusting defensive schemes in the playoffs. 

The Sixers have a golden chance to beat Miami and secure the No. 2 seed, which would give them a very winnable first-round series against the Knicks. After that, they would get Milwaukee or Indiana. Two more beatable teams. But this only happens if the Sixers beat Miami on Wednesday and stay on the opposite side of the bracket from Boston. If that doesn't happen and Embiid doesn't play well, it's not going to be pretty this offseason in Philly. 

Through his first six seasons, Tatum has been to four conference finals and one Finals. It would be utterly insane to start questioning his playoff merits. And yet, there are a lot of insane fans who are going to be more than happy to run with Tatum's tendency to settle for jumpers and stagnate late-game offense if a Celtics team that is universally favored to win the East fails to do so. 

But who cares what crazy fans say or think? For Tatum, this is the best chance he might ever have to win a title. It won't be his only chance. This Boston team is going to be together for a bit. But you never know if a season is going to come together like this one has. The Celtics are loaded. They're healthy. And their path is wide open. 

The Bucks were supposed to be a juggernaut, but that hasn't been close to the case. The Sixers are in the play-in. Same for Miami. The Cavs don't scare anyone. Same for Orlando. The biggest threat the Celtics have in the East may very well be the Knicks, who are very good but should not have any chance of beating Boston in a seven-game series. 

Meanwhile, the West is a torture chamber. The winner of that conference is likely going to come out pretty bloodied, and Boston is set up for home-court advantage throughout. I like Denver to win it all, but Boston should and undoubtedly does feel like this is their title to lose. It's time for Tatum to officially stamp himself as a Tier 1 superstar. 

Durant is one of the greatest players in history and yet his validity as a championship-level alpha is still questioned. It sounds crazy to say that. Go look at the guy's playoff numbers. He's so clearly capable of leading a team to a title. But until he at least gets past the second round without Steph Curry by his side, he's going to have to hear about his 2016 Golden State defection and ultimate reliance on Curry to reach the mountaintop. 

I don't like Phoenix's chances. I don't think they're deep enough. I don't think they can hold up defensively. And I don't think they can overcome the math problem that comes with their reliance on midrange jumpers in a 3-point dominant league. If you're going to win on two-pointers, you have to be the Nuggets -- and the Suns are not the Nuggets. 

But nobody is ruling Phoenix out entirely because they have Durant. They have Devin Booker, too. But first and foremost, it's Durant. He's the best player, and he's going to shoulder the criticism, lazy as it might be, if Phoenix gets eliminated early, especially with a first-round series against a Minnesota team that the Suns swept 3-0 this season with an almost 16-point average margin of victory.