After a long, 82-game campaign (who are we kidding? The season flew by like it always does), the 2019 NBA Playoffs are finally here, and while pretty much everyone is expecting the Golden State Warriors to win their third straight championship, a lot needs to be settled.
And no; I don’t just mean who is going to represent the sacrificial lamb for the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, nor am I talking about who is going to come out of the East to eventually lose to Golden State.
There are some players who need to take care of business in this postseason. Not just for their respective teams, but for the sake of their reputations and their legacies.
Here are the three players with the most to improve in this year’s NBA Playoffs:
3. Kyrie Irving
Heck, his possible destinations aren’t just limited to the Knicks, either. This is Kyrie Irving we are talking about, so God only knows where he is thinking of going.
Regardless, whether Irving stays or goes, he has a lot on the line in these playoffs.
All season long, Irving has been criticized for his lack of leadership ability, with many pointing the finger at him for the Celtics’ lackluster 49-win campaign.
Yes, Kyrie already has a ring and hit arguably the biggest shot in the history of the league back in 2016, but that was as the No. 2 option. Irving then decided he wanted his own team, so he demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and ended up in Boston.
This is what Irving wanted. He wanted the opportunity to be “the guy” and lead his club to a title all on his own. Now, he has a chance to do that.
A strong playoff showing would go a long way in changing—or solidifying—opinions about just how good Kyrie really is, but if he flames out or is anything less than terrific? The birds will start chirping.
2. James Harden
We know how amazing James Harden is. He is a back-to-back scoring champion. He may very well end up being a back-to-back MVP award winner. He is nearly unguardable when he is feeling it. He is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the history of the game.
But, his playoff track record is not all that great.
As dominant as James Harden has been in regular seasons, he has not fully carried that over into the postseason, and his performances in elimination games leave a whole lot to be desired.
A year ago, Harden went just 2-of-13 from three-point range in the Houston Rockets’ Game 7 loss to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and the less said about his no-show in Game 6 of the Rockets’ second-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs two years ago, the better.
While not many people—if any at all—are expecting Houston to beat Golden State this postseason, everyone is at least expecting a better outing from Harden, who has displayed a penchant for wilting when it matters most.
Another poor playoff exit would start to raise a whole lot of eyebrows.
Westbrook is one of the most exciting players in the game and has also been one of the most likable, particularly after he expressed his loyalty to Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant left for the Warriors during the summer of 2016.
But, there is no escaping the fact that Westbrook has been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two years, with last spring’s first-round loss to the Utah Jazz looking particularly baneful.
To make matters worse, the 30-year-old has had an absolutely miserable year shooting the basketball, and with the Thunder falling from third to sixth in the Western Conference standings after the All-Star break, questions were again raised about just how good Westbrook really is.
Oklahoma City will be matched up with the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round of this postseason, and even though the Blazers are the higher-seeded team, there is no reason why OKC shouldn’t win this series.
After all, the Blazers are without big man Jusuf Nurkic, and on paper, the Thunder are simply more talented than Portland, as the duo of Westbrook and Paul George should trump anything the Blazers have to offer.
If OKC bows out in the first round yet again? My goodness, it won’t be a good look for Russ.