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Whose Reputations Are at Stake in the NBA Playoffs?

The postseason isn’t just a chance to win a title—it can also reset narratives for everyone from players to coaches

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just making the postseason is never enough. How coaches, teams, and players execute in the playoffs is the meat of any legacy. An outstanding regular season is only a footnote if it doesn’t accompany postseason glory—just ask the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks. Getting swept can warm up a coach’s seat, having an off game can glue choker onto a player’s forehead, and for some, the playoffs are a last-ditch effort to impress after a down season. Whose reputations are at stake in the 2018 postseason?

Al Horford

The closest Horford has ever been to beating playoff LeBron James was Game 3 of the 2015 Eastern Conference finals. He racked up 14 points in the first half, missing only three of his 10 shots. It was an uncharacteristically positive start for Horford, whose arms seemingly melt off whenever he plays LeBron in the postseason. (Most players struggle with that matchup, but none like poor, melty Horford.) Then, one elbow to Matthew Dellavedova later, he was ejected before the break.

LBJ is 12-1 against Horford in the playoffs. If any May were destined to finally break the cycle, it would look like this one. Kyrie Irving is on Horford’s side now, the Celtics began the season on a roll, and the Cavaliers look like a slop tray of antique veterans and underperforming role players. It would be perfect timing to take advantage of Cleveland and LeBron, even with a fresh cast of characters, but Irving and Marcus Smart might not be 100 percent for the playoffs, if they’re back at all. Horford starts alongside a 20- and 21-year-old and is relying on Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier for offense.

Horford is leading Boston by default. For the Celtics to knock off Cleveland, the vet can’t shrivel up once again.

James Harden and Chris Paul

When Paul finagled his way into getting traded over the summer, he was fresh off a first-round loss to Utah, his 76th career playoff game. Harden was still sobering up:

CP3 is as much a legend—the holy Point God—as he is a cautionary tale. Losing to Utah in seven made him, officially, the least successful postseason player in history; 76 games is the most all-time for one player without a conference finals appearance. Paul overperformed his regular season averages for the last three playoffs, but stats don’t matter so long as his postseason voodoo doll is still out in the world. Harden, on the other hand, becomes less efficient in the playoffs but has been to three conference finals.

The Rockets, though dipping slightly of late, established such consistency that they became the NBA’s premier boring team. Beating out Golden State for the 1-seed only makes expectations higher, and another early-out, collective choke job would be all the more disappointing.

The Ran-It-Back Squads

Formerly known as the Clippers battalion, this label is reserved for teams who changed little to nothing on their rosters despite average postseasons. Toronto dedicated its entire season to shedding the skin of its old offense. Portland, after being criticized at the trade deadline for not hitting the refresh button, spent the latter portion of the season doing the same as the Raptors. Both teams, both coaches, and both backcourts were passable in seasons past—they made the playoffs, sure, but were never more than a non-threatening first- or second-round matchup and a safe moneyline to bet against. Now these teams are protesting that reputation. Only a convincing postseason run will give each a total eclipse.

Tom Thibodeau

There’s a chance that Thibodeau’s judgment day arrives before the playoffs even begin. Minnesota is clinging to the 7-seed with Denver, a game and a half behind, on its heels. Four games remain for Minnesota and five for Denver; two of those, thrillingly, are against each other. (NBA schedule organizers—please do my horoscope.)

The Wolves face the Nuggets away on Thursday (both Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler are probable to return), the Lakers in L.A. on Friday, and the Grizzlies at home next Monday, then bring it full circle for the final game of the season, against the Nuggets next Wednesday at home. (Relevant: Minnesota is undefeated against Los Angeles and Denver this season and … 0-2 against the Grizzlies.)

Denver, meanwhile, also has the Pacers, the unconquerable Big Game Dame, and a desperate Clippers team to hurdle. Which is to say, Thibs should bring the Twin Cities their first NBA playoffs since 2004.

Escaping the Nuggets is main-character-in-a-scary-movie-level likely, but just grabbing the 8-seed wouldn’t be enough for Thibodeau to outrun his shrinking repute. He brought Butler to town, then failed to surround him with shooters, Minnesota’s driest crop of deep threats in seasons. His one in-season acquisition was Derrick Rose. Despite the public objections of his players, Thibodeau continues to give his starters so much time on the court that they qualify for overtime by Minnesota state law. There aren’t many options on the bench, which is his doing as an executive; there aren’t many minutes from the bench, which is his doing as a coach.

Literally Every Other Buck Besides Giannis

A unicorn carries a Rookie of the Year, a second overall pick, a veteran point guard, and Khris Middleton into a bar. Have you heard this one before?

Russell Westbrook

Oklahoma City’s round-one exit against the Rockets last year was like watching someone you know, but aren’t close to, but who’s really nice, you think, start crying in front of you. Westbrook was the exact player he was in the regular season, but the valiance of his one-man band became wilted into something sad and uncomfortable. The harder he pushed, the harder it was to watch. Russ was alone. He failed. Even those who vommed in their mouths looking at his usage rate softened at the sight of his roster.

That desperate isolation will no longer be sad with Paul George on the court; it’ll be foolish.

Hassan Whiteside

“Bullshit” is how Whiteside described Erik Spoelstra sitting him during the entire fourth quarter and overtime of Miami’s loss to the Nets over the weekend. The organization slapped a fine on that bullshit, and Whiteside admitted that taking issue with his head coach in public wasn’t the right move. It’s the tug and pull Miami and its self-proclaimed “one of the best centers in the league” have been going through all season.

Whiteside is in the starting lineup but plays reserve minutes: 25.6 per game, his lowest in four years. From one point of view, Spoelstra wants speed on the court, and various injuries backtracked Whiteside’s ability to keep up. Miami’s scoring takes flight with him off the floor, and all season, his defense has been on trial as well. There isn’t enough trust offensively to use him as a focal point, while Whiteside believes that’s the cure—especially against Brooklyn, when Spo opted to go small to cater to the matchup.

Behind Whiteside in the rotation is rookie Bam Adebayo, whose early success has opened the possibility of Miami trading away the 28-year-old’s last two seasons on his contract. Either Whiteside’s role, whatever Spoelstra sees it as, will be embraced in the playoffs, or it’ll be given away.