The NBA’s conference semifinals have not been disappointed. The East and West gifted us three pivotal Game 5 showdowns over the next 48 hours. We might have had four were it not for the undermanned Memphis Grizzlies blowing a last minute lead to the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their second-round series.
Game 5 often separates contenders from pretenders. It requires maximum effort to match an equally desperate opponent’s intensity, and that leaves skill as a deciding factor. Anything can happen in a Game 7. That aura is not hanging over a Game 5, and yet the team that emerges from a 2-2 tie with a victory wins the series better than 80% of the time. This is where superstars are born, where they thrive, and where they leave their mark. Push forward or get your back pinned against the wall. The series teeters on a Game 5.
So, which superstars have the most to lose in these pivotal second-round contests? Let us rank them.
8. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Butler left a legacy during Miami’s 2020 NBA Finals run inside the bubble. He went toe to toe with LeBron James in a six-game loss that earned everyone’s respect, because nobody expected the Heat to be there.
This time, they are the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, and with that comes a level of expectation Butler can only hope to match. He raised his ceiling so high two years ago that it feels impossible to touch again. Few even expect him to recreate his 40-point effort from a Game 4 loss to the Sixers in Game 5, because Miami is not built to be a one-man show. Even the credit Butler deserved was disguised by Heat Culture.
Lose, and there is no need to reshuffle the superstar rankings. Butler is perennially on the fringes of an All-NBA roster, the kind of player who should be the best on a team that falls in the second round. Win, and we will hold him in the same regard. We know Butler will bring it in Game 5. Only a title can elevate him now.
Booker is a three-time All-Star and a top-five MVP candidate with the bulk of his prime ahead of him. His effort during Phoenix’s run to the Finals last season shed his notoriety as a productive player for a perennial loser. He has also not yet logged enough playoff appearances to establish himself as a consistent winner.
Nights like this Game 5 are the kind of high-pressure situations we note when determining if a player met the moment over the course of his career. Stars can suffer bad outings. Superstars are not given the same leeway. Legends will meet the moment against an inferior second-round opponent. Which one is Booker?
As bright as Booker’s future is, he is not assured of another opportunity like this. Chris Paul is 36 years old, DeAndre Ayton is a restricted free agent at season’s end, and their team’s owner is under investigation for allegedly creating a hostile workplace† No amount of stability is guaranteed in Phoenix. Don’t take Game 5 of a tied second-round series lightly as the favorite or risk regretting those 48 minutes for your whole career.
The two-time MVP’s performance in last year’s playoffs made him a champion, and how long he can hold that title will ultimately decide his standing among the all-time greats. Joining the recent list of players to win back-to-back titles (Kevin Durant† Stephen CurryLeBron James and Kobe Bryant) would launch him into the rarest of stratospheres, and stealing Game 5 from the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday would make clear the statement he intends to reach that height.
The heavyweight bout between the Bucks and Celtics has looked an awful lot like a battle of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league, and Antetokounmpo has left no doubt he is the most dominant player alive. The absence of All-Star partner Khris Middleton would excuse a failed repeat bid, because beating Boston’s defense without him requires a Herculean effort, and Antetokounmpo has already done it twice. A third time would be heroic and inch him closer to becoming a basketball deity.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
We know Doncic is a superstar. We think he might be a legend, and legends are built on beating 64-win teams with Jalen Brunson as your best teammate. The Mavericks need a win in Phoenix to execute the upset. Better to steal Game 5 heading back to Dallas than try to close the Suns out at home in Game 7.
LeBron was 22 years old when he carried an average supporting cast to 50 wins and the 2007 NBA Finals. He never had to play a team as good as Phoenix to get there, but he did face a pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against what was left of the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons. James scored 48 points, including the final 25, in a 109-107 victory that gave us the first glimpse of his ceiling as an all-timer.
Doncic is averaging a 33-9-9 in this series. Not only does that feel sustainable, but there is room for improvement on his 47/32/75 shooting splits. His career playoff scoring average of 32.75 points per game currently trails only Michael Jordan’s 33.45 for the NBA record, and 48 points in Game 5 would push him to 33.48. Doncic is chasing the greatest to ever play the game. To catch them he first has to win on Tuesday.
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Unlike Doncic, Tatum entered his series with the Bucks as a favorite. The rising Celtics superstar only just seriously joined the conversation for top-five active players with a dominating two-way performance against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round. Losing to Antetokounmpo in a hard-fought series carries no shame, even if it would represent another lost opportunity in an early playoff career full of them.
Winning, though, could launch Tatum into a different conversation. Beating Durant and Antetokounmpo in back-to-back series is the sort of accomplishment reserved for pantheon players. Tatum outplayed Durant in a first round sweep. Antetokounmpo has clearly been the better player in the conference semifinals, and Tatum’s 10-point outing on 4-for-19 shooting cost Boston a shot at the series lead in Game 3. He did not seriously pose a threat in Game 4 until the fourth quarter, and even then it took a backseat to Al Horford†
Tatum gets another chance in Game 5 opposite the reigning Finals MVP. Beat Durant, push Antetokounmpo to the brink, and you start to believe anything is possible in his career, including a championship this year.
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
What Embiid has done to get the Sixers back into this series is remarkable. He is coming off a concussion, playing through a torn ligament in his thumb and a broken bone in his face, and he scored 42 points on 25 shots in 75 minutes of +13 basketball against a brutal Heat defense. Philadelphia can’t ask for much more.
Except, the Sixers need more. Their title chances rest on Embiid’s ability to perform at an MVP level, and that begins with winning Tuesday’s matchup against Miami’s Bam Adebayo. Kyle Lowry is not available for Game 5, but the Heat have plenty of weapons to outgun Philadelphia, and they will come ready for a fight.
Embiid has sacrificed so much of himself to carry the Sixers back to this position, where they blew last year’s pivotal Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks, despite his 37 points. The future of the franchise hangs in the balance again, and another loss would tilt the Sixers towards another offseason of upheaval. He is all that’s left of The Process in Philadelphia, and there is not a conference finals appearance to show for it.
Nobody knows better than Embiid how hard it is to get this far. Each season brings new injuries, new teammates and new opponents. His goal remains the same — survive and advance, whatever the cost, because there is no guarantee everyone else around him will help make the road any easier next year.
2. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers
Harden is the latest embodiment of uncertainty in Embiid’s NBA existence. The Sixers paid handsomely to acquire the one-time MVP at the trade deadline, and he has mostly disappointed in the months since — to the point that the max contract he seeks at season’s end could be the league’s worst before the ink dries.
What choices does Philadelphia have in the event of another playoff failure? Let Harden walk, and the Sixers spent a cache of assets for nothing. The free agency class offers few other options of note. Sign Harden, and they are tying the remainder of Embiid’s tenure to a 33-year-old anvil on a steep decline.
What little hope they have left lies in Harden’s Game 4 performance — an efficient 31-7-9 over 41 minutes of a series-tying night against a Miami defense that had previously made life miserable for him. Recreate that effort in Game 5, and the Sixers might convince themselves that his partnership can work with Embiid. Lay another dud, and Sunday feels more like an aberration than a step towards revitalizing Harden’s value.
Mixing the Philadelphia fanbase’s bloodthirst for success with Harden’s career full of playoff failure in a Game 6 close-out opportunity for the Heat at the Wells Fargo Center is the recipe for another offseason of discontent. The last thing the Sixers need is the terrible taste of a brutal loss to linger for another summer. At the very least, Harden needs to give them something to savor, even if that means valiance in defeat.
1. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
We do not know how many chances Paul has left to win a championship and certify his all-time greatness, but it is hard to imagine him earning a better one. His legitimization of the Phoenix franchise last season repaired his reputation for falling short of playoff expectations. No longer were antics and ailments to blame for his shortcomings. He was instead the crafty veteran who transformed another moribund organization into a contender, and his performance for the best team in basketball this season cemented their status.
Only, the last two games have left us to wonder again if a 6-foot point guard not named Isiah Thomas can be the most important player on a title team, much less one who turned 37 years old last week. The playoff prospects of a 64-win juggernaut rest on Pauls aging shoulders, and he has felt the weight against a Dallas Mavericks team devoid of star-level depth beyond Luka Doncic. Paul has more turnovers (9) than field goals (7) in his last two games and fouled out in 23 minutes of a second straight loss on Sunday. The top-seeded Suns’ 2-0 series lead is gone, replaced by a best-of-three battle for a spot in the Western Conference finals.
The Suns struggled to beat the 36-win New Orleans Pelicans without Booker in the opening round of their championship pursuit, and they are struggling at full strength to beat an inferior Mavericks team in Round 2. A loss on Tuesday places Paul on the precipice of another playoff meltdown against a player whose path to passing him in the pantheon of greatest point guards in NBA history also runs through games like this one.
Doncic is not the final boss Paul will have to face, either. The Point God’s greatest rival, Stephen Curry, likely awaits in the conference finals. Either him or Ja Morant, who will not wait his turn while Paul attempts to reach the top of the ladder one more time. Game 5 against Dallas is supposed to be the easier part.