Why Lillard, Tatum and Embiid have most to prove in NBA playoffs

Kazeem “Kaz” Famuyide thinks these three East players are under the microscope

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

The NBA regular season has concluded, and now the real action begins for the league’s biggest stars.

While every postseason team is fighting for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the stakes are even greater for certain players. Some are trying to finally reach the mountaintop, while the clock is ticking on other players’ championship windows.

Which players have the most on the line in the 2024 NBA playoffs? Kazeem “Kaz” Famuyide has three Eastern Conference candidates in mind.

Damian Lillard, Milwaukee Bucks

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Milwaukee Bucks since they landed Damian Lillard in the summer’s biggest blockbuster trade. Despite a head-coaching change and some head-scratching stretches, the team secured the No. 3 seed in the East thanks to Lillard and MVP running mate Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Many of Lillard’s best moments in the NBA have come in the playoffs, including two series-clinching buzzer-beaters during his time with the Portland Trail Blazers. Still, he has never won a game beyond the second round of the playoffs and is now on a team with clear championship aspirations. With Antetokounmpo potentially missing the start of Milwaukee's first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, even more will fall on Lillard's shoulders.

“If you’re Damian Lillard, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘This is why they brought me here,’” Famuyide said. “If the ultimate, all-world talent of Dame Lillard is enough to lift the ceiling of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, including its MVP player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, that is a guy with the most to prove.” 

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics have been locked in as the East’s No. 1 seed for weeks. Now, the real work begins.

The last two seasons have featured an NBA Finals loss and a seven-game Eastern Conference finals defeat for the Celtics. They are prohibitive favorites to make it out of the East this year and will have home court in the championship round if they make it that far.

Tatum has stacked up individual accolades throughout his first seven NBA seasons. He still has to earn the league’s ultimate team prize, though, to officially join the company of other Celtics greats.

“Year in and year out, Jayson Tatum is knocking on the door. He’s gotten to the conference finals. He’s gotten to the NBA Finals. But you don’t become a face of the league, you don’t lead the next Celtics dynasty and you definitely do not knock down the door of a championship without doing it first,” Famuyide said.

“You want to be (Paul) Pierce, you want to be (Larry) Bird, you want to be (Bill) Russell – you don’t get to be any of those guys unless you get some hardware. Jayson Tatum, don’t make them question why you’re going to be the most highly paid player in the NBA this summer. Show them your ring.”

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers have shown just how dangerous they can be with Joel Embiid on the court. With the big man back following a knee injury, he has an uphill battle to climb to reach his first ever Eastern Conference finals.

The Sixers slipped down the standings while Embiid recovered from his injury and ultimately landed in the Play-In Tournament. Still, changing circumstances in Philly could have the 2022-23 MVP and his team primed for an unexpected run past the second round – and possibly beyond.

“The Philadelphia 76ers might be playing with a little bit of house money,” Famuyide said. “Been injured, gone through a lot of change, there’s no James Harden. Now, Joel Embiid probably has one of the best chances to take his team past the first round of the NBA playoffs. If Joel Embiid is even close to as healthy as he was before he went down, you put him and that Sixers team against any team in the Eastern Conference, and I’m taking that team with Joel Embiid on it.”

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