Let's be clear: Everyone feels the heat this time of year. The urgency to raise your game for both players and coaches is heightened in the playoffs and reputations are either shattered or enhanced, based on what they do between now and when their season ends.
That said, some feel more pressure than others, for a variety of reasons. The playoffs, therefore, provide a second chance for those who couldn't quite get it right in the regular season, and others who need to confirm, once and for all, what makes them special.
Here's our list of the 20 individuals we think are carrying the most burden in the playoffs and how they can lighten the load:
1. Doc Rivers, Clippers. The Clippers didn't make a great sacrifice to get Rivers so he could win one more regular season game than Vinny Del Negro. They want him to go where no Clippers coach has gone before. In that sense, Rivers has more riding on his reputation than any coach or player this post-season, since he was brought in specifically to make a difference this time of year. If he pulls it off this season, the only downside to winning a championship, or at least getting to the NBA Finals, is that Rivers would somehow make Donald Sterling look like a genius in the process.
2. Kevin Durant, Thunder. Next month he'll be named winner of the MVP award, yet there's one trophy that Durant wants and needs just as much, if not more, for his legacy. He came up short to LeBron James two years ago in the championship series, and last season an untimely injury to Russell Westbrook in the first round denied Durant a realistic chance to get out of the West. This year, the moons are rightly aligned, and basketball immortality will await if Durant can haul two big trophies in the next two months.
3. Roy Hibbert, Pacers. Um, does anyone know where the best big man in the East went? He's no longer in Indiana. In the last month of the regular season, Hibbert shot 33 percent and averaged four rebounds a game. No big man shrank faster than Hibbert, a player who, this time last year, seemed on the verge of becoming more complete instead of just a designated shot blocker. Making matters worse, when the Pacers began to falter, Hibbert's body language was rated R. He pouted, pointed fingers at teammates, earned himself a benching and was destroyed by Joakim Noah (now the best center in the East) in their last meeting.
4. Dwyane Wade, Heat. Here's a legitimate question: Can Miami win if Wade still needs a breather every now and then? He missed almost one-third of the regular season to protect and preserve his fragile body for the post-season. Miami might be able to lean on LeBron against the Bobcats in the first round, but if Wade isn't ready to go 30-plus minutes from that point on, it could spell the end of the Heat's three straight trips to the Finals.
5. Chris Paul, Clippers. He's regarded as the top point guard in basketball and maybe the best leader in the game, but to be honest, he hasn't led the Clippers anywhere special. This time it's different. He has the coach he always wanted and a better Blake Griffin. He has a ton of respect in the game, and deservedly so, yet he'll take a PR hit if the Clippers don't reach the West finals and if he struggles.
6. Dwight Howard, Rockets. He was ejected from his last playoff game and never took the floor again for the Lakers. The previous year, he missed Orlando's first round exit with a back injury. It's been a while since we saw a dominant Howard in the playoffs. With the Rockets surrounding him by perhaps the most talent he's ever had, Howard has his best chance to return to the Finals since losing to Kobe with the Magic.
7. Monta Ellis, Mavericks. Nine years of his prime was wasted on dead-end teams in Golden State and Milwaukee, where Ellis saw only 15 games of playoff action that nobody can recall. For someone with a lifetime scoring average of 19.4, he's largely a mystery to the casual basketball crowd and often ridiculed by stat-geeks for being low-efficient. Ellis has proven to be a good fit in Dallas this season, however, and even though the Mavericks are unlikely to reach the second round, Ellis can leave an impression with a solid series against the Spurs.
8. Mark Jackson, Warriors. It's tough asking a coach to beat the Clippers and do it without starting center Andrew Bogut. Still, you wonder if Jackson's job will be secure if the Warriors, say, get swept or bow out ungracefully. Jackson has squirmed on the hot seat all season, especially when the Warriors underachieved and rested too close to the playoff bubble, and it'll become more uncomfortable if the Warriors are hearing boos at home next week.
9. Deron Williams, Nets. The Nets were built -- expensively so -- around Williams, the centerpiece of what Brooklyn initially designed to be a championship contender. Because of their age, the Nets are feeling the urgency to win now, which means they'll look for Williams, more often than not, to take the big shot.
10. John Wall, Wizards. The Wizards gave him a big contract last fall, even before he delivered an All-Star season, and now would love for Wall to push the franchise past the first round, which wouldn't be terribly difficult. A breakout series by Wall and a good showing by the Wizards will breathe life into a team trying to be a top five contender in the East.
11. Frank Vogel, Pacers. The Pacers imploded and had a losing record for March and April and chemistry issues threatened to rip them apart. Even his boss, Larry Bird, challenged Vogel to be harsher with the players. Although they ultimately claimed the best record in the East, the Pacers couldn't cope with being the hunted. The playoff adjustments made by Vogel will go a long way in restoring their confidence.
12. David Lee, Warriors. Last season the Warriors went on a spirited run (beating the Nuggets, pushing the Spurs) after Lee was done with an injury, leading to summertime whispers about Lee being an odd fit. And now he's their only healthy legitimate big man, with Bogut out with sore ribs. Lee is often unappreciated for someone who collects double-doubles and doesn't dominate the ball. A great showing against Blake Griffin would prove just how valuable Lee is to the Warriors.
13. Dave Joerger, Grizzlies. He weathered a poor November and December, which came on the heels of the controversial Lionel Hollins' firing, to help Memphis win 18 games in March and April and reach the playoffs. He made management look wise in making the coaching change. Joerger can win even more admirers with solid series against OKC.
14. Blake Griffin, Clippers. The season took a turn for the better when Griffin assumed the load and leadership role in the absence of Chris Paul, and he also earned himself some MVP notice in the process. Is he now the premier power forward in the game? The next few weeks will tell.
15. Jeremy Lin, Rockets. He lost his starting point guard spot and now is mainly an energy guy off the bench who's asked to make the open three-point shot while the Rockets try to cover for his soft defense. It's been a steep fall since Linsanity, but that doesn't mean Lin can't restore some national shine if he can produce in big spots and the Rockets go deep in the playoffs.
16. Jason Kidd, Nets. Two months into the season he was a coaching punch-line, but who's laughing now? Kidd endured a rough start and brutal backlash to sit pretty with the Nets, one of the league's second-half success stories, and did it without Brook Lopez, done for the season with injury. That said, the Nets want more for their $175 million roster investment than a token first-round playoff appearance.
17. LeBron James, Heat. He's not under any pressure to win another title, but might need stronger shoulders to carry a team this time, given that there are so many health questions surrounding Wade. LeBron has been taken for granted because he's so durable and great, and he must be both this season if Miami plans to three-peat.
18. Russell Westbrook, Thunder. Held to 46 games because of injuries, Westbrook is back and attacking the basket once again. That's the good news. Can he re-establish the formula he had with Durant prior to getting hurt? That would be better news.
19. Terry Stotts, Blazers. By all accounts, Stotts had a terrific season with a team that originally was projected to fight for a playoff spot. Yet the Blazers have been fairly unimaginative and ordinary since the All-Star break and appear vulnerable defensively. If this doesn't change quickly, those tremendous nights in November and December might seem like a fluke.
20. Michael Jordan, Bobcats. He is 119-60 lifetime in the playoffs. His Bobcats are 0-4.