The N.B.A. Playoffs Yield Several Injured Stars and No Clear Favorite

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LeBron James lost his Hollywood co-star, Anthony Davis, to knee and groin trouble, and then lost a first-round series for the first time in his N.B.A. career. The Miami Heat, who stretched James and his Los Angeles Lakers to six games before losing last year’s N.B.A. finals, were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Those were just two of the major curveballs from an opening playoff round that, yes, threw a lot at us.

Early exits that capped disappointing seasons for Boston and Portland led to coaching changes for both teams the next day. In the Celtics’ wild case, Brad Stevens will be hiring his replacement. Stevens was promoted from coach to president of basketball operations and replaced the departing executive Danny Ainge, even though Stevens has zero front-office experience.

Unruly fan behavior as spectators have been allowed to attend games in greater numbers and the ongoing injury woes we have seen for several star players throughout this harried pandemic season made unwanted headlines. Home-court advantage, even with fans back in every building, never meant less, with road teams going a stubborn 21-22 across eight series. The road team, in an N.B.A. first, actually won the first six games in the Dallas Mavericks’ series against the Los Angeles Clippers — after the Clippers strategically lost their final two regular-season games against Houston and Oklahoma City to lock in a purportedly favorable matchup with the Mavericks.

It was, in short, a bonkers Round 1. The Kawhi Leonard-led Clippers brought it to a conclusion by finally ending the hex on home teams, beating Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, 126-111, in Sunday’s Game 7, but the many twists and turns have left the Nets and their polarizing star trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving as the N.B.A.’s focal point.

The Nets’ title worthiness, rather, and leaguewide health.

We still don’t have a clear-cut favorite in these playoffs, even after the field was halved from 16 teams to eight, largely because injuries — like Harden’s ongoing issues with his right hamstring — won’t allow it. Some of the uncertainty stems from all the newness confronting prognosticators, with the defending champion Lakers ousted immediately and next month’s N.B.A. finals poised to be the first without James or Golden State’s Stephen Curry since 2010. Yet the uncertain availability of various stars continues to be the biggest obstacle to pinpointing an obvious team to beat.

“It’s going to be the battle of the fittest by the end of this thing,” Philadelphia 76ers Coach Doc Rivers said on Sunday morning.

Less than two hours later, Philadelphia announced that its star center, Joel Embiid, would start in the Sixers’ second-round opener against Atlanta despite a small lateral meniscus tear in Embiid’s right knee. Embiid sustained the tear in Philadelphia’s first-round series against Washington, joining the Lakers’ Davis, Phoenix’s Chris Paul (shoulder) and Dallas’s Doncic (neck) on the list of marquee performers who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to play through a significant injury this N.B.A. postseason.

“Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy, but it’s all right,” said Embiid, who rumbled for an impressive 39 points and 9 rebounds in a 128-124 Game 1 loss.


There’s more. Utah’s All-Star guard Mike Conley aggravated a persistent hamstring injury in the Jazz’s first-round series with Memphis that could compromise his availability in the second round against the Clippers. Then Harden met a similar fate Saturday just 43 seconds into Game 1 of the Nets’ highly anticipated second-round showdown with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, aggravating a right hamstring injury that forced Harden to miss 20 of 21 games during a stretch in April and May.

It is the continuation of a dispiriting trend that plagued the second half of the regular season. After some 30 game postponements in the first half, when coronavirus intrusions were commonplace as teams struggled to insulate themselves from the virus while playing an indoor sport amid a pandemic, injuries affecting stars have been the dominant story line since the Lakers lost Davis (Achilles’ and calf) after a 21-7 start and James (ankle) about a month later.

In an April interview with Time magazine, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, said that “while injuries are terrible, and it’s an issue we’d desperately like to solve,” there is nothing in the league’s data “suggesting that our injury rate is in any way out of line with our last five seasons.” Multiple teams I’ve consulted nonetheless refused to be dissuaded from the belief that this season’s combination of schedule density and travel demands after such a short turnaround from last season, along with the daily coronavirus testing and various health and safety protocols that have cut into the players’ rest time, have increased injury risk.

Nagging injury-related questions thus persist. Such as:

  • Can the Sixers live up to their No. 1 seeding in the Eastern Conference when Embiid is potentially compromised?

  • Would the Suns, given the iffy state of Paul’s right shoulder, really have eliminated the Lakers in six games if not for Davis’s being well short of full strength?

  • How will Nikola Jokic, who is soon expected to be named the league’s most valuable player, lead the Denver Nuggets past Phoenix and back to the Western Conference finals without the assistance of Jamal Murray, who sustained a season-ending knee tear in April?

  • Perhaps most meaningful: What sort of down-the-road cost could the rigors of this rushed, compressed season inflict on the franchise players who shoulder the heaviest loads?

“I don’t know if people do get the question you asked,” Rivers said. “There’s so much stress on those guys. Some guys log heavier minutes — they have to do more.”

They certainly get it in Brooklyn, where talk of who isn’t playing has been inescapable all season, an annoying static that regularly intrudes on the tantalizing possibilities. Impressive as the Nets were after their sudden setback in Game 1 against the Bucks, pulling away for a 115-107 victory, Nets Coach Steve Nash said he was “heartbroken” for Harden. It was merely the latest illustration of what keeps many N.B.A. observers from branding the Nets as inevitable champions: For all the ridiculous offensive gifts that Durant, Harden and Irving possess, we just haven’t seen enough of them to endorse them without caveats and disclaimers.

The Nets’ Big Three shared the court for only 202 minutes during the regular season. They logged 130 promising minutes together in a five-game pounding of the Celtics, winning those stints by 66 points, before Harden trudged off the floor inside the opening minute against Milwaukee. Harden has been ruled out for Monday’s Game 2 against the Bucks at Barclays Center with what the team called right hamstring tightness.

“We got a lot thrown at us this year, so we were, in a sense, well trained for this event,” Nash said.

No coach on earth has the offensive options at Nash’s disposal, but the predicament he faces this season is, sadly, all too ordinary.

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