Injuries Continue to Change the Landscape of the NBA Playoffs

By Patrick Hayes   June 16, 2021 

Injuries Continue to Change the Landscape of the NBA Playoffs

After having to finish last season under unprecedented circumstances, with no fans and playing the final regular season games and playoffs in a “bubble” setting in Orlando, it was pretty clear the NBA’s main goal this season was to have as close to a “normal” season as possible, pandemic or not.

The offseason, including the draft and free agency, were squeezed into the late fall and winter. Training camp and the preseason were compressed into just a few weeks so that the league could start the 2020-21 season before December 25 and keep the tradition of televised Christmas Day games alive. Even without being able to play a full 82-game schedule, the league set out to fit in as many games as possible and, with less rest and more back-to-back games, they were able to schedule 72. 

Even All-Star Weekend, which initially was talked about being canceled, was held in a modified fashion. Franchises also worked all season to be able to play in front of fans depending on local restrictions and pushed capacities up throughout the season. 

Now, in the playoffs, teams are playing in nearly full arenas, complete with the antics of live crowds back in full force

The reasoning for these pushes has been simple – economics. Like every business, the NBA lost money due to the COVID-19 pandemic last season, and adding as many games as possible combined with getting as many people in seats as possible, would help recoup some of those losses. There’s been a price, though.

Injuries have been a constant theme throughout the season, with major stars missing significant amounts of time due to the lack of rest caused by the compressed schedule. Teams that made deep playoff runs last season also had much shorter offseasons to recover than normal. Last year’s NBA Finalists, the Lakers and Heat, were both ravaged by injuries this season and both were eliminated in round one of the playoffs, creating havoc in the NBA odds scene and across sportsbooks everywhere.

With those teams out early, it has created excitement as every team still alive has a credible shot at a championship, something that has been a rarity in recent NBA history. Among the last 10 NBA champions, only the 2019 Toronto Raptors and 2011 Dallas Mavericks truly qualify as out-of-nowhere winners, so 2021 could definitely add another team to that list.

Jun 13, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) grabs his leg after being injured during the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks during game four in the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Fiserv Forum. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Although the excitement has been good, the trend of injuries continues to wreak havoc on the playoff field. Consider the following:

  • Clippers star Kawhi Leonard injured his knee in game four of their series against Utah, which is tied 2-2, and could miss the rest of the series. Perhaps more than any contending team, the Clippers lack depth which makes them reliant on their stars. They’ve turned their series around against Utah after falling behind 0-2 largely on the strength of Leonard’s impact offensively and defensively. Without him, they’ll have a hard time slowing down Donovan Mitchell and the rest of Utah’s potent perimeter attack.
  • Chris Paul could be out of action for an undetermined amount of time and he’s not even injured. His team also doesn’t even have an opponent right now as the Phoenix Suns have already advanced to the Western Conference Finals and are awaiting the winner of the Clippers-Jazz series. Paul has entered the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. How long he’s quarantined is a mystery – the league doesn’t release whether players test positive or are just exposed. Vaccinated players also reportedly don’t have to stay in quarantine as long after exposure, but it is unclear whether or not Paul is vaccinated. If the Clippers-Jazz series goes to seven games, that will also help Phoenix as it will delay the start of the Western Conference Finals. But that series could end as soon as Friday, which could push the start of the Western Conference Finals to early next week or even as soon as Sunday as opposed to mid-week.
  • The Brooklyn Nets spent much of the second round against Milwaukee without James Harden, who re-aggravated a hamstring injury that has bothered him much of the second half of the season. Then, Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle in game four of the series and is out indefinitely. Harden returned in game five, but was clearly limited, shooting just 1-for-10 and lacking his trademark mobility.
  • Joel Embiid is playing through a torn ligament in his knee in the Sixers’ series against Atlanta. The knee reportedly won’t get worst by playing on it, so Embiid is gutting it out. But it clearly bothers him at times, and if the pain tolerance becomes too much, Philadelphia could be in danger in a series that is currently tied 2-2.
  • Mike Conley has missed most of the playoffs for the Utah Jazz with a hamstring injury. That injury, like Harden’s, has been a recurring one for Conley this season. Without him in the lineup, Utah’s playmaking and defense have both suffered. Conley is a great shooter, an efficient playmaker, and is the team’s best perimeter defender. He’s questionable for game five against the Clippers. Los Angeles has been able to exploit the weaknesses in Utah’s perimeter defense without Conley in the lineup, and they’ve also been able to harass the team’s other guards into turnovers and poor shots.

The moves made by the NBA to ensure the season would come close to getting back on track were always going to come with a price. The league is also reportedly committed to starting next season at the normal time in October, which will once again mean a shorter offseason for already banged up players. The league may need to look at expanded rosters or allow more rest for stars in order to avoid a repeat of this season’s injury issues.

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