On Feb. 21, San Antonio saw an 11-game winning streak end at Portland by the score of 137-97. But the resounding part wasn’t the 40-point margin: It was the message sent. The Spurs hadn’t used their two best players, and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker weren’t hurt.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters: “I can’t run our guys into the ground.”
Then this: “That’s what’s going to happen if you want to put some money in the bank for later.”
We know now that the NBA’s post-lockout regular season, in which 66 games were jammed into four months, served to make a mess of this postseason. Should it come as a coincidence that Popovich’s team has sailed unbeaten through two rounds, while the Chicago Bulls, who tied San Antonio for the regular season’s best record, were gone after six games? Should we be surprised that all that seems to matter in these playoffs is health, or the lack thereof?
It would be wrong to cast the Bulls as a team that went flat-out to rack up wins that didn’t matter: The great Derrick Rose missed 27 regular-season games. Alas, he lasted through only Game 1 of Round 1 before tearing his ACL, and that set a chilling tone. Teammate Joakim Noah was lost to a sprained ankle in Game 3; the Bulls would lose to eight-seeded Philadelphia in six. Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis of the Knicks hurt their knees in Round 1, and so did Josh Smith of the Hawks and Paul Pierce of the Celtics. (Pierce sprained his in a shootaround.)
Chris Bosh, the third of the Heat’s Big Three, suffered an abdominal strain in Game 1 of Round 2 and hasn’t played since, but his loss was partially offset by injuries sustained by the Pacers’ Danny Granger (ankle) and David West (knee) in Game 5. Game 3 of that series saw Dwyane Wade, the second of the Big Three, score five points. Later it was revealed that he had fluid drained from his knee before the game. He scored 71 points in the final two games of the series.
The Celtics weren’t sure if Ray Allen would play a game this postseason because of bone spurs, but he returned in Game 3 of Round 1. Avery Bradley, who starts ahead of Allen, has seen his shoulder pop in and out. Pierce has hobbled through every game since hurting his knee. As for the team Boston beat in Round 1: The Hawks didn’t have Al Horford for the first three games, Smith for Game 3 and Zaza Pachulia for the series.
Blake Griffin of the Clippers wasn’t his ascendant self after hurting his knee in Game 5 of Round 1 against Memphis, and teammate Chris Paul managed to jam his middle finger and strain a hip flexor in the same game. Oh, and Dwight Howard didn’t work a postseason minute for Orlando. He was lost to back surgery.
You could win the NBA title with the guys who’ve been hurt for all or parts of these playoffs: Rose (2011 MVP), Paul (all-NBA first team), Wade (2006 finals MVP), Allen (surefire Hall of Famer), Howard (all-NBA first team), Griffin (2011 rookie of the year), Horford (2011 all-NBA third team), Pierce (2008 finals MVP) and Smith (should have been an all-NBA selection). That’s assuming any of them would ever get healthy enough to play to capacity, which almost nobody seems capable of doing.
It’s an easy second-guess to say the NBA should have seen this coming, but it should have. There was no cause to ask players to play three times in four nights — three nights in a row in some cases — for the sake of jamming in a couple of more regular-season games to fluff up revenues. Popovich caught on early that the regular season was fool’s gold. By April, Boston coach Doc Rivers had seen Popovich’s example and raised him.
In an April 20 game against the Hawks, Rivers sat his four best players. That night the Celtics essentially forfeited the home-court edge for Round 1, but they won the series. “I’m taking rest and health over home court,” River said then.
Here we must note that injuries can happen. In 2006 the NBA compiled its 60 greatest playoff moments, and two of the top three were functions of injury. Willis Reed tore a thigh muscle in Game 5 of the 1970 finals, missed Game 6 but made a rousing return just before Game 7 was to start. He scored the first two baskets (but no others) and his team won breezing. The rookie Magic Johnson played center in Game 6 of the 1980 finals because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had sprained his ankle in Game 5; Johnson finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
But those famous examples were incidents. What has happened this spring is something approaching a contagion. Too many guys played too many games in too short a span. Too little money, to borrow Popovich’s image, was invested for later, and the bills keep coming.
By Mark Bradley