BY HENRY ABBOTT
We watch the NBA postseason to see the best basketball on the planet. The best players, at their best.
Not this year.
A sign: In Wednesday’s Laker win over the Warriors, one of the world’s best players, Anthony Davis, turned to help up another, his teammate LeBron James, who was lying on his back under the basket. Both Davis and James spent a lot of the year injured. In his pivot to give James a hand, Davis leaned a bit too far. Rather than adjust his foot into LeBron’s delicate ankle, Davis just pitched over, chest to chest, into James. James hugged him in—a Staples superstar sandwich.
It was a hint. LeBron James has long been both one of the heaviest, fastest, and highest-jumping athletes in the world. His rim attacks are impossible to defend, and a reason why, on Wednesday night, microphones caught his coach saying the Warriors couldn’t stop “the freight train.” LeBron has dunked through contact with authority for 18 NBA years.
But on Wednesday, Draymond Green did something to the freight train’s left eye that the referees ruled, upon review, was not a flagrant foul. LeBron, returning from a serious ankle injury had spent some of the night being brilliant—and hitting an incredible game-winning 3—but also a surprising amount of the night watching, taking slow walking steps, or with his hands on hips. “LeBron looks … old,” texted David Thorpe. “Likely ankle and rust, but still.”
Green’s contact was enough to imbalance LeBron, have him miss the dunk, and then fall, in a very un-LeBron-like fashion, hard on his good left ankle, but with limbs everywhere. At first, as he writhed on the floor it could have been his ankle, his back, almost any part. Only when Lakers staffers hovered with eye wash did it emerge that it was his eye that hurt. He probably blinked 120 times in the minute before he shot his first free throw. Later he said he was seeing triple.
This is how the play-in games are going.
Marcus Smart left the game for a couple of minutes after this (his treatment: hopping up and down on the sideline) then returned to take several more hard falls.
I don’t know how much Davis Bertans you’ve watched, but is he at his best lying cadaverous across the baseline—hands on his damaged throat—as his team runs a play?
Injuries are the story of the year. We’re fired up about LeBron James beating Stephen Curry in the play-in game, but there’s no happy reason the Lakers and Warriors are the West’s seventh and eighth seeds. They are great teams in their primes humbled by injuries to LeBron, Davis, and Klay Thompson.
Last season, the NBA blew off the science that says injury rates skyrocket when games are scheduled more than two or three a week. The bubble featured far denser scheduling, and injured Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo, Ben Simmons, Jaren Jackson Jr., Zach Collins, Marvin Bagley III, Jonathan Isaac, Domantas Sabonis, CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Aaron Gordon, Michael Carter-Williams, and many others.
This season, the NBA doubled down, blew off LeBron when he said he needed a later start date, blew off De’Aaron Fox when he said an All-Star game would be stupid, and blew off a good swath of the published research on the importance of sleep, practice, or preventative health in creating the most dense schedule in recent memory. They had time for a safe 50-game season, and scheduled 72 … plus this week’s play-in tournament.
What evil scheme to injure stars could have been more effective? Owen Phillips of the F5 recently put together an analysis of this year’s most impactful injuries, by factoring the number of games missed and the players’ typical production. The list: Kevin Durant, Thomas Bryant, De’Andre Hunter, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, CJ McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Christian Wood, Derrick White, Jusuf Nurkic, and James Harden. Some of the NBA’s most valuable bodies are more tattered now.
McCollum recently called this season “terrible.”
Fatigue is deficiency—of sleep, oxygen, blood sugar, water, hemoglobin, or a million other things.
Those shortages commonly manifest themselves with little delays in function, including of the nervous system that sends signals to your muscles. You move a little differently. Maybe you plant your foot a bit further out, or open your hand a little slower to receive the ball. The rocky trail is a more dangerous place to run after a bad night’s sleep. Tired people fall more. Many different wearable devices can sense the change, and tell you when you’re starting to show signs of fatigue, which is also around when you’re at an elevated risk of injury.
David Thorpe said to me the other day that one way you can tell an NBA player is tired is when they screw up routine things, like catching a pass. There has been a lot of that.
Falling down is another interesting sign. There’s a little bit of that in basketball regardless, because people are taught to take charges by intentionally hitting the deck. But a lot of falling is a sign that people aren’t at their peak.
Tuesday’s Wizards at Celtics struck me as a fall-o-rama, a sign of a beat-up player corps. I counted every time someone hit the deck. Forty-eight falls, one per minute, is a conservative count. On Wednesday LeBron fell a couple of times that made the highlight reel. On Tuesday, Kemba Walker fell nine times (drawing only one charge). Davis Bertans and Marcus Smart each fell five times. Bradley Beal and Robert Williams III were each iffy to play, tried to protect their damaged parts, and fell four times each. Williams couldn’t finish the game. And so on, in a season-long experiment in attrition.
The Pacers won this game by 27. One thing that helped: the Hornets’ Gordon Hayward was injured too.
With under a minute left in the first half of Wizards at Celtics, Westbrook lofted a little shot over Jayson Tatum. Williams screamed across the lane and launched his body heroically into the sky to block it—but Tatum got it first. Williams had turned himself into a missile, now without a target.
Williams landed on Tatum’s heel as Tatum scooped up the rebound.
Tatum seemed fine, saved his dribble as he fell, stood back up and started the attack. Williams would end up face down, punching the parquet all alone, as the Celtics played four on five at the other end. After a missed shot, Kemba Walker leapt to tap an offensive rebound to a teammate, landed awkwardly, and fell. For a moment, the Celtics had the ball, a precious few seconds left to attack … but only three players upright. Walker got up wincing. Finally, they called a precious timeout.
In this game it was a luxury to use a timeout for basketball reasons. Mostly they were needed for crises.
About a minute into the third quarter, Kemba Walker drove, knocked into Wizards big man Alex Len, and fell to the ground. By our count at TrueHoop, it was Walker’s seventh fall of the night. A millisecond later, with the Wizards looking to fly the other way, Russell Westbrook powered up the right side and became the latest of many to trip on Williams’ injured foot. Wesbrook fell. His teammates started the play without him—it resulted in Bertans on the floor after a little contact as he attempted at 3. Williams checked out at the next dead ball and didn’t return.
How far was this game from two full-strength teams?
The Celtics were by most measures the most injured team in the league this year. Jayson Tatum needed an inhaler and months to recover from COVID. Jaylen Brown watched the game in street clothes not just with a wrapped post-surgical wrist, but also with a Band-Aid on his temple. (What happened to his temple?) Kemba Walker missed 29 games, including eight of the season’s last 12. Marcus Smart spent a lot of the game grimacing in pain, Williams started iffy, moved like a tin man, took several terrible falls, and left the game for good early in the third quarter. In some of the Celtics’ most important minutes of the year, unheralded Romeo Langford and Luke Kornet were on the court.
For the Wizards:
Alex Len played critical minutes. He’s only on the team because in January when the Raptors cut him the Wizards really needed players. They had a half-dozen COVID cases, three players in contact tracing, Thomas Bryant out for the year, and Russell Westbrook nursing a screwy left quad.
Russell Westbrook seemed to lack his normal explosion and had a terrible game.
At one point this season Bradley Beal told reporters the team hadn’t practiced in more than a week and was “fighting with the league,” in the hopes of delaying a game against the Bucks—because “that is just like a recipe for injury, honestly.” A few months later, Beal had a hamstring problem that dogs him now. He only played against the Celtics, he said after the game, by putting on a compression sleeve, and then three more over the top of that.
Promising rookie Deni Avdija has been in street clothes since a hairline fracture was discovered in April. On Tuesday, just after Westbrook had wandered alone to the locker room while Ish Smith lectured the trailing Wizards in a late-game timeout, the camera caught Avdija in clear-framed glasses and a grey-and-white striped sweater with the word “PLEASURES” across his chest.
So the two teams came into the game beat up. The whole league is tired. Even Marv Albert got several player names wrong. One of the referees, Scott Foster, missed a big chunk of the season with a calf strain.
Everyone has to keep going. Everyone has a big game tonight, tomorrow, or the next day. The Celtics have to use this banged up roster to slow the Nets. The Wizards will be done for the year unless they can solve the Pacers. LeBron’s left eye and right ankle will soon be on a flight to Phoenix.
Will they be healthy? Who knows?
Beal told reporters after the game that he could not move explosively, did not expect his hamstring to get better anytime soon, and was mostly on the court to rally his teammates. “Call me one-legged bandit, if you want.”
A reporter noticed Westbrook had been wearing a sleeve. Was Westbrook hurt? “If he is,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, “he wouldn’t tell me, and he definitely wouldn’t tell you.”
This season, as designed by the league office and experienced by players like Beal, is something deeper and more trying than basketball. “The Xs and Os won’t get it done,” says Beal. “It’s a matter of will and heart.”
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