The story of the 2013 NBA playoffs so far has been comebacks.
Whether it's the Celtics coming back "Boston Strong" to force a Game 6 against the Knicks at TD Garden or the Grizzlies fighting back against the Clippers, there have been a lot of series that have gone much deeper than expected. And it's all been without some of the best players being available, like Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Jeremy Lin.
Injuries are often thought of as "part of the game" and able to be overcome by luck, machismo or depth. To me, it's an affront and a lesson.
We'll never eliminate injuries, even for the most forward-thinking teams, but as my friend Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders once taught me, "The best is the enemy of the better." The fact that Russell Westbrook got bumped or that Kobe Bryant's tendon gave out at that particular point can't be helped.
That we can't prevent all injuries doesn't mean we shouldn't try to prevent some injuries.
With a number of players fighting through pain in the hope of returning to the court and contributing, another type of comeback could end up the story of the next few games and the next round.
Let's take a look around the Association...
Before we get to players who are still active, let's take a look at what's going on with Andrew Bynum. He missed the entire season for the 76ers and is going to be a free agent, somehow highly sought after. The knees that kept him off the court were operated on just weeks ago in what seemed to be a relatively simple cleanup.
Bynum had surgery on his knees in late March. Six weeks later, he's flamenco dancing in Spain. Either Dr. David Altchek is a miracle worker, or this is something that could have been done at some point during the season, allowing Bynum to get back to basketball quickly. The Sixers have to be asking their own doctors why they didn't push harder for a simple scope.
I realize that dancing isn't running and jumping in the NBA, but it certainly looks like Bynum is moving pain-free in that video. Bynum is an extreme case, one that bumps up against what some might term malingering. Along with the Derrick Rose controversy, this situation is one that's going to have fans up in arms about these non-performing contracts and the shift in power to the players during rehabs.
The Knicks looked to be cruising through the shorthanded Celtics as the first round started, but the series has changed. As the series has extended, so has the possibility of Amar'e Stoudemire returning for the late games in this series rather than the second round as expected.
It's still too early given what we know. Stoudemire has just begun taking contact in practice, a sign that he's weeks away from a normal return. If it comes down to a Game 7, Stoudemire could pull a Willis Reed and come back with limited minutes.
All signs are that the rehab is going well as he's progressing through each milestone in the normal time frame with no known setbacks. Stoudemire's relatively minor surgery is complicated by his long history of knee problems, so it's nice to see this go well for him.
The Clippers didn't mess around with Blake Griffin's ankle injury. When he rolled his ankle in the third quarter of Game 5, the medical staff pulled him and got him to images quickly. X-rays let everyone know that there was no fracture, but a moderate (likely a low Grade II) sprain is no joke. Griffin said that he'd "never had one this bad." That's not a positive sign.
Griffin will now spend the next day or so receiving treatment. The situation is much like what the Warriors have had to do for Stephen Curry time and again, but with an acute injury like this on such a quick, athletic leaper like Griffin, it's even more difficult.
Griffin will surely do all he can to be out on the floor when the Clippers try to stave off elimination, but a limping Griffin isn't going to be much good. Without his athleticism, Griffin won't be able to make the kind of impact the Clippers need. The hopes of the team are riding on what the medical staff can do over the next few hours.
Stephen Curry is going a little Jay-Z on us right now—he's got 99 problems, but his shooting ain't one. Curry actually has only two real medical issues: his chronic ankle problems and a sore eye after he was poked in Game 4.
He was able to play pretty well in Game 5, but the Nuggets got very physical with him and held him to just 15 points. Curry was clearly bothered by all the contact. There's no enforcer in hoops the way there is in hockey, so to think Mark Jackson would send someone to start hacking away at the other team's star player if Curry keeps getting "hit men" sent at him is ludicrous.
San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami noted not only the "hit men" comment, but that Curry was being told by the Nuggets that he was "soft." It will be interesting to see how Curry responds based on his physical capabilities. Pushing things too far might be a bad idea given his long-term condition—even in the face of elimination.
Curry and the Warriors' medical staff will continue to work on the ankles, as they have. The eye will clear itself up over time, though any eye injury can be drastically annoying.
Jeremy Lin tried to play in Game 3 after bruising his chest in Game 2. He was limited in minutes and what he could do, leading some to think this is more than a bruise.
A bruise just doesn't sound like a serious enough injury to keep an NBA player out of the playoffs, but it is. Lin has missed the two games since and could miss the rest of the series.
Bruises are the result of blunt trauma. Lin's trauma is clear, and the pain and swelling from the area when he moves and runs result in the limitations. Simply put, when Lin moves his arms or breathes, he's doing something that slows the healing of the area. It is still swollen, discolored and painful, and those limitations make him a less effective option than Patrick Beverley for now.
We might not think soft-sounding injuries like a bruise or "turf toe" are serious, but every injury comes with degrees of severity. Even the smallest injury in the wrong place at the wrong time can fell the toughest player. It's just bad timing and placement for the Rockets.
When Chris Paul showed up after Game 5 with his hand wrapped in ice, he told the media that he had hit himself. The injury is relatively minor, a bruise at the base of his left thumb, but it could affect his handling of the ball some.
The real issue here isn't the severity of the injury, but that there's not much time to let the injury heal. Beyond ice and pressure, there isn't much the medical staff can really do. A painkiller would be difficult (and likely overkill), since he's got to have full control of his hands. It's also hard to pad the area without creating interference with how the hand moves and grips.
Paul is fully expected to play in Game 6, but watch to see that he has his normal control of the ball. It could get worse late if the Grizzlies test the hand throughout the game.
The Bulls have enough injury drama to go around. Joakim Noah is fighting through painful feet, Luol Deng is fighting off an illness and Derrick Rose is continuing to lurk like a shadow, distracting both his teammates and potential playoff foes. A calf strain to Kirk Hinrich that left him in a walking boot isn't helping.
Hinrich strained the calf in Game 3 and has missed the last two games. Imaging showed things were "pretty bad," most likely a Grade II strain.
It is unlikely that Hinrich will be able to return for any of the first-round games, and even the second round is in question. He is making progress, walking gently, so his day-over-day progress with the medical staff will be the big determinant. The well-rested Heat are waiting, and that bright spotlight is going to push Hinrich to play if he possibly can (and if the Bulls can get past the Nets!).
Of course, if that spotlight shows up and Derrick Rose decides to step into it, Hinrich's return is a bit less key to the Bulls' hopes.
It shouldn't surprise me that a forward-looking team like the Oklahoma City Thunder took the long-term view with Russell Westbrook, but it does. The Thunder are real contenders for an NBA title—a chance that doesn't come along often, even with talent like they have. To take out a major part of the team at this point in the season is rare, especially when there was an option in which he might have been able to return during the playoffs.
Flat out, Russell Westbrook owes the Thunder. They may have added years to his career by deciding to repair rather than remove his damaged meniscus. (OK, this is overstating things slightly, as Westbrook and his advisers were very involved in the decision-making process, but this is still an unusual decision.)
Westbrook's knee should make a full and normal recovery, one that takes eight to 12 weeks. Westbrook will be ready for camp and another long run at an NBA title. He and the Thunder can only hope he gets that chance.
In his absence, we'll learn just how big a key to this team his play at guard really is.
Following the surgery and rehab of Danilo Gallinari is going to be interesting. The Nuggets star is having a series of procedures rather than one big one, in hopes that "pre-hab" and what we might call "inter-hab" allows him to come back strong in a more organized fashion.
Gallinari had his torn meniscus repaired and will now rehab it a bit before his ACL is reconstructed. This multi-step process isn't normally seen in pro sports, but it can allow the body to heal up. As we're seeing with the decreasing time of return-to-play from ACL injuries, the body's condition prior to injury is a huge key. Players like Adrian Peterson are more muscled than an anatomy chart, giving them a great base to work from.
By allowing Gallinari to heal and keep the strength up in the damaged knee, the hope is that the rehab will progress in a more controlled fashion. For severe injuries with relatively long timelines, we may see more of this in the future. A lot of medical staffs and surgeons will be watching the progress of Gallinari through the summer and beyond.
#CoachKobe may have stopped tweeting since L.A.'s elimination from the playoffs, but his rehab has really just begun from his Achilles strain. The long process that Bryant and the Lakers medical staff are dealing with now will continue right up to the next time he steps on the court, which could be as early as the Lakers' next game.
We won't see much progress with the spotlight removed from Bryant for a bit, but he did have one big milestone. The stitches were removed from Kobe's leg, a sign that there were no complications. Infection has become a bigger problem for athletes, as we've seen with players like Rob Gronkowski recently. Bryant won't have to deal with that and can instead focus on taking, literally, the next steps.
Expect to see occasional sightings of Bryant. Given his L.A. home and TMZ lifestyle, I'm sure we'll see him out and about a few times. Whether he's out of the walking boot at some point this summer is likely to be our next milestone for figuring out when Bryant may be back.
Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and Basketball Prospectus.