As the second round of the NBA playoffs comes to a close, we have to look back and ask whether injuries decided every series. The Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks and especially the Oklahoma City Thunder have to agree. Add Derrick Rose, a healthy Stephen Curry, or Russell Westbrook back into the mix and maybe things are different for the series.
I know I'm biased, but there's no way that even the strictest "injuries are part of the game" purists can say that this wasn't the single key factor in the playoffs. While there's no way to stop the kind of flukish, traumatic injury that took out Westbrook, there are certainly ways to reduce these kinds of injuries in the future.
On the other side of this coin, the maintenance and hard work done by the medical staffs have some of these teams healthy and ready, even after 90+ games. Players like Dwyane Wade aren't fully healthy, but they are close to full function. Managing injuries, chronic conditions and fatigue levels might be as important as any set play or defensive alignment.
We'll see if more teams watching the playoffs from home get the lesson. Medical management is a leading indicator of success in most sports. There may even be new ways to find advantages for teams that are looking for that "Moneyball" edge and don't have their own John Hollinger. For now, let's take a look around the Association.
Dwyane Wade was a game-time decision for Game 5 and with a big lead over the Chicago Bulls, it would have been reasonable for the Miami Heat to hold Wade back, extending his rest before the next series. Instead, he played pretty much a normal game for him, in terms of minutes and function.
While the knee may be sore, it is clear that the Heat's medical staff is doing a solid job of maintaining the knee. It's not perfect, but in watching Wade, I fail to see any real functional signs of limitation. He might be a step slower, he might be passing on some opportunities he would have aggressively taken in the past and he does have a slight limp, but overall, Wade is playing like Wade.
Expect Wade to continue this throughout the rest of the playoffs. Knowing what we know about his knee, it's not going to go away, even with the rest he's about to get between series.
Knicks fans went into full panic mode on Tuesday afternoon. The news broke that Iman Shumpert had missed the shootaround, then that he was headed for an MRI on his surgically repaired knee.
Shumpert had landed awkwardly, tangled with the long limbs of Paul George during Game 3. He was sore and the swelling only got worse overnight. The Knicks brought their team ortho, who had performed the surgery, in from New York to see Shumpert and help make any decisions.
It turns out, he wasn't really needed. Shumpert's knee was sore and a bit swollen, but fine. He was able to play in Game 4 and is expected to be normal through the rest of the series. The Knicks say there was no damage inside the knee and while I agree there was nothing serious, the pain and swelling didn't just happen.
My guess is that there's some bruising inside the knee, an indication that down the line, we may see Shumpert dealing with chronic knee issues like Dwyane Wade.
Of course, while Knicks fans were panicking, the Derrick Rose apologists popped up quickly. Their assertions that Shumpert's potential injury proved that Rose was right to sit out were as wrong as ever.
Shumpert, Rose and everyone else on NBA courts are subject to injury on just the kind of play that Shumpert made. They're all one step away from a problem and having had surgery didn't significantly increase the risk of that awkward play.
35 minutes sounds like Stephen Curry had his ankle underneath him. Nine points doesn't.
Curry's continued and chronic struggles with his ankle are well chronicled and well understood, but the game-to-game volatility in his performance isn't something that's predictable, even for Curry himself. The ankle alters his shot in biomechanical terms, as well as slowing him from getting to the shot off the screen or dribble.
Curry will be back out for Game 6 as the Warriors try to keep their season alive. He'll take the shot, strap on the brace and hope that the ankle does better. With each game, he's doing a bit more damage to a joint that is already degenerative and reconstructed.
Curry is one of the most exciting young players in the league, but the question now is not how good he'll be, but how long he'll be good.
The Warriors haven't been completely carried to this stage by Steph Curry ... but close. The other big help is how Andrew Bogut has played in the middle. The Warriors medical staff has done a masterful job of managing his chronic ankle issues and getting him to this stage to play the minutes he has.
Bogut did play significantly fewer minutes in Game 5—only six minutes in the first half—but he insists it's not due to injury. Bogut is expected to play more minutes in a do-or-die Game 6, but watch to see if Mark Jackson tries to spot him in.
Bogut doesn't appear to have normal rest patterns, which indicates the Warriors know how the ankle responds to playing and to rest, so they're somewhat limited in what they can and can't do with him.
Some of those shackles will be off as they face elimination, but this is a long-term team, so don't expect huge risks to be taken with the big man.
David Lee has played more and more throughout the series, an interesting phenomenon as he tried to play through a strained hip flexor. It's hard to say if he's getting more comfortable or if he and the Warriors are just willing to take on more risk as the team gets a bit more desperate.
Lee has gone three, eight and now 12 minutes in the last three games, with the extension in Game 5 perhaps helped along by Andrew Bogut's struggles. Lee hasn't hurt himself out there, but he's done very little. He had six points, but didn't show much ability down low and appeared less than stable out there. The hip keeps him from establishing position and limits his movement.
Lee is an oddity, one that has both positives and negatives. I'll leave that debate for someone else and focus on the fact that Lee and the medical staff appear to have had a good handle on what he could do without further damage. He's still headed for surgery, but at least he's going that direction in a uniform and not a suit.
The Bulls gave it a heck of a shot against the Heat, but they just didn't have the manpower. The team played through a number of injuries, but it might have been the freakish problems that Luol Deng had during the series that was the final straw.
Deng suffered with the flu, but had severe symptoms that mimicked viral meningitis. He was tested via spinal tap and had a minor but serious complication, leaving him in pain and bedridden.
He tried valiantly to come back from something that should have had him curled up in bed, but the Bulls couldn't in good conscience let him back out on the floor due to pain and weakness.
Deng will be fine in the long term and even in the short. He'll be fine to play well before next season and as importantly, he'll live a normal life in the interim. Deng's injury is a reminder that something as common as the flu can end up a major part of a team's medical picture.
Eric Gordon isn't in the playoffs, but if the New Orleans Pelicans hope to be in the near future, they have to hope that Gordon's ankles hold up. Gordon had surgery to clean out the ankle, removing scar tissue and hopefully freeing up the ankle.
Gordon only played in about half of New Orleans' games and in those, he was limited to a 30-minute average, but most of that issue was due to a knee injury. The Hornets weren't able to keep Gordon healthy since bringing him over from Los Angeles and lost Anthony Davis at the end of the year to a traumatic knee injury.
If the Pelicans are going to be better than the Hornets, they'll have to have another good lottery and they'll need to keep their players healthier. They have control over one of those things.