The 2021 NBA playoffs have been one of the most unpredictable postseasons in league history for many reasons, most notably due to a unique pandemic season coinciding with the continuous rise of budding superstars.
Among all four teams still contending for the elusive NBA championship, no franchise has yet won a league title in at least 50 years. No matter who wins, history will be made.
However, this season, already praised for highlighting the NBA’s balance of star power, has been marred by the alarming rate of injuries suffered by some of the league’s biggest names.
These untimely setbacks have heavily altered the trajectory of multiple mid-season contenders, and have paved the way for healthier teams to ultimately take advantage.
April 14 – Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets (torn ACL)
Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets were on pace for a Western Conference Finals return and were aiming to improve their postseason fortunes with an MVP-caliber run from superstar “point center” Nikola Jokic.
However, that all came to a screeching halt with about a month left in the regular season, as Murray suffered a left ACL tear last April 14 against the Golden State Warriors.
Surprisingly, the Nuggets actually won 14 of their final 18 games without him.
But the writing of the Murray-less Nuggets’ inevitable collapse was on the wall as they were pushed to the limit by Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers in six games of the playoffs’ first round.
The Nuggets then only briefly celebrated Jokic’s historic win as the lowest-drafted MVP in league history before the Phoenix Suns handed them a convincing 4-0 sweep.
May 11 – Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics (wrist injury)
The Boston Celtics simply did not have a great 2020-2021 season.
Topping off an up-and-down year marked by low team assists and historically bad defense, first-time All-Star Jaylen Brown got ruled out last May 11 after tearing a ligament in his right wrist, just as the playoffs were right around the corner.
Tatum and the Celtics then went down swinging against the heavily favored Brooklyn Nets in five games, leading to the retirement of manager Danny Ainge, the transition of Brad Stevens from head coaching to the front office, and the trade of starting guard Kemba Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
May 31 – Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (groin injury)
In stark contrast to their fairly smooth run to the 2020 NBA championship, the Los Angeles Lakers had to fight tooth-and-nail to barely even qualify for the postseason in 2021.
After fending off Stephen Curry and the Warriors in a nail-biting play-in game, All-Star Anthony Davis then followed up a left knee sprain that sidelined him for 30 regular season games with a groin injury in Game 4 of the first round against the Suns.
He then made a valiant return in the do-or-die Game 6, but quickly re-aggravated his injury just five minutes in as he was nowhere near ready to play extended minutes despite the stakes on the line.
Three quarters later, the Lakers’ title defense was over as the Suns moved on to the second round.
June 3 – Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (hamstring injury)
All was well for the Utah Jazz all season long. But the playoffs rolled around, and just like last season, everything came crashing down for what was supposed to be a strong title run.
Rudy Gobert was named Defensive Player of the Year. Fil-Am Jordan Clarkson became Utah’s first-ever Sixth Man of the Year, and was presented the award by his teammate Joe Ingles, who himself was the runner-up for the title.
But then Mike Conley, in the first All-Star season of a 13-year career, tweaked his hamstring in the first round against his former longtime team, the Memphis Grizzlies.
Just like that, the Jazz’s awards became nothing but consolation prizes as the Los Angeles Clippers booted them out in six games for their first conference finals berth in their 51-year history.
June 6 – James Harden (hamstring injury) | June 14 – Kyrie Irving (ankle injury), Brooklyn Nets
The recurring narrative for the stacked Nets squad this season was the endless cycle of injuries that limited the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving to less than 10 games played together before the playoffs.
As if fate was mocking them, the Nets continued the cycle deep into the postseason as James Harden went down with a left hamstring strain just 43 seconds into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Right as Harden was set for a rushed return a week later, the injury bug again bit Irving’s right ankle in Game 4 of the series, and was ruled out for the rest of the way.
Durant and a hobbled Harden fought valiantly until the very end, but the Bucks ultimately prevailed in a legendary Game 7 battle, the first that went to overtime in 15 years.
June 15 – Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers (right knee injury)
After all the load management Kawhi Leonard went through in the regular season, it was not enough to save him from yet another playoff injury last June 14, when he tweaked his right knee in Game 4 against the Jazz, who were already missing Conley prior to the series.
Although Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and head coach Ty Lue adjusted very well to Leonard’s loss, and pulled off the historic conference finals clincher, the Clippers are now backed up a wall once again as the Suns pull within one win of the NBA finals.
As of posting, the Clippers have fended off elimination following a heroic stand from George and Jackson, but it seems that Leonard is still nowhere near ready to save his team from the brink of ending their historic postseason run.
June 17 – Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (COVID protocols)
The injury gods have not been kind to Chris Paul over his illustrious career, and that seems to have not changed one bit this season.
After surviving a shoulder injury in the first round against the Lakers, the “Point God” was placed under the league’s COVID-19 protocols prior to the start of the Suns’ conference finals run against the Clippers, which caused him to miss the first two games.
Thanks to his teammates, the Suns actually still won those two games, and Paul helped them win one more in Game 4 after quickly clearing protocols due to being vaccinated.
As his fellow stars are falling all around him like flies, the often-injured Paul is now making the most of his turn being relatively healthy, and is now one win away from his first career finals appearance.
June 28 – Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks (right foot injury)
The Atlanta Hawks have clawed their way up as this season’s undisputed postseason underdog through a combination of gutsy offensive eruptions and generally good health.
However, that all changed when Atlanta’s main driving force Trae Young tweaked his right foot after stepping on the referee, of all people, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks.
Thankfully for the Hawks, Young is only day-to-day, and his team has evened up the series 2-2 without him after a 110-88 thrashing of Milwaukee.
That final score may be surprising on paper, but it certainly had a lot to do with the last entry on this list.
June 30 – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (left knee hyperextension)
Last but certainly not the least, former two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo capped off a brutal month of NBA injuries with a gruesome left knee hyperextension just this Wednesday, June 30, in a pivotal Game 4 loss to the Young-less Hawks.
The “Greek Freak” got his knee bent backwards after Atlanta center Clint Capela fell on it after finishing an alley-oop dunk with 7:14 left in the third quarter.
Just like that, another title run has been dealt a very serious blow as the Hawks are now expected to seize momentum with Young possibly coming back from his own injury soon.
Antetokounmpo is set to receive more tests on Thursday, July 1, to confirm the severity of the injury.
All in all, the sheer number of injuries to the league’s top stars has certainly dampened the mood of what is for the most part an excitingly unpredictable postseason.
A shortening of the league’s regular season and the loosening of teams’ tight schedules have long been proposed by some of basketball’s biggest personalities, and it looks like the clamor for change will only grow louder moving forward. – Rappler.com