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Will This Year’s Champion Be The Biggest “Asterisk” in NBA History?

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young crouches after suffering a sprained ankle and bone bruise in his right foot during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Trae Young | Image via AP/Matt Slocum

Injuries are unfortunate but natural occurrences throughout every NBA season. Players that have proven themselves as a key cog to their team will go down at the least opportune moments, and all fans can do is pray for a superhuman recovery. It’s a standard part of the game, but during this year’s postseason, the sheer amount of superstars that have missed time is extraordinary:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, hyperextended knee

  • Trae Young, sprained ankle and bone bruise in foot

  • Donovan Mitchell, right ankle injury

  • Chris Paul, COVID-19 health and safety protocols

  • James Harden, hamstring strain

  • Kawhi Leonard, right knee sprain

  • Kyrie Irving, right ankle sprain

  • Anthony Davis, groin strain

  • Joel Embiid, torn right meniscus

  • Mike Conley Jr., right hamstring injury

Every player on that list has made at least one All-Star appearance. It seems like every playoff game you watch this season, there’s at least one familiar face clutching something they’ve pulled or sprained. This was best exemplified by the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Atlanta Hawks phenom Trae Young went down in Game 3 after stepping on referee Sean Wright’s foot, and the Milwaukee Bucks kept their foot on the gas pedal for a 113-102 win. The Bucks’ could almost taste their first Finals appearance since 1974—they just needed to stay healthy in Game 4 and beyond.

But this postseason, the injury whirlpool has sucked in most ships.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo screams in pain after suffering a hyperextended knee during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo | Image via Getty/Kevin C. Cox

With just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Giannis Antetokounmpo leapt to contest a lob pass meant for Clint Capela. As Capela dunked the basketball, Antetokounmpo came down with all of his weight onto his left leg, which buckled inwards and sent him crashing to the floor in pain. He was ruled out for the rest of the game, and Atlanta crushed Milwaukee in a 110-88 victory.

Both teams were forced to answer a question they hoped not to encounter—who would step up following an injury to their best player? For Milwaukee, the answer was clear. Khris Middleton, a two-time All-Star and established closer in tight games, and Jrue Holiday have been the Greek Freak’s battle-tested supporting cast all season long. But Atlanta’s solution was a bit murkier.

Young’s backcourt partner Kevin Huerter was crucial to the Hawks’ Game 7 win over the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (27 points), but he had only scored 32 combined points in the first three games against Milwaukee. John Collins had been playing passively as well, so the Hawks needed an unusual source for offense—a 34-year-old Lou Williams.

“Sweet Lou” has taken over games before throughout his career, and Atlanta needed him to do it once more in Game 4. And he delivered: Williams dropped 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists on an efficient 7-for-9 shooting from the field.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals will shake out. But one thing is for sure: on the other side of the country, the Phoenix Suns are the hottest team in the NBA. The Suns are 12-4 in the postseason after fighting past the Lakers, Nuggets, and now, the Clippers.

Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul dribbles the ball up the court during an NBA basketball game.
Chris Paul | Image via Sky Sports

But for how good those three teams looked on paper to begin the season, they were nowhere near full strength come playoff time. For the Lakers, LeBron James’ explosiveness was lacking after a high ankle sprain suffered in March and Anthony Davis strained and re-aggravated his groin in the first round. Jamal Murray was out with a torn ACL and Michael Porter Jr. struggled with back tightness for the Nuggets. And the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard, who sprained his knee against the Jazz in the Western Conference Semifinals.

It has been less of a challenge for the Suns than expected, but that still should not take away from how strong they have looked this postseason. If they encounter Milwaukee in the Finals, Antetokounmpo will definitely be limited by his knee injury. He won’t be as effective of a driver or a help defender, and Phoenix should be able to take advantage of these open lanes to the basket.

If Atlanta manages to squeak by the Bucks, I can’t envision head coach Nate McMillan finding a way to contain both Devin Booker and Chris Paul for more than one game. Phoenix head coach Monty Williams has shown that he is willing to make adjustments in response, both during and between games.

Some argue that the amount of injuries during the playoffs means that this year’s championship trophy is an exception, hence the titular “asterisk.” But if we want to talk about exceptions, how about last year’s Lakers? They won it all in the Orlando Bubble, a format that quickly proved to be a challenge for players physically and mentally.

The reality is that every NBA season brings its own set of challenges, and the team that wins it all is the team that can best handle this adversity. If all goes “according to plan,” the Phoenix Suns will emerge on top of the league this year. But let’s be honest—anything is on the table.


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