The Milwaukee Bucks evened up their second round series with the Brooklyn Nets today—an accomplishment few thought they were capable of after getting laughed off the court in Game 1 and Game 2. Giannis Antetokounmpo had another impressive stat line—34 points and a dozen boards—and P.J. Tucker showed up and made Kevin Durant sweat for a tiresome 28 points on 25 shots. It was a nice game from a good team who can finally remove themselves from Fraudwatch after a real embarrassing pair of performances.
And it would be nice if the Bucks’ resilience was the only story of the game, and if Tucker and Khris Middleton could get the shine they deserve for their stellar defense, but unfortunately, the story of this game is yet another injury. In the second quarter, Kyrie Irving landed on Giannis and tweaked his ankle after making a layup. Though he walked to the locker room under his own power, he was quickly ruled out, and Steve Nash’s postgame comments make this seem like a not insignificant injury.
The cruelest part of the Irving injury for the Nets is that they were already playing without their second best player, James Harden, who is out with a hamstring tweak. Without Kyrie, all the motion and movement and inexplicable Bruce Brown solo runs ceased, and the offense became gummy beyond repair. The Nets had to adjust on the fly, so we can cut Steve Nash some slack here, but without a crafty initiator like Irving, the Nets’ entire supporting cast suddenly has to contend with attention they’re not used to. His absence also ripples out and maims the Nets defense, since the Bucks now have precious opportunities to run out in transition. The Nets can comfortably overcome one injury, but probably not two.
This sort of story is grimly familiar. Everyone is hurt right now! Irving is just the latest superstar to miss important playoff time with an injury. Already in these playoffs, we’ve seen Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, and Mike Conley all miss time with injuries, while crucial starters like DeAndre Hunter, Donte DiVincenzo, and Serge Ibaka are also out for the rest of the playoffs. Every single team remaining in the field has dealt with, or is currently dealing with, a serious injury to an important player.
There has never been an NBA Playoffs unaffected by injuries, and it’s not surprising that even the best players in the game get hurt as their minutes load ramps up at the end of a long season. What is novel this year is the undeniable density of serious injuries to the best players in the game. The 2020-21 NBA season was always intended as a bridge—a compressed, misshapen bridge—from last year’s bubble to next year’s robust season back on a normal calendar. The NBA knew there was going to be a cost to making everyone play something that looked like a normal season with normal travel after a tiny post-bubble break, and for the early part of the season, that cost was terrible basketball and COVID chaos. Now, at the most important part of the season, the cost is all these injuries.
There won’t be asterisk on this year’s title winner, because everyone’s suffered through it, but it’s a real bummer all the same that the playoffs have been so attritional. The championship shouldn’t hinge this much on who can avoid further catastrophe.