Yesterday, two Western Conference Playoff teams got red cards. Memphis, playing well as they waited for the return of Rudy Gay, found out their star is now done for the year with a partially dislocated shoulder. And San Antonio, the team with the best record in the League and riding an uncharacteristic wave of perfect health, lost Tim Duncan to a serious ankle injury. While one may be slightly more serious than the other, both players are expected to miss significant time with only a few weeks left until the playoffs start. These injuries figure to have a huge impact on just how far these teams can push themselves in April and May. Memphis probably isn’t winning anything, but for the Spurs, this could be devastating.
This weird timing seems to happen all the time. 2011 isn’t the first year, and certainly won’t be the last, when playoff teams have to deal with this. Here are five other examples of it in the past decade, and while most of these happened during the playoffs, the consequences are the same:
2003: Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs
It’s hard to say how significant Dirk Nowitzki’s injury was during the 2003 Western Conference Finals. San Antonio had finally beaten L.A. in the semis, and looked better than they ever before. But so did Dallas and this was the best team the Mavs ever had with Dirk, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. The Mavs even won Game 1 behind Dirk (38 points, 15 rebounds) after trailing by 18. But late in Game 3 after Dallas had been ahead for much of the game, Nowitzki went down on a rebound with a sprained right knee. Buckling as he collided with Manu Ginobili, Dallas coach Don Nelson later conceded he wouldn’t play Dirk unless the German was 100 percent. Nowitzki never played again that year and San Antonio dominated the rest of the series and the NBA Finals.
2005: Joe Johnson and the Suns
This was supposed to be the year. Steve Nash. Amar’e Stoudemire. Shawn Marion. Joe Johnson. Out of all the years that Phoenix had a chance at a championship, that very first Lamborghini team in 2004-2005 was the best one. Before Johnson became an overpaid, yet perennial All-Star with Atlanta, he was the perfect off-ball wing option opposite Nash. That year, he averaged over 17 points while shooting nearly 50 percent from deep. Before the collision with Jerry Stackhouse that left J.J. with a left orbital bone fracture, Johnson had four straight 20-point playoff games and Phoenix looked poised for a probable title run. Could they have beaten San Antonio with him in the lineup? He wasn’t really himself again until Game 4 of that series, which happened to be the only game the Suns won in the Western Conference Finals.
2004: Sam Cassell and the Wolves
The only season Sam Cassell ever made an All-Star game was also the best shot Minnesota had of playing in the NBA Finals. That year, they made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, riding Kevin Garnett and the perfect blend of role players to a meeting with the Lakers. That L.A. team was on the brink of falling apart and if Cassell hadn’t been forced to sit out the last two games of the series with hip and back problems, who knows? Garnett put up historic numbers (24.3 ppg, 14.6 rpg, 5.1 apg) during those playoffs, but it was Cassell who took and hit the big shots. Take a look at his conference finals numbers and tell me the Wolves couldn’t have won that series if he’s healthy (especially considering Darrick Martin was their next best option):
Game 1: couldn’t play in the fourth quarter because of the injury, still had 16 points, 8 assists
Game 2: left during the opening minute
Game 3: 18 points, but played only 26 minutes because of the injuries
Game 4: only five minutes because of his injury problems
Game 5: didn’t play
Game 6: didn’t play
2009: Kevin Garnett and the Celtics
How quickly people forget. A year after creating the largest single-season turnaround in league history and winning a ring, Boston started this season 27-2. While most figured on a repeat of the Celtics/Lakers Finals matchup, everything changed one February night in a loss in Utah. Late in the opening half, Garnett jumped for an alley-oop and came down hopping, trying to take pressure off his right knee. At first, the significance was unknown. Most figured he would be fine for the playoffs. But he never played and Boston lost in the second round. In fact, it took Garnett nearly two years to fully regain his health and the injury might’ve cost the Celtics a second championship last season when the Lakers beat up a wobbly Garnett inside to win it all.
2003: Chris Webber and the Kings
One year after losing Peja Stojakovic to an injury in the playoffs and falling to the Lakers in an epic Western Conference Final, Sacramento came back hungrier and deeper than ever. This was the most talented team the Kings of that era ever had, going at least two deep at every spot. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when they would break through. Chris Webber was the apex, a gliding and powerful tiger of a basketball player who had helped define Sacramento’s exciting style. But when Webber, who averaged 23 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists that year, went down in the second game of their semifinal series against Dallas, it ended an era. The team was never the same again and lost to Dallas in a series that would’ve certainly been theirs if they had their best player. More importantly Webber’s career quickly fizzled out and ultimately died a few years later in Golden State; the franchise is still recovering from this.
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