Sure, the Los Angeles Clippers’ epic 27-point fourth-quarter comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies, and Kevin Durant’s game-winner against the Dallas Mavericks (may all of life’s bounces be that lucky) were highlights of the first weekend of the NBA playoffs. But this opening slate of games will be remembered for all the pain.
Both Derrick Rose, the defending NBA MVP, and rookie New York Knicks shooting guard Iman Shumpert tore their ACLs on Saturday. They will both miss the rest of the playoffs. For Rose, this injury likely costs the Chicago Bulls, which finished tied with the San Antonio Spurs for best regular-season record in the NBA, a shot at a championship. Plus, Rose will also have to miss the London Olympics.
The injuries to Rose and Shumpert, and prior ones to players like Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard (back) and Atlanta Hawks power forward Al Hofford (torn pectoral muscle), who are also out for the playoffs, rekindled complaints about this year’s truncated NBA schedule. Teams played 66 games from Christmas Day until late April, an intense campaign that required a slew back-to-back contests and eliminated many rest days. Such was the cost of recouping lost lockout revenues. Was the schedule ridiculously taxing? Certainly. Would Rose and Shumpert have torn their ACLs otherwise? We’ll never know for sure. These injuries are like lighting strikes.
With Rose out for the playoffs, the Miami Heat now have an easier path to the Finals. In a way, the Rose injury offers more fodder to the LeBron haters (yes, these people still exist, both within Cleveland and other American locales). If the Heat win the East and then take the title, will critics kvetch that LeBron got lucky, that he didn’t knock off a top challenger on the way to a championship, that his first ring is somehow devalued?
Sure, you’ll hear this talk. But it’s off-base. Remember that Miami beat Chicago and Rose in the Eastern conference finals last year, when the Bulls also had the top-seed in the East. If anything, the onus was on Rose to prove he could beat LeBron and Co.
This situation reminds me a bit of 1991, when Michael Jordan won his first championship with the Bulls. Jordan got lucky that year, too. The Bulls met the Los Angeles Lakers in that year’s Finals: Lakers weren’t the best team in the West in 1991, as measured by won-loss record. That distinction belonged to the Portland Trail Blazers, who won 63 games in 1990-1991 (the Bulls won 61). But LA surprised Portland in the Western Conference Finals, setting up the Jordan-Magic matchup in the Finals.
More importantly, the Lakers were depleted when they faced Chicago in the ’91 Finals. James Worthy and Byron Scott, two key Showtime cogs for LA, were fighting injuries. The Lakers never really had a shot: the Bulls took the series in five games.
And we’ve never put an asterisk next to Jordan’s first title. It was an immense achievement for the greatest player of all time, who, after his seventh season in the NBA, had forever shed the label that he was an all-time scorer, but not a winner.
Jordan cried like a baby after clinching the championship. “I’m numb,” Jordan said. “I don’t know what to do. I want to enjoy this, it’s such a great feeling. I’ve never been this emotional in public. When I came into this situation, we started from scratch. We started at the bottom and made it to the top. It’s been a long, long seven years. A lot of bad teams, a lot of improvement. Step by step, inch by inch. I never gave up hope. I always had faith.”
We still have a long way to go in the 2012 playoffs. But if the Heat can win it, LeBron will surely enjoy a similar moment. And he’ll deserve it. Nothing – not even an injury to a key rival – will take that away from him.