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NBA ring pursuit turns into survival of the fittest as superstars injuries pile up |  NBA News

The NBA champion this season will be the last team in contention.

Maybe literally.

Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers missed Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals with a sprained knee and fearing it could be a much bigger injury. Kyrie Irving of Brooklyn was sidelined by a severe ankle sprain.

Joel Embiid of Philadelphia plays through a tear in the meniscus. Trae Young from Atlanta puts heat packs on his shoulder that appear to be about the size of a small vehicle. James Harden from Brooklyn returned despite having a sick hamstring.

Stephen Curry, left, watches Denver Nuggets goaltender Jamal Murray (27) get help from the ground

They are big names, All-Star names, all nowhere near their best at the moment due to injuries, and there were plenty of other top players – the Lakers duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray of Denver and Miami’s Victor Oladipo among them – who also either limped until the end of their seasons or saw them end prematurely with serious injury.

“It’s the best time of the year for our league and our fans, but a ton of our favorite players are missing,” James tweeted Wednesday. “It’s crazy. If there is one person who knows the body and how it works all year round, it’s ME!

“I speak for the health of all of our players and I hate to see so many injuries this time of year. Sorry the fans wish you could see all of your favorite guys right now.”

Consider the 27 players who have been selected for the All-Star Game this season. Leonard becomes the eighth of those to miss a playoff game this season with injury, joining Davis, his Utah teammates Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, Harden, Irving and Embiid of Boston.

Phoenix’s Chris Paul could become ninth on this list. He’s not hurt. He’s in the protocols – that other thing the league has had to fight with all season.

NBA ring pursuit turns into survival of the fittest as superstars injuries pile up |  NBA News
Chris Paul grimaces on the floor following his shoulder injury in Phoenix Suns Game 1 vs Los Angeles Lakers

Even though the arenas are full and masks are now largely optional, the pandemic is still here and could have a say in how the rest of these playoffs unfold as well. Paul, who is vaccinated, entered protocols probably because of a positive test – only one player tested positive this week, and he is the only one on protocols. As such, his status for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals next week is unknown.

Another All-Star, another curve from the basketball gods overseeing luck right now.

“Our guys are up for the challenge,” said Phoenix coach Monty Williams. “Everyone’s facing it. Look around the league; Philly has a situation, the Clippers have a situation, Utah has been facing it for a while. Everyone’s been facing it.

“So we don’t feel like we’re the only ones facing a health situation and trying to stay healthy. That’s what you as a staff prepare for and as a team and we think our guys are up for whatever comes along. “

Some injuries, arguably, may have been due to an accumulation of wear and tear during a compressed 72-game season. Others were just shrill, the unlucky variety. Irving landing on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot and twisting his ankle had nothing to do with the Nets playing a bunch of back-to-backs this season. James suffered from a sprained ankle for the remainder of the season after being struck by Atlanta’s Solomon Hill. No more bad luck.

And it’s worth mentioning that injuries played a role in last season’s playoffs as well, and likely played in every season’s playoffs. Miami was without Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo for much of the NBA Finals last fall against James, Davis and the Lakers; the Heat lost this series in six games.

But it is clear that this regular season has been dominated by the pandemic and by injuries. It is unfortunate, albeit oddly fitting, that the playoffs are following suit.

In about a month, the NBA will have a new champion. Chances are, this will be the healthiest team the rest of the way.

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