NBA stars struggle to stay healthy after comebacks
Kawhi Leonard’s return from a knee injury was supposed to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to the top of the conference. Instead, the Clippers are off to a 2-4 start and Leonard, who is on a minutes restriction, has already missed four games with knee stiffness.
Anthony Davis entered the season as a The Los Angeles Lakers X factorsaying last month that his “personal goal” was “to play 82 [games]” after two injury-plagued campaigns. The eight-time All-Star made it to just the fifth game before a recurring back injury sidelined him for the Lakers’ fifth straight loss to open the season.
In Portland, Damian Lillard’s return from abdominal surgery helped the Trail Blazers get off to an unexpectedly fun 5-1 start. However, Lillard suffered a calf strain in his fifth game that could sideline him for two weeks.
Zion Williamson’s season-long recovery from a foot injury gave the New Orleans Pelicans hope for a deep postseason run. Before Halloween rolled around, Williamson had already injured his ankle in a preseason game and suffered a hip contusion during the opening week, though those setbacks haven’t slowed the Pelicans.
Denver’s Jamal Murray has finally reunited with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic after an 18-month absence due to knee surgery. To keep Murray on track, however, the Nuggets sat him out immediately for the second game of the season and have carefully limited his minutes.
While these five teams range from hopeful contenders to likely lottery fare, they’ve all been stuck on the same emotional roller coaster: One minor setback can turn a star’s long-awaited return into uncertainty confusion that can destroy carefully laid plans and keep trainers. , teammates and unbalanced fans.
Take the Clippers, who were respectable in Leonard’s absence last year and loaded up with veteran talent to prepare for his return. During the 2020-21 season, Leonard averaged 24.8 points per game, nearly posted 50/40/90 shooting splits (field goal percentage/three-point percentage/free throw percentage), and he led the NBA’s third-ranked offense. This year, with Leonard in and out of the lineup, the Clippers have been completely out of sorts, ranking 29th in offense and suffering back-to-back losses to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even with Leonard, the Clippers have struggled to integrate his isolation style into their pass-happy offense. In fact, the Clippers sometimes seem like two different teams in the same quarter: a slow-down, mismatch crew with Leonard and a three-point attack once he goes to the bench.
At the start of last season, the Clippers were able to settle into defined roles and build their own momentum knowing Leonard would be out for months. This year, the Clippers have lacked focus and verve, seemingly hampered by their uncertain availability.
“We’re walking everything offensively, and when we do, it’s going to be hard to score,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after a dismal showing in Sunday’s 112-91 loss to the Pelicans. “We’re not a good basketball team right now.”
The Lakers’ early struggles can be attributed in large part to their poor outside shooting, but there’s also a pins-and-needles vibe to pretty much everything Davis does. While the 29-year-old forward has consistently impressed on the defensive end this season, he has repeatedly held his back during games. When Davis missed his first game last week, LeBron James said, “When his mind goes, then everything else falls by the wayside. He’s got to trust himself.”
Late in the Lakers’ 121-110 home win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, Davis was in so much pain after a dunk that he had to sit down during his exit interview. He later said he had come to terms with the fact that his back would be a “day-to-day” concern.
“Mentally, I’m in a great space,” he said. “Clearing my mind and making sure I stay locked in, doing all the work. I had a great summer. I’m not going to let that stop me.”
The Lakers have little hope of making the playoffs without a healthy Davis, just as the Blazers collapsed without Lillard last season. But gritty Portland has gotten impressive contributions from 23-year-old guard Anfernee Simons and rookie guard Shaedon Sharpe this season, which have helped quell the panic surrounding Lillard’s first setback. Simons hit a gorgeous jump hook to seal an overtime win over the Phoenix Suns last week, while Sharpe, 19, has already compiled an impressive reel of high-flying dunks.
Similarly, the Pelicans have overcome Williamson’s absences thanks to a deep, young and energetic roster, with highlights from Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado. However, Williamson made his presence felt immediately in his return from a back injury, posting 21 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in just 31 minutes against the Clippers on Sunday. Williamson will be an All-NBA selection if this level of overall production continues.
“Glad to have him back,” laughed Pelicans coach Willie Green. “When he touches the ball, he makes the right play. Whether it’s a goal for him, finding his teammates, or sending him off. He played a little bit of base to take advantage of the mismatches.”
Meanwhile, the Nuggets are sandwiched between the Lakers, who can’t go without Davis, and the deeper Pelicans. Jokic’s consistent excellence has allowed Denver to slow Murray’s return, and scoring forward Michael Porter Jr. and scout Bones Hyland have helped bring the game back.
But the Nuggets still have issues to work out: Their defense has been inconsistent, they’re working through several new rotation players and they’re missing starters aside from Jokic, Murry and Hyland. When Hyland was a late scratch against the Lakers on Sunday, Denver struggled to keep pace offensively. Remarkably, Denver was outscored by 24 points in the 16 minutes Murray was on the bench.
Still, Denver coach Michael Malone, who chastised his team’s “embarrassing” defensive effort, could see the bigger picture. Murray scored a season-high 21 points in a season-high 32 minutes against the Lakers and exuded confidence as he drilled the kind of tough jumpers that made him. famous in the bubble of 2020. Heavy initial doses of caution and patience will pay off in the playoffs, when the Nuggets will need Murray firing on all cylinders.
“It was good to see him get into a rhythm, find his shot and see the ball come in at a pretty high rate,” Malone said. “Every game Jamal plays is an opportunity for him to get in shape, find a rhythm for himself and find a rhythm playing with his teammates.”
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