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Which NBA Playoff Teams Can Overcome Their Injuries?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Jared, Dre, Louis … we are back with another NBA chat, and I feel like we have to start with what’s probably the biggest story in the playoffs so far: injuries. Every matchup in these conference semifinals has had to deal with the loss of at least one star player, and the recent knee injury to Kawhi Leonard even prompted an impassioned Twitter thread from LeBron James addressing the injury crisis. Unfortunate injuries to big-name stars during the most crucial part of the NBA season happen every year, but why does it feel different this season? Has something really changed?

zatzman (Louis Zatzman, FiveThirtyEight contributor): To answer the second question, I think something has changed, yes. Katie Heindl wrote a piece for Dime about the increased frequency of soft tissue injuries, and I think there was a sense that injuries were up.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the change in schedule this year really had a bigger effect on players than the league thought it would.

These players are on pretty consistent schedules regarding their offseason workouts and everything. And the change in that, especially for the teams making deep postseason runs, is showing. 

zatzman: So in a sense, this is just an expansion (magnified, obviously, because of the stage) of an issue that already plagued the regular season.

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The NBA’s internal injury review, released in April, said that injury rates were slightly down this year, and the league’s statement responding to LeBron claimed that the injury rate was in line with that of recent seasons. But it has certainly seemed all year like there were more injuries — and that those injuries were more concentrated among star players — and a recent ESPN.com piece found that to be the case. So, I’m not sure what to think other than it’s really unfortunate that we are missing a lot of the best players in what should be the best games of the year.

zatzman: Which speaks to your first question, Tony, about why it feels different. My guess would be because the players suffering injury seem to be the stars.

dubin: And that some of the injuries are happening during the playoffs. Chris Paul was clearly hobbled during the first round, plus James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Jaylen Brown and now Leonard have missed games, and some will continue to miss time. 

tchow: I guess I’m trying to parse if we just got really unlucky this season with who got injured, or if COVID-19 and the 72-game schedule meant this was inevitable. Basically, who is right? LeBron? Or the league because it clearly didn’t see this as surprising compared to other seasons?

dubin: Maybe this is a cop-out, but I feel like it’s probably both? Maybe injury rates were similar or only slightly up, but it also feels like this was destined to happen given the compressed season and realities of a pandemic.

zatzman: Whether or not it’s a surprise doesn’t change the reality that the playoffs are different now. Paul George and Kevin Durant both had monster performances this week when missing co-stars, but those incredible games don’t change that the teams that were favorites aren’t anymore.

dubin: The FiveThirtyEight model seems to disagree with you on that one! (I’m skeptical of the Kawhi-less Clippers against Phoenix unless Paul has to miss time due to COVID-19, but the Nets should have enough time to get healthy if they can win Game 7 against Milwaukee.)

I think Conley’s injury has been underratedly impactful, by the way. It’s tough to see the Jazz struggling as much offensively with the Clippers’ switching if they had a second switch-attacker on the court and Mitchell didn’t have to do all of that by himself.

dre.waters: I wanted to talk about Conley’s injury too, Jared, since we didn’t know much about it during the last chat. And he was a huge part of their game defensively! They needed his help as PG and Reggie Jackson were going off.

dubin: Apparently he had a setback between Games 2 and 3, when Utah was already up 2-0. That’s really unfortunate timing. 

zatzman: I completely agree that Conley’s absence has been huge for Utah. Not only is he important as an initiator and defender, but his presence has also correlated with Rudy Gobert being at his best, too.

dubin: It’s taken away both the Conley-Gobert partnership and the Joe Ingles-Derrick Favors partnership, because Ingles isn’t coming off the bench and is matched with Gobert instead.

tchow: Do we see a way for Utah to come back and win the next two here? The FiveThirtyModel gives the Clippers a 67 percent chance to advance, but they won Game 5 due in large part to a great George game, and they will still be without Kawhi for at least Game 6, if not the remainder of this series.

zatzman: Utah’s been a threshing machine when everyone is healthy, but it’s a delicate machine. Take out one part, and the rest doesn’t function nearly as well. The same isn’t true of the Clippers, who do have role overlap between Leonard and George to such an extent that they can play much the same way without one or the other, it seems.

dre.waters: I don’t know how to feel about saying this, but I kinda agree with what Charles Barkley said after Game 5. I think the Jazz will probably win Game 6 in L.A. And because I have #PickIntegrity, I’m going to say they take Game 7 in Utah, LOL.

tchow: Wow, Dre. Going against the model. I love it.

zatzman: Pick integrity is scarce these days, Dre. I’m impressed. But is it the only reason you’re picking Utah?

dre.waters: Well, I picked them before I knew Conley would be out this long. So it’s definitely a factor. But I think Kawhi being out gave the pick a little life again.

dubin: I was pretty shocked the Clippers won with no Kawhi in Game 5. Shout out to George. That was a badass performance in a must-win spot, from a guy who routinely gets derided for playoff performances despite having a bunch of awesome ones on his resume. Everyone likes to focus on the bad games for that guy, for some reason.

tchow: I’m glad you brought that up, Jared. I never understood the Pandemic P or Playoff P negative moniker that got taped to him. Dude can ball.

dre.waters: I think the problem is that he gave himself the nickname. If someone else gave him the name on-air or something, it might have been received better.

dubin: In fairness, calling him Pandemic P or Way Off P or Day Off P was funny.

dre.waters: LMAO

Day Off P is hilarious.

dubin: But we should be able to make fun of guys and still acknowledge that they are Actually Good.

dre.waters: Absolutely, Jared. But you know … the internet.

zatzman: He’s earning Playoff P now! It’s been his best playoff run ever, other than maybe the two years he went to the Eastern Conference finals with Indiana. Quietly, beneath Kawhi’s ridiculous playoff run, George has been keeping up. The Clips have been at their best with George initiating, not Kawhi, so Game 5 shouldn’t have been such a surprise given how George has looked.

dubin: A lot of people tend to just focus on the shooting numbers with George and, because he’s a streaky shooter, there can be some ugly lines. But he does so much other stuff.

tchow: With that said, though, I feel like the Clippers will need another similar performance from George to finish off the No. 1 seed. What adjustments do you think Utah coach Quin Snyder will make to prevent that from happening?

dubin: Personally, I think the Jazz should try making shots instead of missing them. And like, not just in the first quarter.

dre.waters: AGREED, like they don’t know my pick is on the line.

zatzman: I actually like the way they played Game 5. Trapping George isn’t a bad idea in theory, which they did in spots, but Marcus Morris played one of his best games, and Reggie Jackson was great too. I think Utah has to trust the process there. Also, what else can they do? They don’t have a lot of other styles or matchups to turn to.

dubin: Conley being able to play would help a lot, obviously. And Mitchell playing more within the flow than trying some of the more hero-ball-y stuff he has these last few games. He’s not going to hit pull-up threes at the rate he did in Games 1 and 2 every game.

Something that really stands out, also, is that their perimeter defense is not quite as solid as it seems when Gobert is erasing every inch of the paint. Against a Clippers team that doesn’t get there very often anyway, the perimeter issues stand out more. 

zatzman: Agree with that, Jared. Mitchell has to learn to pick his spots a little better, even when he has the ability to hit anything. Funny enough, that’s a skill George has in spades.

dre.waters: While we’re mentioning the Clippers-Jazz series, I think the Suns couldn’t have been happier with last night’s outcome. The series may go seven games, giving CP3 more time to get back and potentially face the Clippers without Kawhi.

dubin: Cameron Payne! Terance Mann! It’s the Western Conference Finals on (I think) TNT!

tchow: 😂

I promise we’ll talk more about the Suns when we chat about the conference finals, but let’s continue with the series that are still ongoing and move to the East. I’m still not sure how Philadelphia ended up losing Game 5, but what do the Sixers need to do to win the next two games, besides not doing what they just did?

dre.waters: Like Jared said about the Jazz, they’ve got to hit some shots.

I know this was a pretty popular topic the other night, but I’ll restate it here: Nobody outside of Embiid and Seth Curry made a shot in the second half

dubin: Their crunch-time offense seems to exclusively involve Embiid driving into a crowd and trying to draw a foul or Tobias Harris shooting a late-clock fadeaway, and that does not seem like a recipe for success.

I’m not sure it’s this simple, but I do think more Shake Milton would help. He’s the one other guy that Doc Rivers trusts who can actually create off the dribble, which it doesn’t seem like Ben Simmons can late in games right now. Even like a Milton-Simmons pick and roll for variety’s sake seems like something that could work. 

zatzman: I know this is hard to prove statistically, but I think the Sixers need to go bowling or something. Get out of their own heads. Simmons shot 4 of 14 from the free-throw line in Game 5! They’ve blown two big leads. They’ve proven they can win if they stay confident, but they lose confidence so easily. Which is another reason Milton is important — that guy will never lose confidence.

tchow: Oh wait! Before we go any further, I have a really important question. Hack-a-Simmons: Do we love it or hate it? (As both a strategy and as a fan.)

dubin: Thanks, I hate it.

zatzman: As a fan, I like it once. Maybe twice. There’s drama in it happening in spot moments. But that drama can leak out of the moment QUICKLY. As a strategy, I hate it. It flattens what’s happening.

dre.waters: I respect it as a strategy, but I don’t like it.

dubin: Strategy-wise, it only makes sense if you’re also going to play your best possible offensive lineup. Which I think the Hawks kind of did in Game 5, given how Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari were playing in comparison to Bogdan Bogdanović and Kevin Huerter.

tchow: I think the fact that the Hawks came out of that with a win really complicates this. I hate the hack-a-player strategy anytime it’s used. But the fact is that they won the game, so I don’t think Hawks fans care how they did it.

dre.waters: And if I’m the Hawks, I don’t feel bad about using the strategy. it’s the playoffs, gotta win by any means necessary.

dubin:

dre.waters: 😂

dubin: Are we also going to have The Larger Existential Ben Simmons Conversation, because I really feel like people are taking it way too far.

tchow: Please elaborate.

dubin: I probably should not care what People On Twitter are saying, but there’s a lot of, “You can’t win with Ben Simmons” out there. We should be able to acknowledge that he is having a bad series — and has flaws that need to be accounted for — without immediately leaping to, like, “Ben Simmons is a fraud.”

His lack of a jumper is an issue. So is his inability to hit free throws, and his unwillingness to be aggressive down the stretch. He’s also a 24-year-old All-Star who is 6-foot-11 with otherworldly floor vision and Draymond Green-style defensive versatility.

It’s his third ever trip to the playoffs. I think people need to just calm down a bit. (I do think that if people want to have the, “Maybe he’s not a point guard” conversation, that’s worth having at this point.)

zatzman: I completely agree with that. But if the Hawks win another game using hack-a-Simmons, he shouldn’t be immune to criticism. “You can’t win with Ben Simmons” is too far, obviously — the guy is a star. But Game 5 was tough to watch for a few reasons.

dubin: I also just really, really dislike the idea of, “You can’t win with [insert player X here].” You can win with anyone in the right context, with the right amount of luck. People used to say that about guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, even LeBron James. We should have learned by now.

tchow: In the wise words of Dre: “But you know … the internet.”

zatzman: A little bit of everything, all of the time. 

dubin: Simmons is absolutely open for criticism! A point guard who can’t and/or won’t shoot is an issue in 2021, plain and simple. Let’s just not pretend he’s not good at basketball, is all.

zatzman: Absolutely. And Ben Simmons has a top-10 net rating in the playoffs! 

dubin: Anyway, I look forward to getting clowned on when he goes 0 for 3 from the field and 2 for 11 from the line in Game 6. Should be fun.

tchow: All right, before we wrap, we really should touch on the Brooklyn-Milwaukee series after the Bucks forced a Game 7 by pretty much dominating all of Game 6. We knew this series was going to be a close one, even though it didn’t feel that way at first. So anyone brave enough to predict how Game 7 will go? What will each team do to make sure they win the deciding game?

zatzman: Brooklyn needs to play as slow as possible. Minimize possessions (and turnovers), nothing in transition for either team, and hope that Durant’s wizardry is more consistent than anything Milwaukee can muster in the half-court. Milwaukee has proven that it’s at its most disruptive playing small. Giannis Antetokounmpo is best at contesting Durant pull-ups, and his guarding Brooklyn’s screener lets Milwaukee switch without conceding anything and indirectly run on the break. So pace, I suppose, is the key for both teams. 

dubin: I agree with those respective strategies, for the most part. Although if Irving is able to play, things obviously change for the Nets. Harden looked a lot better in Game 6 than Game 5 (despite the fact that he was very clearly managing himself and essentially refusing to sprint at full-speed), so if he makes the same amount of physical improvement before Game 7, that potentially changes things quite a bit as well.

For Milwaukee, Jrue Holiday should try to overpower Joe Harris and Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown, or blow past Blake Griffin and Jeff Green, when he draws one of them on a switch, instead of taking a stepback three. Giannis not taking a single three again would be a good idea, too. And (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more Pat Connaughton and less Brook Lopez would probably help, if Lopez is going to continue hanging on the perimeter on offense and playing drop coverage on defense.

zatzman: As far as predictions go, because Dre’s #PickIntegrity was so inspiring, I’ll hang onto Milwaukee.

dubin: As for the Finals, I think I’ll stick with my pick of the winner of Nets-Bucks winning it all. Milwaukee might actually be the healthiest team left at the moment, and Brooklyn should eventually get back to full strength if it can advance. (Although I am not 100 percent sure I’d trust the Bucks against the Sixers, if Philadelphia wins the other Eastern Conference series.)

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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