Around these parts Joel Embiid reigns supreme. The Sixers superstar drilled perhaps the biggest shot of his career helping Philadelphia take a 3-0 series lead over their boogeyman, the Toronto Raptors. Joel has been seen favoring his ankle, elbow, and his thumb at points during a vicious first round series that feels more like a Final Four intensity-wise. Thankfully, the Sixers boast a mostly clean bill of health and will get an extra day off before Game 4 Saturday.
Around the NBA not every top-tier contender is as fortunate as Philly. The two teams who had been favored to win their respective conferences coming into the playoffs, the same two groups who met in the NBA Finals a year ago, have both suffered key losses.
Bucks star Khris Middleton suffered an MCL sprain in Wednesday’s loss to the Chicago Bulls. According to Dario Melendez of WISN 12 News, the max-level forward is now facing a 3-4 week absence:
That’s a devastating blow to the defending champs. They suddenly find themselves in a tough matchup against the upstart Bulls led by DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan finished Game 2 with 41 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal, sealing a 114-110 road win. As the series heads to Chicago, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday will have even more weight on their shoulders than they already did. The Bulls were regarded as one of the softer matchups heading into round one, but they still have two All-Star perimeter players in DeRozan and Zach LaVine. If the Bucks want to give Middleton a chance to return they’ll need to win at least this series and maybe even the next.
That news appears to have shaken up the Eastern Conference power rankings a bit. According to Draft Kings the Boston Celtics are now +215 favorites to win the East, the new Conference favorites.
If Giannis can go supernova and help them advance, they’d likely be shipping up to Boston shorthanded. Remember when many felt they tanked at the end of the regular season to foist Brooklyn upon the Celts and take the softer Bulls matchup for themselves? That decision could come back to haunt them.
Out west there was a shakeup as well. Devin Booker, the leading scorer on the league’s best regular season team, the Phoenix Suns, has suffered a Grade 1 hamstring injury. According to Adrian Wojnarowski the Kentucky product could miss up to three weeks.
Book’s hamstring issue leaves Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and DeAndre Ayton in a bind. The Suns dropped Game 2 in the desert to the visiting New Orleans Pelicans. Brandon Ingram went ballistic in that one, taking a superstar-caliber leap. BI’s 37 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists delivered the harmless-bird themed group a big win and home court in what’s now a very intriguing series.
The Pelicans’ arena was rocking during the Play-In tournament so it won’t be easy sledding for the Suns to survive sans D-Book. You have to feel for CP3, still chasing that elusive first ring. There will always be weirdos who insist CP3 isn’t as good as he really is until he wins one:
JJ Redick is so fed up on First Take— Tony Clements (@TonyCMKE) April 20, 2022
“[Bob Cousy] was being guarded by plumbers and firemen” pic.twitter.com/qOAkLEEUgd
Suddenly it’s the Golden State Warriors and no longer the Suns who are favored to win the West per Draft Kings. (Imagine if they’d drafted LaMelo Ball over James Wiseman too?) But if the Suns can advance, and Book can get back by Game 4 of round two (vs. one of the Jazz or Mavs) they might actually be able to survive this.
One top-five superstar who was already on the shelf is Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Dončić. Luka missed Games 1 and 2, and Dallas was lucky enough to split with the Utah Jazz, fueled in Game 2 by Villanova product Jalen Brunson’s 41 points.
The Slovenian sensation has a calf strain and is trying desperately to return but there’s “still significant pessimism” on that front per Woj:
There's still significant pessimism on Luka Doncic's availability for Game 3 tonight, sources tell ESPN. He's eager to play, but it's trending unlikely as he recovers from that left calf strain. https://t.co/Qodn0Fuuyc— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) April 21, 2022
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will have a far easier time taking care of business at home if Luka remains out.
We’ve also been keeping an eye on the Ben Simmons situation. Sound familiar?
Man, can you imagine how badly the Brooklyn Nets wish they had James Harden back now? The Beard could have helped Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and co. avoid the Boston Celtics in round one, by pushing them to a higher playoff seed. If Harden was in their lineup during Game 1 they might have avoided their fate when Jayson Tatum hit a buzzer beating layup to beat them. Brooklyn now trails two games to none and they’re hoping Simmons (who still hasn’t played this season) can return in the nick of time to help them stave off elimination.
Brooklyn Nets three-time All-Star Ben Simmons plans to make his season debut in Game 4 vs. Boston on Monday as long as rehab remains on course, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Simmons is set to play his first game since June 2021.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) April 21, 2022
We’re not sure what to expect from Simmons, who has not played at all since the fateful Game 7 vs. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks during the 2021 Playoffs. We’re not even sure if he’ll really be back.
But if the runner up Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 had simply been available at 65 percent for the final play of the game vs. Boston in Game 1, that might have been enough to steal home court from a now surging Celtics squad. There should be no doubt that Simmons could help these Nets if he were magically healthy, not even among us Sixer fans. What the Nets need most is someone to simply force and contest isolation pull ups, rebound and spark transition looks for KD and Kyrie. We know Ben can at least do that if he’s physically fit. Too often these Nets have lineups with combinations of smaller players who offer zero resistance defensively.
Injuries have played an enormous factor in determining NBA champions over the years. Kyrie Irving’s knee in 2015, Chris Paul’s hamstring in 2018, Kevin Durant’s Achilles and Klay Thompson’s knee in 2019, a slew of ailments to key players in 2021... part of hoisting the Larry O.B. is winning that inevitable war of attrition. And that may be no different here in 2022.
The Sixers are healthy at least. But even we Sixers fans can appreciate the pain a rival fanbase feels hearing this stuff about Luka, Book, or Khris. You come all this way and dude’s out for how long? We’ve said this for years now but it’s still true. The regular season is too long. Stars would be able to play at 100 percent far more often, be fresher for the playoffs, have longer careers, and disappoint less ticket-purchasing fans by surprise load managing if the regular season were trimmed down to 60 games or so.
Nick caught it. Joel drained it. Stay healthy my friends.