2024 NBA Finals

10 critical injuries that impacted the NBA Finals

From Bill Russell's ankle in 1958 to Kevin Durant's Achilles tendon in 2019, injuries have long been a factor in the Finals.

Kevin Durant is helped off the court after tearing his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals

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DALLAS — Injuries dominated Tuesday’s off day at the 2024 NBA Finals, with both the Celtics and the Mavericks grabbing headlines for ailments of star players.

The question now is whether those or other injuries will dominate the championship series itself.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic reportedly received a pain-killing injection that enabled him to play in Sunday’s Game 2 despite chest, knee and ankle issues. The Mavs’ star playmaker, so wrapped in bandages and hot/cold packs, had looked like a mummy shortly before the game. It was noted that Doncic might need another shot to play in Wednesday’s Game 3 (8:30 ET, ABC).

Boston’s Kristaps Porzingis, meanwhile, faces an even greater physical challenge. The Celtics released a statement explaining that their 7-foot-2 center suffered a torn medial retinaculum in his left leg, allowing dislocation of the posterior tibialis tendon in the third quarter of Game 2.

While not related to the right calf strain that cost Porzingis 10 playoff games, including the Cleveland and Indiana series, this one was termed “rare” by the team. His availability on Wednesday and beyond is considered day-to-day.

Said Porzingis: “I don’t know the specifics. But that’s something I’ll leave in the medical staff’s hands to determine whether I can go or no. But from my side … nothing is going to stop me unless I’m told I’m not allowed to play.”

Doncic may play through his myriad ailments and Porzingis’ left leg won’t sideline him the way his right one did. Still, there is a lengthy, limping history in the Finals of injuries playing prominent and even pivotal roles. Here are 10 of them:

Bill Russell’s ankle, 1958

The injury: Russell, Boston’s NBA MVP center, sprained an ankle deep into Game 3 against the St. Louis Hawks.

The impact: Boston went 1-2 with Russell in the first three games. It tied the series 2-2 in the first one he missed, then lost Game 5 by just two points. In the Game 6 clincher, Russell lasted only 20 minutes, putting up eight points and eight rebounds in a 110-109 loss.

The legacy: The Celtics failed to defend their 1956-57 championship, but they would rebound to win the next eight in a row and 10 of the next 11. Hall of Famer Bob Pettit scored a legendary 50 points with 19 rebounds in Game 6 but has had his achievement unfairly asterisked by some because of Russell’s injury.

Jerry West’s hamstring and Wilt Chamberlain’s knee, 1969

The injuries: West battled through a hamstring strain to help the Lakers reach Game 7 against Boston, playing with a heavily wrapped left thigh. Later that night, Chamberlain landed awkwardly with a rebound and hobbled out with a bruised knee.

The impact: Few players in league history racked up more injuries than Jerry West. The NBA logo modeled after him probably should include an Ace bandage. He scored 42 points with 13 rebounds and 12 assists in defeat and averaged 37.9 points and 7.4 assists for the series. Chamberlain’s knee calmed down and he wanted back in with two minutes left, but coach Butch Van Breda Kolff infamously told him, “We’re doing fine without you.”

The legacy: West was named Finals MVP, the first to win the new award and to date the only winner from the losing team. But he and Chamberlain carried around the burden of Game 7 (Russell’s final appearance and title) until they won together in 1972.

Willis Reed’s thigh, 1970

The injury: Reed, center and captain for the New York Knicks, suffered a torn right thigh muscle in Game 5 against the Lakers and didn’t play in Game 6.

The impact: The Knicks turned a nasty negative into a profound positive when Reed limped through the tunnel at Madison Square Garden before Game 7. He had taken pain-killer injections, which enabled him to drag that leg up and down long enough to score four points. Then guard Walt Frazier took over with 36 points and 19 assists to beat L.A. for the title.

The legacy: New Yorkers still tell their grandchildren where they were when they watched or heard of Reed’s stalwart move. With the championship, he added Finals MVP to his All-Star and regular season MVP awards. He spoke for so many gamers when he said, “I didn’t want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s ankle, 1980

The injury: Lakers center and NBA MVP Abdul-Jabbar stepped on Sixers guard Lionel Hollins’ foot in the third quarter of Game 5.

The impact: The Lakers held their big man back from the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6, hoping to buy time if the series returned to L.A. Only it didn’t — rookie Magic Johnson jumped center in Abdul-Jabbar’s absence and posted 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in what became the clincher.

The legacy: Few remember that Abdul-Jabbar returned to Game 5 for the fourth quarter and scored 14 of his 40 points while playing through the pain of his heavily taped ankle. He averaged 33.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.6 blocks, but Johnson’s Game 6 performance made him the only rookie to win Finals MVP.

Isiah Thomas’ ankle, 1988

The injury: Thomas, Detroit’s point guard, rolled his right ankle in the third quarter of Game 6.

The impact: Thomas already had scored 14 points in the third quarter to nudge the Pistons closer to what might have been their group’s first NBA title. After getting hurt and leaving briefly, he returned to score 11 of Detroit’s final 15 points in the quarter for an 81-79 lead. But lunging around on one leg proved not to be a winning strategy. The Lakers won by a point, then took Game 7 against a limited Thomas.

The legacy: Detroit’s “Bad Boys” might have strung together a three-peat with a 1988 title preceding the ones they did win in ’89 and ’90.

Byron Scott’s and Magic Johnson’s hamstrings, 1989

The injuries: Scott suffered a torn hamstring in a Lakers’ practice before the Finals. Johnson strained his left hamstring in the third quarter of Game 2.

The impact: Scott never participated in the Finals and Johnson tried in Game 3 but lasted only five minutes.

The legacy: These Finals flew by, largely perfunctory as Detroit swept. Abdul-Jabbar retired afterward. And it turned out that Johnson and the Lakers’ “Showtime” crew was done winning rings. A lesser version returned to the Finals in 1991, only to lose in five games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Patrick Ewing’s Achilles, 1999

The injury: Ewing partially tore his left Achilles tendon in the Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana.

The impact: The Knicks survived against the Pacers but were outmatched in the Finals against a San Antonio team anchored by David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The Spurs won in five games for their first NBA championship, with Duncan named Finals MVP.

The legacy: Everything about that 50-game season, cut short by the labor lockout, felt rushed. Except for the pace — in the five Finals games, only the Spurs scored as many as 90 points and they did it just once. Ewing, a Hall of Famer, retired without a ring.

Kendrick Perkins’ knee, 2010

The injury: The Celtics center landed awkwardly in the first quarter of Game 6, suffering a right knee sprain.

The impact: Further tests revealed that Perkins had sprained both his medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament. Any hopes for him to play in Game 7 evaporated, and Boston had to use 35-year-old backup Rasheed Wallace for nearly 36 minutes. It led by three heading into the fourth quarter before Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol combined for 19 in the fourth to the Celtics’ 22.

The legacy: Bryant was named Finals MVP for the second consecutive year, the Lakers defending their 2009 title. Boston coach Doc Rivers still sang the praises of his team, noting that the Celtics were never eliminated with its starting five (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Perkins) intact.

Kyrie Irving’s knee, 2015

The injuries: Irving fractured a kneecap in Game 1 against Golden State in Oakland.

The impact: Losing Kevin Love to a dislocated shoulder in the first round was tough enough for the Cavaliers. But having Irving’s postseason end in the Finals opener left LeBron James relying on guard Matthew Dellavedova and center Timofey Mozgov as his primary help. The Warriors beat them in six.

The legacy: It still took a strategic adjustment — moving Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for the final three games — for Golden State to prevail. Iguodala was voted Finals MVP but James made a terrific case in defeat, averaging 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg.

Kevin Durant’s Achilles and Klay Thompson’s knee, 2019

The injuries: Durant lasted 12 minutes in Game 5 in Toronto before feeling his Achilles rupture in the second quarter on an attempted crossover move. Thompson went up for a dunk in Game 6, took contact from Danny Green and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The impact: No one should besmirch the Raptors’ championship, but plenty of Warriors fans believe their team would have won its third consecutive title if not for the loss of two stars. Durant began the series sidelined by a calf strain, and his subsequent Achilles tear is one reason NBA teams are extra careful now with calf injuries. Thompson had been held out of Game 3 with a sore hamstring.

The legacy: Neither Durant nor Thompson played at all in 2019-20, both needing lengthy rehab. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard became the third player named Finals MVP with multiple teams, joining Abdul-Jabbar and James.  Warriors coach Steve Kerr, meanwhile wondered if his team paid a hefty price for its postseason success. “I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear,” Kerr said, “but it’s devastating.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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