2020 NBA Playoffs

Missing pieces: Injuries taking toll on playoff teams

Gordon Hayward joins Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook as notable absences

ORLANDO, Fla. — Two months into this bold basketball experiment at Disney, and two days into the playoffs, comes the most curious statistic:

No players lost to positive COVID-19 tests, three impact players lost to injury.

The NBA has done everything possible to prevent the intrusion of a virus and is clearly winning that contest in a blowout. Meanwhile, there is no defense against the nature of sports, which is why Russell Westbrook was a scratch Tuesday from the Rockets-Thunder opener and the Celtics-Sixers series became further damaged when Gordon Hayward joined Ben Simmons on the shelf.

All three of those injuries happened here in Orlando, and that’s either a coincidence or a byproduct of a season that took a four-month hiatus. The bigger issue is how those injuries are affecting those teams, both now and in the next rounds if any are fortunate to survive and move on.

The latest was Hayward, who took a nasty spill out of bounds Monday and limped off the floor with what was later diagnosed as a Grade 3 right ankle sprain and is estimated to be out about 4 weeks. His time off might be extended because Hayward’s wife is expecting their fourth child and is due next month.

“To see the agony on his face after he fell, I was terrified,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “I thought it was the same ankle that he hurt last time — but it wasn’t. Now we lose one of our guys. It’s tough to see anybody go down especially when you’re someone who’s playing great basketball and the team needs you.”

Four weeks would be the start of the Eastern Conference finals; at the very least, Hayward will miss the Philly series and the next if Boston advances.

The injury is a reflection of Hayward’s time in Boston. Following a serious broken ankle injury that cost him a year, Hayward broke his hand last November. That benched him for a month, yet Hayward played consistently well right until the pandemic halted the schedule. And now, this.

“It’s really tough for him, obviously tough for us, too,” said coach Brad Stevens. “He’s played really well. It’s one of those freak things that happen in basketball all the time. It’s our job to make up for all the great things he does.

“He’s bummed as you can imagine. He put in a lot of time and effort. We’ve been fortunate in the bubble about injuries and then the playoffs start and now this. We’ve lived this before and we’re going to have to have other people step up.”

The Celtics are among the more deeper teams and can survive this better than others, but only if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown stay on a consistently high level. The two young swingmen combined for 61 points and played solid defense in the Celtics’ Game 1 win, and Boston is seeing the benefits of their developing chemistry, which took a leap before the season was halted.

He’s bummed as you can imagine. He put in a lot of time and effort. We’ve been fortunate in the bubble about injuries and then the playoffs start and now this. We’ve lived this before and we’re going to have to have other people step up.

Celtic coach Brad Stevens

That’s a tough matchup for anyone because both players have similar skills, move well without the ball and can create their own shots. The Celtics feel comfortable with either player taking big fourth-quarter shots, giving the club a touch of unpredictability and flexibility in close games.

This is especially heightened against the Sixers, who are without Simmons because of a knee injury suffered during the seeded portion of the restart schedule. Simmons will likely make the All-Defensive team because of his 6-10 height, quick hands and an equal ability to protect the perimeter and the rim. He can also disrupt passing lanes and did a credible job against Tatum this season.

“Even without Ben we have a team that’s capable,” said coach Brett Brown. “Ben’s demise is punishing. What it means is you’ve got to go down to other players. It leads into a lot of other things, the group effort and the game plan’s got to be precise. You don’t have the wiggle room of a misstep or a mistake. I see it that simply. That’s how I see the lack of having Ben.”

The Sixers clearly suffered Monday without Simmons, and therefore this playoffs series, which traditionally ranks among the NBA’s best over multiple decades, loses luster and likely suspense as well, even if Joel Embiid is the best player on the floor.

“I still like the spirit of the group,” Brown said. “I believe we have enough depth and talent to do great things in the playoffs. We’re very reliant on a togetherness, on Joel, on a well executed game plan.”

The Rockets are in a better place with Westbrook, whose quad injury isn’t playoff-threatening. He sat Tuesday’s game and isn’t projected to rejoin the Rockets until Game 3 at the latest. That’s a temporary inconvenience for the Rockets in what should be a tight matchup with Oklahoma City, Westbrook’s former team. It places a heavier load on the rotational players who support James Harden; suddenly, those players might be forced to take big shots when Harden draws double-teams, and Westbrook’s work on the glass must also be replaced.

“We all know how much he means to us,” said Harden. “We feel confident we can get production from others until he gets back.”

No matter where the series stands, once he heals they’ll obviously welcome him back. Westbrook came into the restart riding his finest stretch with the Rockets, averaging 30 points, eight rebounds and seven assists between January through March.

Meanwhile, the Pacers are also playing without a crucial starter; Domantas Sabonis left Orlando shortly after he arrived to treat plantar fasciitis and is out. Much like Sixers-Celtics, the Pacers’ matchup with the Heat was evenly-matched before his injury. Without him, and after Victor Oladipo was lost midway through the game with an eye injury, the Pacers had few late-game options against Jimmy Butler and Miami and lost as a result.

Then again, the Magic shocked the top-seeded Bucks with Aaron Gordon out with a sore hamstring and Jonathan Isaac done for the playoffs following knee surgery.

For the short-term, Orlando managed quite well. Yet the playoffs are a marathon, even on a neutral floor, and the journey seems even longer for teams with major missing pieces.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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