No matter the sport, we often see players elevate their game during the playoffs. The stakes are at their highest in the postseason and great players have defined their careers during these times.
We’ve seen over the years that players will do whatever it takes to help their team achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship. Sometimes, these moments include playing through various injuries or illnesses. Some injuries that players have battled through are more significant than others, but it just goes to show that some guys really will do whatever it takes to help their team win.
Of course, one of the most iconic moments in NBA history occurred in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals when Michael Jordan scored 38 points – playing the entire game with the flu. It’s one of the many moments that has defined Jordan’s career. One of the most popular models of his shoes are the red and black Jordan 12’s that he wore that game – the “Flu Game” 12’s.
During this season’s playoff run, two players have already exhibited their toughness after playing through ugly injuries. In Game 6 of the first-round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, Austin Rivers took an elbow to the face in the first quarter and had to get 11 stitches. The remarkable thing about the incident was Rivers returned to the game midway through the second quarter and would finish with 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds despite his eye being essentially closed shut. Although the Clippers weren’t able to avoid elimination that night, many left that game impressed with Rivers’ toughness. He earned the respect of his teammates, his competitors and NBA fans as well.
Just last night, Miami HEAT point guard Goran Dragic was hit with an elbow in the mouth and would end up receiving three stitches on the inside of his lip and five stitches on the outside of his lip. The team said Dragic’s bottom teeth went through his lip when the contact was made. He finished the game with 20 points (on 8-of-12 shooting), four rebounds and four assists. Dragic even knocked down a clutch three-point shot with 10.5 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
After seeing Rivers and Dragic suffer through some painful injuries this postseason, we began wondering about other players who have played through injuries during the postseason. Here are several players, in no particular order, who had some memorable performances while hobbled on the court in recent memory (2010 and later):
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics (dislocated elbow) – 2011 Eastern Conference Finals
Perhaps one of the most difficult highlights to watch is the play in which Rondo’s elbow is dislocated. The injury happened in Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami HEAT.
Rondo is guarding Dwyane Wade near the three-point line and then the two became tangled together and crashed onto the court. Rondo landed awkwardly on his left arm and immediately knew something was wrong.
It took several teammates and Celtics trainers to pick Rondo up off of the court and walk with him back to the locker room. Based on the agony Rondo was in following that play, it would seem reasonable that he would miss the remainder of that game and probably even the rest of the playoffs.
Rondo surprised everyone, including his head coach, and returned to finish out the game just minutes later. By the time the Celtics were done announcing that Rondo would miss the rest of the game, he was already back on the bench and ready to return to the court. He would end up having his elbow popped back into place and put in a wrap back in the locker room.
Rondo finished the game with six points (four points after the injury), 11 assists and one steal. That game would be the Celtics’ loe win that series, as the HEAT eliminated them in five games, but Rondo proved his toughness to everyone watching that night.
Dwyane Wade, Miami HEAT (kneecap) – 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals
There is playing through a knee injury, and then there is playing through the type of knee injury that Wade had in 2013. He’s gone through his fair share of knee injuries over the years, but this one seems like one of the worst.
Wade dealt with knee problems throughout most of the regular season, and vowed to play through the pain if he could. He missed some time toward the end of the regular season, but came back for the playoffs when everything was on the line.
The HEAT called Wade’s knee injury just a bruise and said MRIs revealed nothing structurally wrong. Wade followed up with that and added that he actually had three different bruises in his knee and then offered up his solution for dealing with the pain.
While his knee needed to be taped underneath a pad, Wade said he was actually using the tape to position his kneecap in a way that’s less irritating.
“When you have a [bone] bruise, you try to move the kneecap over so it won’t rub,” Wade said at the time. “When you get into game sweat, you have to re-tape it a bit.”
It’s highly unlikely that many doctors or trainers would ever advise a person to re-position the kneecap at any point, let alone re-positioning it while playing basketball in the NBA. But, that’s exactly what Wade did that season and the HEAT would eventually win the championship that year.
Wade only missed one game that entire postseason run and still managed to play at a high level level throughout. While some may argue that Wade may not have needed to play through that injury with LeBron James and Chris Bosh also on the team, Wade still proved to be crucial to the team winning the championship.
John Wall, Washington Wizards (fractured wrist) – 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals
During last year’s playoffs, the Washington Wizards suffered a huge blow to their postseason chances after it was announced that Wall suffered five non-displaced fractures in his right wrist.
The injury happened in the second quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. Wall is seen driving to the rim and then takes a hard fall to the court. He stayed down on the ground following the play and was tended to by the Wizards training staff. He would stay in the game and lead the Wizards to a 104-98 win after finishing with 18 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal.
The interesting part about his injury was X-rays after the game showed no breaks in his wrist. Wall was told he suffered just a sprain, but his wrist swelled up after Game 1, causing him to miss Game 2. Wall returned to Washington and the non-displaced fractures were revealed.
Wall would miss Games 3 and 4 before returning for Games 5 and 6. The series was tied at two games apiece when Wall returned in Game 5, but it seemed as though the Hawks had all of the momentum after Wall’s absence.
The Wizards were 5-0 during last year’s playoffs before Wall’s injury and seemed to be rolling at the right time. Had he not been injured, the result of that series could have been altered dramatically.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (Flu) – 2011 NBA Finals
In Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki managed to lead the Mavericks to a victory over the Miami HEAT, which tied the series at 2-2. This was a pivotal game and the Game 4 victory would help Dallas go on to win the championship over the heavily favored HEAT, giving Nowitzki the lone NBA title of his career.
Nowitzki led Dallas with 21 points and 11 rebounds in that crucial Game 4, but the most impressive thing about his performance is that he played through a serious flu. At one point, he had a fever that spiked to 102 degrees during the game.
Nowitzki came up huge for the Mavs throughout the contest. But he was particularly effective during the fourth quarter, scoring 10 clutch points (and working hard for each of his baskets).
This was an exhausting game for Dirk, but he (somehow) led Dallas to the win. At the time, many people drew comparisons between his performance and Michael Jordan’s iconic flu game.
Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls (Flu) – 2013 Eastern Conference First Round
Speaking of the flu, Robinson’s effort during the first-round of the 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs was impressive. With no Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng, the Bulls were relying heavily on Robinson (and several other role players) against the Brooklyn Nets.
There had been a flu virus going around the team as Robinson and Taj Gibson were both sick during this game. In fact, Robinson was so sick that he was seen on the bench during timeouts with a trash can in between his legs as he vomited.
Robinson played 42 minutes during that game and recorded 18 points, four assists and two rebounds for the Bulls. The Brooklyn Nets would hold off and win that game, forcing a decisive Game 7 back in Brooklyn. While the Bulls lost Game 6, they were able to pull out the Game 7 win to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Robinson proved to be a key player during the Bulls’ playoff run that season and showed everyone his determination and willpower by battling through a bad case of the flu. Perhaps the most impressive part about that Game 6 performance was that he played nearly the entire game with an upset stomach.
Chris Bosh, Miami HEAT (abdominal strain) – 2012 Eastern Conference Finals
Over the past week or so, Bosh reportedly tried to return to the court for the HEAT during this season’s playoff run. Of course, Bosh has missed nearly the past three months after suffering from blood clots for the second time in a year.
The team announced on Tuesday that Bosh will officially miss the rest of the postseason after everyone involved agreed that he shouldn’t play basketball again this season.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen Bosh try to play amid health concerns. Back during the 2012 playoffs, Bosh suffered an abdominal strain during Game 1 of the HEAT’s second-round series against the Indiana Pacers. He would go on to miss the remainder of that series, and the first four games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics.
The HEAT said Bosh would be out for an indefinite amount of time, but he would end up returning to the court just three weeks later. Recovery time for an injury of that magnitude can take up to several months to fully heal and is one that impacts just about every move a player makes. Bosh’s decision to come back three weeks later proved to be a huge boost for the HEAT.
Boston held a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6. In Bosh’s second game back, the HEAT managed to win to force a Game 7 back in Miami. He played in 31 minutes of that game and scored 19 points (on 8-of-10 shooting) and grabbed eight rebounds as the HEAT won to advance to the NBA Finals.
The HEAT would go on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to claim the NBA championship. Bosh averaged 14.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game during the Finals. The injury would prevent Bosh from playing with Team USA that summer, and only added to his legacy in the NBA.
While there have been plenty of moments throughout the years of athletes playing through extreme injury, the players mentioned above all sacrificed in one way or another.
From Jordan’s flu game to Karl Malone playing through a torn MCL in the 2004 Finals, there have been plenty of moments in NBA history where players made big sacrifices for their team.
Did we leave anyone out? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
NBA AM: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.