Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:56 AM
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Injuries Hinder East's Beasts
The basketball gods may try to be telling us they don’t care for the NBA dipping their toe into coach’s challenges.
That's as good a guess as any when trying to make sense of all the early injuries that have crept up on teams over the season’s first few weeks.
Players aren’t spraining their ankles with more frequency just because the season started earlier but it sure does seem like that’s going around the flu bug tends to this time of year. Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox suffered his late in practice on Monday and will be re-evaluated at the end of the month.
Toronto’s Serge Ibaka suffered his sprain on Friday night against the Pelicans. The Raptors were pressing forward without him and point guard Kyle Lowry in splitting a pair of games at Staples Center when Clippers’ shooter Landry Shamet was helped to the locker room in the fourth quarter of L.A.’s 98-88 win late Monday.
Boston’s Gordon Hayward broke his hand over the weekend, just as he was finally back to playing at the All-Star level he attained with Utah that earned him a max contract. Considering he suffered a horrific leg injury just over five minutes into his regular-season debut with the Celtics, casual fans were just starting to enjoy his skill set since he was a shell of himself last season as he recovered physically and struggled to regain his form. In wins over the Bucks, Knicks, Cavs and Hornets prior to sustaining his injury, Hayward made 40 of 64 shots (62.5 percent), which included a perfect 16-for-16 from inside the arc in a 39-point game against the Cavs. He averaged 23.3 points, nine rebounds and 6.3 assists and shot 38 percent from 3-point range. He looked like himself again.
On Monday, he underwent surgery to repair the fracture and will be out at least a month.
Of the top 11 teams in the Eastern Conference, nine of them are dealing with the absence of one of their top players. Only the Magic and Nets have avoided major disruptions to date, and we’re including Brooklyn because it knows its not getting Kevin Durant back this season.
The Raptors will rely on Pascal Siakam as their driving force with Lowry out and will be Fred VanVleet’s team to run. Norman Powell has moved into the starting lineup and Chris Boucher has performed nicely taking Ibaka’s minutes, which helped Toronto upset the Lakers as double-digit underdogs on Sunday. The war of attrition is starting early so while survival of the fittest doesn’t apply, we’re going to see who is most resourceful over the next few weeks.
Bucks’ All-Star Khris Middleton suffered a thigh contusion in Sunday’s win in Oklahoma City and has been ruled out 3-4 weeks. After breaking through and earning his first All-Star nod last season, he’s averaged 18.5 points and shot over 40 percent from 3-point range as the most important member of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast. The Bucks have failed to cover in three straight games entering Thursday’s matchup with the Bulls and will rely on Sterling Brown, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton on the wing to make up for Middleton’s absence.
Heat wing Justise Winslow, a difference-maker on both sides of the ball who is off to a tremendous start, has been out with a back issue. Winslow and Jimmy Butler have played all of two games together and have yet to do so well. Winslow shot 1-for-7 in a win over Atlanta two weeks ago in the first game they played and Butler finished a minus-23 in a 109-89 loss in Denver, shooting 3-for-12. There are a lot of cooks in Miami’s kitchen, but Erik Spoelstra needs to get those two going.
Blake Griffin made his season debut in Monday’s home loss to Minnesota and center Andre Drummond had his worst game of the season, finishing with season-lows in points and rebounds. He’d been averaging 20 points and an NBA-high 18 boards per game in playing with tremendous energy, so Pistons head coach Dwane Casey will need to make sure he remains as engaged as he’s been. Derrick Rose was also returning from a hamstring injury and started instead of coming off the bench, so you’ll probably want to see how all the pieces fit since there’s bound to be an adjustment period.
The Timberwolves defeated Detroit 120-114 despite the absence of ill point guard Jeff Teague and his backup, Shabazz Napier, out with a hamstring issue. Afterward, Rose criticized his team’s effort and wondered aloud if they wanted to work hard or get spanked every night. At least they have guys who care now. Following Tuesday’s visit to Miami, the Pistons will have plenty of time to develop chemistry through actual practices since they’ll play just one other game (Friday in Charlotte) between now and next Wednesday.
Indiana may see center Myles Turner return to action from his ankle sprain sometime this week since he’s been out all month since needing help off the floor 10 minutes into a win in Brooklyn on Oct. 30. Thanks to Domantas Sabonis stepping into the lineup, the Pacers have flourished in winning six of seven and have seen the ‘over’ go 3-0-1 over their past four entering Tuesday’s home date with Indiana.
Malcolm Brogdon’s ability to create easy offense in the pick-and-roll has helped overcome injuries to both Turner and new shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, who had looked sharp in averaging 17 points per game and scoring in double-figures in all five of his starts prior to spraining an ankle. Nate McMillan needed to develop some depth and has gotten increased run for the likes of Goga Bitadze, T.J. Leaf and the Holiday brothers out of necessity. Doug McDermott has been a force off the bench in helping overcome Lamb’s absence, which has turned Indiana into a team that relies on offense more than its defense. Once Turner returns, that may change given his shot-blocking and the likelihood the offense efficiency will decrease if Sabonis returns to a reserve role.
Ben Simmons suffered a shoulder sprain that the 76ers are rightfully being cautious with, so he may be absent all week as Philadelphia hits the road following Tuesday’s home date with the Cavs. Stops in Orlando, Oklahoma City and for a rematch with Cleveland on Sunday may require the Sixers to continue running offense through Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. Newcomers Raul Neto and Trey Burke have been playing at the point, but Philly lost three straight in Phoenix, Utah and Denver before returning home to defeat the Hornets and Sunday. The blew a substantial lead to the Nuggets in the fourth quarter to close out their disappointing and trip, but Simmons hadn’t been playing well late in games as is. Closing out contests will be a challenge Brett Brown will have to find a better answer for if his team is going to challenge for the Eastern Conference title as most expect.
Atlanta is relying on Jabari Parker as Trae Young’s pick-and-roll parker with productive results in attempting to survive John Collins’ 25-game suspension, so you can count on the former No. 2 pick to opt out of his current deal and secure a larger payday via free agency if he stays healthy.
Over the next month, making the best of it is all most of the Eastern Conference can do, so teams will be hoping guys step up as Parker has to make the most of their increased minutes. Boston has set the pace with eight straight wins entering Wednesday’s home date with the Wizards by overcoming Jaylen Brown being out of the lineup in addition to the season-long absence of projected starting center Enes Kanter, who is set to join the rotation. Brown is back as Hayward heals and the dance continues.
What’s going on with…?
A major piece to the puzzle of intelligently handicapping this NBA title race should drop this week since the Clippers are going to get Kawhi Leonard's preferred tag-team partner out onto the floor for his Clippers' debut. The wing whose acquisition from OKC secured Leonard's signature in free agency should play in Wednesday's visit to Houston or Thursday's trip to Oklahoma City.
Although I anticipate that we'll see George and Leonard alternate maintenance days during back-to-backs to ensure at least one of them is out there playing catalyst, it makes most sense to see them out on the floor together early in their partnership, so it will be interesting to see how Doc Rivers handles this quick road trip. The Clippers return to Staples Center on Saturday for a date withthe Hawks and will spend all of next week in town thanks to a five-game homestand that will help George sink his teeth into playing in front of friends and family in his hometown. Look for L.A. to be a double-digit favorite against the Hawks and Thunder prior to more challenging games against the visiting Celtics and Rockets.
The Pelicans' forward was scratched on Monday night after not feeling right in warmups, leading to him being scratched from an eventual loss to the Rockets. He's averaging nearly 26 points per game and has scored efficiently despite New Orleans struggling to secure wins, so they're going to be catching a lot of points with games against the Clippers, Heat and Trail Blazers coming up.if he misses substantial time. Ingram appeared to hyperextend his knee in the final minute of Saturday's win in Charlotte but he carried no injury designation into Monday's game against Houston before being scratched.
Jrue Holiday has started too slowly to trust to help carry the Pels without Ingram in tow, especially with Lonzo Ball still out due to an adductor strain injury and Zion Williamson probably still another month away from his debut. It's getting late early for those who felt the Pelicans would be a playoff team.
Draymond Green returned from a finger injury and ultimately got himself thrown out of a frustrating loss to Utah arguing calls, so he's clearly working through his frustrations right now. The Dubs went on a 3-1-1 ATS run before suffering Monday night's blowout loss thanks to the return of D'Angelo Russell, Alec Burks and Willie Cauley-Stein. I don't think we'll see Stephen Curry again this season, but Green needing to keep his competitive juices flowing should signal that you need to exercise caution before blindly fading this group like you were right to early in the season. They're attempting to defend now. If Kevon Looney is able to retun and provide another rim protector, there's a chance that a 60-loss season can be avoided.
Injuries to Monitor
That there's still a need for this space despite this column being mostly about injuries tells you all you need to know about the NBA's current state because only items that haven't been covered will appear here. Shamet's sprain looked like one that could linger, so George's return may not affect anyone's minutes early if he just inherits Shamet's. Rodney McGruder checked in when the sharp-shooter went down to keep Rivers' rotations intact, so he may see some action... Fox's injury is extremely unfortunate since Sacramento has struggled out of the gate after losing Marvin Bagley early. Bogdan Bogdanovic is likely to see more action and offseason acquisition Cory Joseph will probably start until Swiper returns, but the Kings' preferred pace and defensive intensity is likely to be affected... The Blazers have seen Rodney Hood be compromised by back spasms and are hoping that the foot sprain center Hassan Whiteside is playing through doesn't become a bigger issue but they've seen kids Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little respond to increased roles. Mario Hezonja has also been relied upon as a small-ball four... Rockets starting forward Danuel House has been productive all season but fell hard on his back in the team's last game and is banged up. There's no word on the severity yet... Charlotte rookie P.J. Washington suffered a mild ankle sprain against New Orleans in the same game where Ingram tweaked his knee, so he may not be as explosive for the Hornets as they open a manageable streatch against the Griz, Pistons and Knicks this week.
Games to Watch
Tuesday - Hawks at Nuggets
We'll see if a third straight Nikola Jokic game-winner is neceassry, which is entirely possible since Denver has been playing down to its level of competition and has only covered a spread once in its last six games entering this one. The Nuggets opened as a 12-point favorite but have only looked dominant at Pepsi Center once. They narrowly beat the Suns in their home opener, lost to Dallas, blew out Miami and were down big vs. the 76ers before their late rally. The Nuggets squandered a large lead of their own on Sunday before Jokic's fadeaway winner over Karl-Anthony Towns prevented a second OT. Despite not looking particularly sharp, Denver opens the week on a four-game winning streak.
Wednesday - Clippers at Rockets
Hopefully we see George here, teaming with Leonard against fellow L.A. natives James Harden and Russell Westbrook. We've all been good and deserve this. Harden is averaging 37.3 points per game entering this nationally-televised Western Conference clash, the highest scoring ouput through 10 games over the past 50 years. Harden scored 39 vs. the Pels to surpass Michael Jordan's mark of 36.9 set in both '86 and '88.
Thursday - Mavs at Knicks
Kristaps Porzingis comes through Madison Square Garden for the first time but isn't going to be bringing much positive momentum into his return after stinking it up at TD Garden in Monday's loss to the Celtics. If he and Luka Doncic can get it going here and turn the arena against the Knicks via boo birds, there's a good chance David Fizdale won't need to be at work on Friday morning since he's being set up as the fall guys for New York's awful start..
Friday - Jazz at Grizzlies
Mike Conley has already confessed he'll likely need tissues for this one as he makes his first visit to Memphis in a Jazz jersey. The veteran point guard is the Grizzlies' all-time leader in a number of categories and will undoubtedly get a standing ovation. He's been playing much better of late, displaying improved chemistry with Rudy Gobert, who rightfully demanded the ball more last week.
Saturday - Blazers at Spurs
LaMarcus Aldridge has overome his slow start and will look to get the better of Whiteside and his former team, but San Antonio has unexpectedly been no sure thing at home early on. The Spurs will bring a 4-3 record at AT&T Center into this one after being upset as a double-digit favorite by Memphis on Monday despite a packed house for Tony Parker's post-game jersey retirement ceremony.
Sunday - Hawks at Lakers
The Lakers may have Rajon Rondo back by this point, but I'd expect Avery Badley to get the bulk of the time at the point against Trae Young. Count on L.A. being favored by at least 12 points considering the young Hawks will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back after facing the Clips the previous night. Considering they'll be spending Saturday night in L.A. in between games, the number might end up being closer to 15.
Friday - Wizards at Timberwolves
Count on seeing another one of these totals that approaches 240, but Minnesota has seen Andrew Wiggins take a step forward to start the season and the Timberwolves have scored 120 or more points in three of four entering Wednesday's home game against the Spurs. Washington has surrendered over 120 points in their last two road contests entering Wednesday's visit to Boston and lost 131-109 when the T'Wolves came through D.C. on Nov. 2. Ride the high side here, but be sure to lock in the best number and monitor line moves.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA