#1 Golden State Warriors Vs. #8 New Orleans Pelicans
Two MVP-caliber players lead their teams in what could be an exciting first-round matchup. Unlike the previous two seasons, the Warriors enter the playoffs healthy and ready to make their run at a title. Their regular season success allowed first-year coach Steve Kerr to judiciously manage minutes and hand out days off. As a result minutes played were down for key contributors like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as well as veterans Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. Curry logged nearly 200 fewer minutes than last season despite appearing in two more games.
Bogut’s health remains the key as he’s limped through Golden State’s previous two postseason disappointments. In 2012-13, he received Toridol injections in order to play though a painful ankle sprain and he missed all seven of last season’s first-round matchup with the Clippers nursing a fractured fifth rib. While he did missed 12 straight games in the early part of the season with chondromalacia and tendinitis in his right knee, Bogut has avoided the injury bug and will man the middle against Anthony Davis. Reserve David Lee did sit the regular season finale with a lower back strain and is questionable for Game 1.
The Pelicans were able to outlast the Thunder and secure the eighth seed largely in part to better health. However that doesn’t mean they were injury-free. Davis missed 14 games with a laundry list of injuries, including a left ankle sprain, an acromioclavicular (AC) sprain, and a sprained big toe. Backcourt mates Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon combined to miss 63 games with injuries of their own and Ryan Anderson missed 18 games with a significant medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain in his right knee. However they enter the postseason with every player available.
The lack of back-to-backs in the playoffs should help New Orleans, particularly Holiday. The former All-Star is still working his way back after missing 46 of 47 games due to a stress reaction in his surgically repaired tibia. Holiday’s defense will be a necessary component of the Pelicans’ attempt to slow the Golden State juggernaut.
#2 Houston Rockets Vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks
The fact that the Rockets secured the second-seed in the West despite losing 180 games to injury is a major part of James Harden’s compelling case for league MVP. The total is second only to the Bucks for games missed amongst playoff teams and includes 37 games lost for All-Star center Dwight Howard.
While the record is impressive, it will be interesting to see if the demands of carrying a team catch up to Harden in the postseason. No one in the NBA played more minutes than the three-time All-Star and he will continue to dominate the ball with Patrick Beverley out for the rest of the year with a wrist injury. The Rockets will need Howard to step up and assume a bigger role but that comes at the risk of aggravating his troublesome right knee. A healthy Howard is even more important to the Rockets with reserve Donatas Motiejunas out following a lumbar discectomy to relieve lower back pain. It’s also worth noting the team’s depth took another hit when rookie KJ McDaniels suffered a non-displaced fracture to his right elbow in the final game of the regular season.
Houston’s in-state rival has injury concerns as well with a familiar face from the Mavericks atop the list. Former Rocket Chandler Parsons missed Dallas’ final six games of the year with reoccurring soreness in his right knee. He remains on track to play in Game 1 and will have to shake off any accumulated rust quickly.
Reserve point guard Devin Harris is also questionable to start the series after hyperextending the big toe on his left foot. This case of turf toe required a cortisone injection to combat the inflammation but is fortunately unrelated to the previous toe problems that forced him to miss 41 games last season.
Coach Rick Carlisle attempted to keep his players’ minutes down over the course of the season even when injuries did occur. Former Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki played less than 30 minutes a game for the first time since his rookie campaign and has shown signs of life down the stretch. Point guard Rajon Rondo’s integration into the team was slowed by a facial fracture and the team struggled when Monta Ellis played through a painful hip injury. However both guards appear healthy and enter the postseason looking to elevate their numbers.
This Texas tussle should be fun to watch with plenty of story-lines shaping the narrative. The Rockets remain the favorites but injuries could help shift the series towards an opportunistic Mavericks squad.
#3 Los Angeles Clippers Vs. #6 San Antonio Spurs
Two of the top three team considered favorites in the tough Western Conference will square off in the first round after the Spurs lost to the Pelicans on the last night of the season. Limited early in the season by injuries to Kawhi Leonard (sprained hand), Tony Parker (hamstring), and Tiago Spliiter (calf), the suddenly healthy Spurs ran through the second half of the season on a 30-11 tear. Head coach Gregg Popovich was once again able to limit his player’s playing time with Leonard the only Spur to average more than 30 minutes a game. The rest should help fuel their title defense moving forward.
Unfortunately even the Spurs and their elite medical staff aren’t immune to late season injuries as Splitter is once again having problems with his right calf. He missed the team’s final six games of the season with tightness in the muscle complex. Splitter’s calf has been an off-and-on problem for a while now and has cost him 40 games over the past five years, including 27 games this season alone. Splitter needs to be healthy to help control Los Angeles’ monster frontcourt of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.
The Clippers currently have their injury problems under control but have several players with potential red flags. Former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford is still working his way back from a severe calf contusion that needed to be drained. The injury sidelined him for 16 consecutive games and he has clearly struggled since returning. In his four games back from injury, Crawford shot 27.8 percent from the field, including 21.1 percent from behind the arc. Griffin’s elbow also remains a concern. While the staph infection that forced him out of 15 games has cleared, the lingering bursitis will remain an issue. If he gets hit in the area, he could be dealing with a painful and limiting injury.
The series promises to be a tight one with both the Clippers and Spurs playing at an elite level. As a result, one legitimate title contender will be staring at a first-round exit and a lengthy summer to tend to their wounds.
#4 Portland Trail Blazers Vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies
Once thought to be serious title threats, the Blazers and the Grizzlies limp into the postseason. While both teams have succumbed to the injury bug as of late, it’s Portland that has more to overcome. The Trail Blazers lost their the sharp-shooting defensive specialist when Wesley Matthews crumpled to the court with a torn Achilles. Arron Afflalo replaced Matthews in the starting lineup but lasted just 19 games before straining his shoulder. His availability entering Game 1 remains unknown. Second-year guard CJ McCollum emerged down the stretch after missing 14 games in November and December with a fractured index finger. However McCollum is now managing a sprained ankle and he too remains limited. Starters Nicolas Batum (knee) and LaMarcus Aldridge (foot and both thumbs) are expected to play but are less than 100 percent. Factor in Dorell Wright’s fractured hand and Chris Kaman’s balky back and it is easy to understand why Portland is considered to be the underdog in the series.
That being said, Memphis isn’t exactly a model of good health at the moment. Despite finishing with the fewest lost games to injury among Western Conference playoffs teams, the timing with injuries is everything. Guard Tony Allen missed the final nine games of the regular season with a left hamstring strain while Mike Conley missed the final four with right foot problems. The Grizzlies have classified Conley’s injury as foot sprain but reports of plantar fasciitis have also emerged. This is a very limiting injury, especially for a guard dependent on his speed. If Conley is at all affected by the ailment, look for Damian Lillard to have a big series.
Injuries aren’t limited to the backcourt as Marc Gasol sustained a sprained left ankle in a late season matchup against the Clippers. He gutted through the team’s final two contests but will need to be mobile to handle Aldridge and Portland’s Robin Lopez. Jeff Green’s back is also an area of concern though he has yet to miss a game.
The winner of the series may want to do so quickly in order to rest their wounded in anticipation of a likely second-round matchup against the Warriors.