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NBA personnel see link between compressed schedule, rash of injuries

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Several NBA general managers and team health officials say the unorthodox and compressed schedule, attempting to make up games postponed due to COVID-related issues, has led to a rash of injuries around the league, with several teams fearing player health has reached a boiling point.

These concerns have been voiced in interviews with ESPN by a number of GMs, members of coaching staffs and athletic training staffers, though there is universal acknowledgment that the schedule is the byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Hands down, it’s the worst schedule I’ve seen in 25 years in the league,” said one veteran assistant coach. “It’s utterly insane.”

One veteran NBA head coach called it “brutal.”

One veteran NBA head athletic trainer said it’s far worse than the Orlando bubble.

“Going into the bubble, we had all these different anxieties about the games, but without travel,” the head athletic trainer said. “This is literally exponentially more difficult. It’s such a cumulative effect.”

Added one NBA GM, “I’ve never experienced anything like our injury spate.”

While drawing cause-and-effect correlations to injuries is complicated, a number of executives and team health officials point to the abbreviated schedule and say the two issues are, at the very least, related.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 2021 All-Stars have missed 15% of games this season, on pace to be the second-highest rate in NBA history. The only season that saw a higher rate was the 2014-15 season (16.8%).

“Every dumb soft-tissue [injury] that can happen is happening and will only get worse,” the NBA GM said.

“In planning both this season and last season, we have communicated on a daily basis with our teams and NBA players, agreeing on two very different season formats that each made sense as a way to continue operating safely during the COVID-19 pandemic,” an NBA spokesperson told ESPN. “Injuries have unfortunately always been a part of the game, but we have not seen a higher rate of injuries this season than last. We will continue to work with teams and players to complete our season in the best and safest way possible that promotes both physical and mental health during this challenging period.”

Citing internal data, a league spokesperson indicated that through 50 games, the number of injuries — defined as those that cause a player to miss at least one game — is lower than last season and within the range that the league has seen over the past five seasons.

Several team executives note that on at least one phone call before the season, GMs voiced these concerns to league leadership, including commissioner Adam Silver. Looming over the schedule was the intent to complete it before the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which is slated to begin July 21 and presented a hard deadline.

Before the season and throughout, fears about how this campaign would impact player health have simmered beneath the surface, these team executives and team health officials say. Yet the financial motivations to play, they say, such as honoring existing media contracts to bring in much-needed revenue and employing thousands across the league, remained the dominant driver. Before the season, the league sought to reduce travel by including more instances of teams playing the same opponent twice in the same city and more regional road trips, thereby attempting to eliminate and/or mitigate longer air travel. There were also efforts to reduce travel by limiting one-game road trips. (Citing internal data, a league spokesperson stated that teams have taken 15% fewer flights on a proportional basis this year and 25% fewer overall flights when factoring in the fewer games this season.)

In recent years, the NBA has modified its grueling schedule — one that has its teams typically notching more mileage flown than any other major North American professional sports league — to include more rest days. Such modifications included, among others, reducing or eliminating stretches of three games in four days, four games in five days and five games in seven days.

But during the season’s second half, the league has been forced to re-institute such stretches to compensate for games that were postponed due to COVID-related issues. (In all, a total of 32 first-half games across 27 teams were postponed.)

In the nine and a half weeks from the mid-March All-Star break through the end of the season, the Memphis Grizzlies are scheduled to play 22 sets of three games in four nights (including overlapping sets), the most in the league, according to ESPN Stats and Information. (Teams, on average, were scheduled to play 11 three-games-in-four-days stretches before the All-Star break. That number has risen to 13.9 post-All Star.)

From the All-Star break onward, several teams’ calendars are also loaded with sets of five games in seven days, especially the Grizzlies (8), San Antonio Spurs (7), Detroit Pistons (5), Houston Rockets (5) and Dallas Mavericks (5). (Over the first half of the season, teams on average played 1.1 of these sets. Over the second half, teams, on average, will have played 3.0.

The Miami Heat, for their part, went 51 days (Jan. 13-March 4) — and played 27 games — without more than one day of rest between games, the longest such streak since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, per Elias.

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, citing data provided by the league office, reported that the average number of games per week per team in the 2019-20 season was 3.42. The number increased to 3.6 in the 2020-21 season and has jumped to 3.75 post-All Star.

“Playing every other day for six weeks is a problem,” the first GM said.

To make matters worse, team executives and team health officials described a domino effect: backups, who aren’t used to increased workloads, having to play more minutes because of other players’ absences.

“We have defaulted to survival mode,” said a second NBA GM.

A key issue described by several team officials is the extensive COVID protocols that each team must follow, which includes daily COVID testing. Team officials say frequent early-morning testing, compounded with travel and the increased frequency of games, has taken its toll.

“There’s no rest and recovery anymore with the COVID protocols,” said the veteran NBA head athletic trainer, who added, “The travel, combined with the morning testing, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

The veteran athletic training staffer said, “[The players] walk down to the testing room like they’re 900-year-old men.”‘

A third GM, echoing sentiment felt among other league sources, also pointed to issues with false-positive test results, noting that they “require tremendous effort, often very late nights [until 3-4 AM] to contact trace, then scaring the s— out of people caught in the contact tracing web who then have a sleepless night, all to hear ‘oops, sorry’ the following morning.”

Numerous team executives and health officials also correlate the lack of competitive games to the abbreviated schedule. Per ESPN Stats & Information, more than half the games played this season (52.6%) have been decided by double digits, the highest rate since 1971-72. Several officials across the league have also voiced concern about the lingering effects from consecutive seasons with compressed and unusually short off-seasons.

The NBA Finals are scheduled to end July 22, with Summer League in Las Vegas potentially slated to take place in August, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe have reported. In March, during an All-Star Game Weekend news conference, Silver told reporters that he was “fairly optimistic” the 2021-22 season would return to the league’s normal schedule, which, if so, would lead to a October re-start — and a third consecutive shortened offseason.

“This whole two-year period will have a marked long-term effect on players many years down the line,” said the second GM. “It’s like if your power goes out. You have to burn candles if you want light. If you burn them, you won’t have them the next time your power goes out. We are burning through the players right now at an alarming rate. But again, what’s the alternative? 25-man rosters? Fewer games? It’s not just a ‘league thing.’ It all required collaboration with the NBPA. It’s a shared responsibility, driven almost exclusively by the seduction of [money].”

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Donovan Mitchell takes over, scores 45 to spark Utah Jazz rally in Game 1

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Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell didn’t feel well at halftime of Tuesday’s Game 1 against the visiting LA Clippers. He was a bit under the weather, feeling nauseated and a little light-headed. And he really felt sick about his performance in the first half.

“Yeah, I was definitely feeling it a little bit, but sometimes you’ve just got to dig deep into a different place,” Mitchell said after the Jazz rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit for a 112-109 win at Vivint Arena in this Western Conference second-round series. “I was getting my ass kicked individually in the first half on both ends of the floor. I wasn’t making the right reads. Luke [Kennard] hit a bunch of shots on me, Reggie [Jackson] hit a bunch of shots on me, and there were situations where I was being lazy and letting that fatigue kind of get to me.

“So I came into halftime and just said, ‘Look, I’m just going to have to find a way.'”

Mitchell made good on that vow with a spectacular second half, scoring 32 of his game-high 45 points. He scored on the Utah’s first four possessions of the third quarter — sandwiching a pair of step-back 3-pointers with a floater and a driving layup — and remained a dominant force attacking off the dribble the rest of the game.

“We knew that in the second half Donovan was going to come out aggressive and he did,” said Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who had 10 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks, including a win-sealing swat of Marcus Morris Sr.‘s corner 3 attempt with seconds remaining. “Obviously, he gave us a great lift, and he did a great job not settling for the jump shots but attacking them and putting pressure on them — finishing at the rim, drawing fouls, or kicking out for the shooters. When we play that way, I think that’s when we become really, really hard to guard.”

By taking over the game for the top-seeded Jazz, the 24-year-old Mitchell continued building his reputation as one of the NBA’s premier playoff performers. He ranks sixth in NBA history in career playoff scoring average (minimum 25 games) at 28.1 points per game and tied Karl Malone’s franchise record with his fourth 40-point playoff performance.

It was the third time Mitchell has scored at least 45 points in the playoffs, and he has played in only 28 career postseason games. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain had more such performances in their first 30 postseason games.

It also marked the third time that Mitchell has scored 30 or more points in a half during a playoff game, matching Allen Iverson for the most in the NBA over the last 25 years.

In this case, Mitchell heated up after a poor shooting first half, when he was 5-of-14 from the floor and the Jazz shot just 32.1%, missing 20 consecutive shots during one stretch. Mitchell finished 16-of-30 from the floor, including 6-of-15 from 3-point range.

“He’s not afraid to fail,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He’ll take the next shot. We want him to take open looks. If he misses a few of them, you know, they’re good shots. Keep taking them and keep attacking. That’s who he is.”

Mitchell carried an even heavier offensive burden than usual, handling much of the point guard responsibilities with fellow All-Star Mike Conley Jr. sidelined for the series opener due to a mild right hamstring strain. Mitchell said he got a feel for how the Clippers wanted to defend him during the first half, allowing him to be more aggressive in the second half.

“I didn’t do a lot of things right for my team in the first half and it really kind of ate at me,” said Mitchell, who also had five assists in the win. “It still does. I put my team in a certain position, and I feel like that it was on me to come out there and set the tone on both ends of the floor.”

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LA Clippers’ Paul George welcomes fan taunts, vows more ‘decisive’ play in Game 2

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Paul George stood at the line with 10 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in Tuesday night’s Game 1, Utah Jazz fans serenaded him with chants of “Playoff P!”

And with 1:37 left, the taunt of choice, and the loudest of the night, was an “overrated” chant that 18,007 fans echoed throughout a packed Vivint Arena. Jazz fans have been going at George since he played for Oklahoma City when the Thunder faced the Jazz in the playoffs in 2018.

George says he welcomes the taunts.

“I like it,” George said. “That part doesn’t get to me. It’s all respect. I’ve had good games here and I’ve had bad games here.”

He added: “That’s part of this game, to be honest. Crowd’s going to be involved. You want that. As an opposing player, you kind of want that.”

The All-Star guard missed 12 of his first 14 shots to the delight of Jazz fans but nearly helped the Clippers force overtime before dropping Game 1, 112-109, at Vivint Arena.

Despite shooting 4-for-17 overall, George scored 13 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter to go with 10 rebounds for the game. George scored seven points in the last three minutes, including a 3-pointer with 38.4 seconds left that helped cut a nine-point Jazz lead to three. But Marcus Morris Sr. couldn’t get a 3 off over Rudy Gobert at the end to send it to overtime.

Afterward, George said he knew what he did wrong and what to do in Game 2.

“Fact of the matter is, I didn’t shoot the ball well,” George said. “I thought I was indecisive on my approach. But I will be a little bit better on taking the shots that I want.”

George said the Jazz wanted the Clippers to take mid-range shots with Gobert roaming the paint but that he “can do a better job of setting those up.”

“The big fella is really good at just clogging the paint up and just sitting at the rim,” George said of Gobert, who had 10 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. “And a lot of plays I was just forcing myself trying to get to the basket where he’s there waiting for me. So I think just being decisive on approach of setting up, getting the shots that I want while he’s in those coverages.”

George stayed aggressive, going to the line 10 times. That’s where he heard it from Jazz fans. But he plans on continuing to play physical.

“It’s playoff basketball,” George said when asked about matching Utah’s physical play. “The physicality just has to be allowed on both ends, and I’ll leave it at that.”

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid ‘focused on winning,’ goes for 40 in Game 2 win

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid‘s night started with a loss and ended with a win in perhaps his most impressive playoff performance to date.

The Philadelphia 76ers‘ 118-102 Game 2 victory over Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday began shortly after the NBA announced Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic won league MVP honors, with Embiid finishing second. Jokic soundly defeated Embiid, with 971 voting points to Embiid’s 586.

That didn’t stop the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd, itching for a win after the Hawks took the series opener Sunday, from showering Embiid with “MVP! MVP!” chants all night long as he put up a career playoff high 40 points, along with 13 rebounds to tie the series at 1-1.

“It’s disappointing because as a player, you work hard for moments like this,” said Embiid, who in April said there was “no doubt” he should win the award. “But then again, it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. You just got to come out every year and just be ready and do my job.

“But I’m focused on the playoffs, I’m focused on winning the championship. Like I’ve been saying all season, we got a good chance. So I’m not worried about those awards and stuff. If and when I’m holding that [Larry O’Brien] Trophy, anything else won’t matter.”

Jokic was the first center to win the award since 2000 when Shaquille O’Neal earned it for the Los Angeles Lakers. Embiid is trying to be the first player to lead the Sixers to a title since 1983 when another center, Moses Malone, helped Philadelphia sweep the Lakers out of the Finals, coming through on his “Fo’, fo’ and fo'” declaration.

And he’s trying to do it without two healthy knees. Embiid was listed as questionable leading up to tipoff, as he’s still recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered in the first round against Washington.

“No excuses,” said Tobias Harris when asked about Embiid’s mindset. “He understands that. This is the playoffs. The way the NBA season was, I don’t think anybody is 100%. So, when he steps on the floor, he has that attitude and that mentality that it’s, ‘win.’

“As a whole group, we all have that tonight, but tonight, you just saw the dominance of him as a player.”

Harris also said Embiid’s defense was instrumental in keeping Trae Young in check in Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll coverages. The Hawks guard finished with 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting, 11 assists and four turnovers after controlling Game 1 with 35 points and 10 dimes.

“I’m trying to do the best I can, limited movement and all. I’m trying to be a better presence around the rim. Obviously not being 100% doesn’t help, but tonight I just wanted to be big,” Embiid said. “It’s tough because if I come up, they throw the lob. If I stay back, it goes with that floater.”

Beyond his 7-foot, 280-pound frame taking up Young’s room to roam, Embiid — known for his clever comebacks — tried to outwit the Hawks’ offense.

“Playing a game, you can call that, of cat and mouse,” he said. “Faking and going back. Just trying to keep them guessing.”

Embiid also had a pretty good hunch of his own before the game when he approached Sixers backup guard Shake Milton, who had just 17 total points in the postseason on 4-for-19 shooting coming into Tuesday.

“For some reason, I felt like he was going to be needed, so I told him before the game to get ready,” Embiid said.

Milton would go on to score 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting — even outscoring Young 14-10 in the second half — to help Philly break it open. He also helped erase the damage done by the Hawks’ bench in the first half when Atlanta’s reserves, led by Kevin Huerter (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting), outscored the Sixers’ subs 32-0.

“I love all these guys,” Embiid said. “[Milton is] one of them and I believe in all of them because I want to win it all, and I’m going to need them to do so. So I’m extremely happy for him.”

Embiid’s coach, Doc Rivers, was happy for the big man, knowing the look of an MVP performance when he sees one.

“It was awesome,” Rivers said. “I remember being on the other side of the night that David Robinson got the MVP and we had to play [Hakeem] Olajuwon. I was on that Spur team.”

Robinson received the trophy at center court before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals back in 1995. Then Olajuwon put up 41 points and 16 rebounds and the Rockets won by 10.

“That didn’t go well for us,” Rivers said. “Tonight, you felt like that was Joel. He was that magnificent.”

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