|Who knows if Iman Shumpert might have avoided injury had the season not been shortened. (Getty Images)|
MIAMI -- On the first day of the NBA playoffs, carnage. What a shame.
It didn't have to be this way.
I don't mean to rain on the parade, but reality did a fairly good job of that all by itself Saturday. Derrick Rose did a routine jump-stop on his way to the basket in the Bulls' first-round opener against the 76ers and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Done. Done for the playoffs, and for the Olympics, if you care.
A while later, in the game I was watching at American Airlines Arena, the Knicks' Iman Shumpert was dribbling across halfcourt, and his left knee gave out. Those reporters who were seated near the court will have nightmares tonight when the sound of Shumpert screaming -- like the plaintive wailing of a sheep at the slaughter -- jolts them from their sleep.
Two playoff games, two hospital visits. Shumpert, whose knee already was swollen and foot pointed in the wrong direction as teammates Jerome Jordan and Josh Harrelson carried him off the court, is out for 6 to 8 months with a torn ACL and lateral meniscus. But the Knicks didn't need a doctor to understand that they'd be without their best defender for the duration of this series against the Heat -- and beyond, if there is a beyond, which there won't be.
The Bulls beat the Sixers 103-91, and never was there a more hollow victory. The Knicks got ambushed 100-67 in Miami, and not even Tyson Chandler lowering the boom on LeBron James with a shoulder to the upper back had them feeling any better about themselves.
In these situations, there is the inexorable desire to pin the blame on someone. Almost immediately after Rose went down, you could feel the knee-jerk reaction all the way in Miami -- where one local news outlet reported prematurely (but, as it turned out, correctly) that Rose was done for the year. But it's hard to contemplate something that infuriates me more than the notion that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau should've known better than to have Rose on the floor in a 12-point game with about a minute left.
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If you think that, then I would suggest hiring Thibodeau as your financial advisor and gambling consultant. While you're at it, have him fill out your Mega Millions card for the next drawing, too.
Freak injuries can happen at any moment in sports, to any player and without regard to the numbers on the scoreboard or the time left on the clock. They happen. They're part of the games we love.
To say that a coach should have the foresight -- no, the prescience -- to anticipate when an injury will occur and take the player who's about to be injured out of the game is preposterous.
Almost as preposterous as trying to squeeze 66 regular-season basketball games into four months, and cutting it so close to the bone that there's only one day of rest between that unimaginable abuse of athletic workmanship and the playoffs. (Abuse the players agreed to and signed up for, by the way.) And in the NBA, the playoffs are another season unto themselves -- perhaps the most taxing, two-month journey in American professional team sports.
So the NBA playoffs, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a sport that rebounded in remarkable ways from a 149-day lockout that threatened the entire season, changed immeasurably Saturday. Rose's injury, and Shumpert's, will come to mind every time a team has a big lead and a coach dares to leave able-bodied basketball players on the floor to carry it to its inevitable conclusion.
Case in point: I was thinking, and so were you, that it might have been a good time for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to call it a day for Dwyane Wade with Miami up by nearly 40 points early in the fourth quarter. James, who was brilliant Saturday with 32 points on only 14 field-goal attempts in three quarters, joined Chris Bosh on the bench for the entire fourth. But had Spoelstra benched Wade, too, at the start of the period, what if the Knicks had gone on a run and made it competitive? Spoelstra would've had to bring James and/or Bosh back in. You never know.
But the Heat maintained their dizzying dominance, and Wade went to the bench for good -- all his ligaments still in one piece -- with 7:09 left and Miami leading 91-59. So the Heat survived a cursed day of injuries in the NBA's 2012 playoff debut. Just know that every playoff coach preparing for a game this week is scared to death to be in Thibodeau's shoes.
So whose fault is this? Well, the irresistible urge to assign blame sometimes is an unfulfilling exercise.
Whatever fallout emanates from the lockout, I will always think back to Oct. 4 at the Westin Times Square. That day, the owners and players settled $1.6 billion of their differences and seemed on the verge of a new labor deal that would've allowed for a full, 82-game season under normal scheduling circumstances. But the dickering and intransigence continued -- on both sides -- and a week later, commissioner David Stern canceled the first two weeks. And as both sides became more dug-in, the games kept falling off the calendar.
They kept falling off until the owners and players got to the first day of the season that mattered: Christmas, the day that would jump-start the season and open the revenue spigot. Nobody wanted to lose Christmas, and Stern last week called the ability to save that marquee date "the single most differentiating factor" in how quickly and impressively the league recovered from this lockout.
By starting on Christmas, the NBA saved the first nationally televised game on the season on ABC. And while the league's broadcast rights agreements with the networks weren't finalized until March, according to a source, it was always clear that starting on Christmas would provide the most bang for the post-lockout buck. The labor deal finally was finished on Nov. 26, the drop-dead date for marrying the NBA season opener with the fat guy in the red suit.
But at what price?
"Guys complain when players take games off," said one Heat player who didn't want to discuss the topic publicly, "but now you see why."
Just as it's impossible to blame Thibodeau for Rose's injury, it's risky business to draw conclusions about whether two more games per month per team had anything to do with Rose and Shumpert's knees coming apart on Day 1 of the playoffs. Shumpert is 21 years old, in pristine physical condition and as vibrant an athlete as you'll see in the NBA. Rose couldn't have been victimized by the 66-game schedule; he only played 39 of them.
Then again, maybe that's why he only played 39 games.
Stern said he'll soon release statistics regarding the rate and duration of injuries this season as compared to others.
"The duration of our injuries is slightly down compared with last season," Stern said. "Although, games missed are up because coaches have been more cautious with returning their players to action."
And for good reason.
So all those who lambasted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for sending Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- not to mention himself -- home from the Spurs' last two regular season games, now you understand why he did that. After Saturday's events, Pop has to be at least half contemplating sitting them for Game 1 against the Jazz just to be safe.
Could Saturday's carnage have been prevented? Will there be more? Will the NBA playoffs, the crown jewel at the end of an ugly road that wound its way needlessly through luxury Manhattan hotels well into November, be ruined?
Hope not. And while it's pointless to assign blame, it's not out of line to wish that things had happened differently.