NBA’s Biggest Playoff-Altering Injuries
Oklahoma City’s chances to take down the Miami Heat as NBA champions this season took a major hit when guard Russell Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus and had surgery over the weekend.
Though not the most devastating injury ever, it ranks right up there with the worst of them over the past quarter century, in terms of ruining a team’s chances for the title. Here’s where it ranks among the five worst for teams that had the highest aspirations of winning it all:
5. Magic Johnson/Byron Scott of Los Angeles in 1989 (injured in NBA finals): In 1989, the two-time defending champion Lakers were trying to be the first to “three-peat” since Boston in the 1960s and were off to a blazing start having swept Portland, Seattle, and Phoenix en route to the finals where they would face Detroit—which they beat the previous year.
Coach Pat Riley, ever the innovator, opted for two-a-day practices before the finals to keep his team sharp. However, starting guard Byron Scott injured his hamstring in practice before Game 1 and then superstar guard Magic Johnson injured his own hamstring in Game 2 and just like that the Lakers were swept themselves.
4. Kevin Garnett of Boston in 2009 (entire playoffs): The Celtics, after swinging trades for Garnett and Ray Allen prior to the 2008 season, won 66 games and the title that year and looked well on the way to defending it in 2009 when Garnett went down with a knee injury in February.
The Celtics, which still won 62 games that year, got a tease when he returned for a few games in late March. It wasn’t until just before the playoffs started though that Garnett was ruled out. Boston still won a rousing seven-game opening round set against Chicago (an absolute classic series featuring seven overtimes) before falling to Orlando in seven in the conference semifinals.
The following season, with a healthy Garnett, Boston made it all the way to the finals before losing center Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 (an injury that just missed this list) and then the series in seven to Los Angeles.
3. Chris Webber of Sacramento in 2003 playoffs (second round): A somewhat forgotten injury, the Kings had been building something special in Sacramento for several years with Rick Adelman as coach and a talented cast led by Webber—their only problem had been the L.A. Lakers. Los Angeles swept a 55-win Kings team in 2001 in the second round and then somehow got past a 61-win Kings squad the following year in one of the greatest series ever.
But the three-time defending champion Lakers would fall in the second round in 2003 to the Spurs, leaving the West wide open. The Kings, winners of 59 games that year, took care of Utah in five games in the opening round and won the opener in the conference semifinals against Dallas before losing Webber in Game 2 to a torn meniscus.
Sacramento, without it’s biggest weapon, would valiantly take Dallas to seven games before falling. They haven’t been close to a title since.
2. Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City in 2013 playoffs (first round): With the defending champion Heat on such a roll this year, only one team had roundly been considered a possibility to dethrone them—a healthy Thunder squad. But those dreams were dashed last weekend when Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury.
Last season the Thunder (with a healthy Westbrook) fell to a more-experienced Miami team in five games in the finals. The two teams were expected to meet there again this season. Though the Thunder unloaded super sixth-man James Harden just before the season began, they won at a higher clip this season than last year and with revenge on their minds, probably had a shot against LeBron James and company.
Now Miami’s path just got easier.
1. Derrick Rose of Chicago in 2012 playoffs (first round): Though Oklahoma City met the Heat in last year’s finals, it was a 50–16 Chicago Bulls that were widely expected to give a 46-win Heat team all it could handle in the postseason—until reigning MVP guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the first round against Philadelphia. A devastated Bulls squad was then unable to even make it past the eighth-seeded Sixers without Rose and the Heat marched to the title.