Joe Johnson’s eye socket. Raja Bell’s left calf. Steve Nash’s bloody nose. All those injuries happened at the worst possible moment of an inspiring playoff run, and all ended Mike’s chances of putting the NBA Finals, and maybe even a championship ring, on his resume.
Now, D’Antoni has to deal with it again.
Last night, just as his Houston Rockets broke through for an incredible win over the defending Champs to take a 3-2 series lead, his most important player fell to the court like he was shot.
Chris Paul couldn’t even stand up initially after hurting his hamstring, and now has been ruled out of at least game 6 if not the rest of the playoffs.
He’s been down this road before. Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
2005 — Joe Johnson’s eye socket
The upstart Phoenix Suns, who went from 29-53 record in 2003-04 to surprising the league on the way to a dominant 62-20 record, were sailing through the playoffs with a healthy — albeit shallow — rotation.
Their starting lineup of MVP-Steve, Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson all averaged 34+ minutes each, with a short rotation that included Leandro Barbosa and Steven Hunter COMBINING for less than 30 minutes per game and mid-season acquisition Jim Jackson playing just 24 minutes per game.
Joe upped his scoring in the playoffs (17.1 per game to 21) during the Suns 5-0 playoff start, until he was clobbered on a breakaway in Game 2 of the Suns-Mavericks series in round two.
The Suns survived the Mavericks series without him, thanks to MVP contributions from Steve and the two All-Stars, Amare and Shawn. But they just didn’t have the weapons to overcome the Borg in the Conference Finals. Johnson returned for some of that Spurs series, but he wasn’t the same player and the Suns magic had been snuffed.
Many have blamed the Spurs for that series loss — and that’s certainly the case. The Spurs ended up taking home the championship that postseason, besting Detroit in the Finals (side note: that was Igor’s second year on the Pistons’ bench, after they’d taken home the trophy the year before).
So, yeah, the Spurs won that Conference Finals. But it sure helped them not having to face a Suns lineup that had gone 67-20 through the regular season and first five playoff games.
2006 — Raja Bell’s left calf
Sure, the Suns already had to absorb the losses of both starting power forward Amare Stoudemire (full season) and center Kurt Thomas (half season), who’d been acquired for Q during the offseason, but it was the Raja Bell’s injury that broke the camel’s back.
Remember game 1 of the Suns-Mavericks Conference Finals, where the Suns won to improbably go up 1-0?
Suddenly, the Suns looked like they might be able to go all the way to the Finals despite all their setbacks.
After surprising the league in 2004-05, the Suns underwent a relative makeover around their three stars (Steve, Amare and Shawn). They’d swapped the Q for bruiser Kurt Thomas, and then — under duress — swapped Joe Johnson for Boris Diaw. They added Raja Ball. And THEN they found out Amare would miss the whole season due to microfracture surgery on his knee.
But still, 2-time Steve and the Suns somehow gone 54-28 with a retooled lineup, even after losing new center Kurt Thomas in January. They added Tim Thomas in February, survived the Lakers in round one, then survived the Clippers in round 2, and found themselves up 1-0 on the Mavericks in the Conference Finals.
This time it was Raja Bell’s turn to fall. He pulled his left calf late in the Game 1 win, and the Suns just didn’t have enough left to survive the Mavericks.
Two years down. Two awfully-timed injuries in Conference Finals.
2007 - “We got a bleeder!”
This wasn’t the Conference Finals, but observers league-wide believed the Suns-Spurs matchup in the second round was the REAL conference finals.
The 61-win Suns had home court advantage again — just like in 2005 — and a date with destiny to finally beat the Spurs. Amare was back. Raja, Steve, Amare, Shawn, Boris and Leandro Barbosa (Sixth Man of the Year) led yet another blitzkrieg through the league.
So of course the worst has to happen right?
Late in game one, as the Suns are trying to vanquish the Spurs’ hold on them. Nash and Tony Parker bop heads.
Parker fell like a rock, but it was Nash who couldn’t continue.
Somehow, the greatest trainer in the history of sports — Aaron Nelson — just couldn’t get Nash’s nose to stop bleeding.
And the Suns lost Game 1. And the series, as the Spurs cruised to back-to-back championships.
I know you all will argue that it was the suspensions of Amare and Boris Diaw in Game 5 that derailed the Suns’ run to the Conference Finals and eventually the championship.
But I’ll argue that if Nash’s bleeding could have stopped and the Suns had somehow come out of Game 1 with a win, then a Game 5 loss might not have been as pivotal to the series outcome.
Three years down. Three awfully-timed playoff injuries while playing the eventual NBA Champion.
You don’t think it’s Mike’s fault the Suns couldn’t overcome these injuries? Maybe not. Probably not. But the truth is that Gentry was able to overcome a Nash injury three years later to vanquish those hated Spurs. So there.
2018 - Chris Paul’s leg
A decade later, Mike D’Antoni finds himself back in the Conference Finals, this time with the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets have a 3-2 lead on the defending champ Warriors. Just ONE WIN from the NBA Finals. Closest he’s ever come to the Finals, actually.
But once again, after he somehow takes a series lead against the defending Champs, he has to watch his most important player fall down to injury.
Chris Paul won’t play in Game 6 and will be “re-evaluated” before Game 7. I’m predicting right now there’s no way he plays well the rest of these playoffs, if at all.
I’m sorry Mike.
You’re a good guy and I’d love to see you in the Finals for once.
But unfortunately, without Chris Paul the Rockets don’t have much chance anymore.
Watch the Rockets take on the Warriors tonight at 6:00PM AZ Time, on TNT.