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  • The Warriors lost a 31-point lead Monday night—and potentially DeMarcus Cousins for the rest of the postseason. The Crossover examines four critical injuries that will impact the playoffs.
By Michael Shapiro
April 16, 2019

As we roll through the first round of the 2019 playoffs, the league’s superstars are largely in good health. Steph Curry’s ankle is fine and Giannis Antetokounmpo has assumed LeBron’s mantle as the NBA’s unbreakable man. James Harden looked fresh in Game 1 after his historic regular season. Joel Embiid still played against the Nets despite a balky knee.

The postseason won’t be completely free of injury, though. A pair of bigs are missing out West after DeMarcus Cousins’ quad scare on Monday, and the Celtics are without perhaps their best defender. So how will injury woes affect the chase for the Larry O’Brien trophy? The Crossover examines who will sink and who will survive without their key playoff pieces. 

DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors

The Warriors' worst fears were confirmed Tuesday morning when Adrian Wojnarowski revealed Cousins had torn his left quad and would miss the rest of the playoffs. Another missed postseason won’t help Cousins' standing as he attempts to cash in during July’s free agency. As for June pursuits, will Cousins' absence hinder the Warriors run to the Finals? While the West is stacked, it would be foolish to count out the Dubs, even for a second. Golden State is still the league’s most lethal offense without Cousins, and should still tread water defensively with Andrew Bogut, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney in the middle. An injury to Cousins is far different than an absence from any member of Golden State’s core four—but it's still a blow. Golden State still has an embarrassment of richies, but no one who can do what the four-time All-Star can do down low.

Cousins missed an entire year due to a torn left Achilles, the same leg he suffered his quad injury.

"There's a pretty significant quad injury," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "We'll get an MRI [on Tuesday], but he's going to be out for—I'll just say a while because I think it's unclear right now how long he'll be out. It's significant."

The 2017-18 Warriors cruised to a title without Cousins. While losing Cousins and a 31-point lead to the Clippers on Monday might sting, it's unlikely to impact their run to the Finals

Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers

An Enes Kanter revenge series was far from expected as the Turkish center toiled away in New York, but that’s exactly where we stand in Portland following the Blazers' Game 1 win over the Thunder on Sunday. Two years after Billy Donovan’s famous “can’t play Kanter” hot mic moment in the 2017 playoffs, the former Thunder big man barrelled his way to 20 points and 18 rebounds. Nurkic’s injury was a potential death blow to the Blazers. They managed to stay afloat in Game 1. 

Can Kanter be a relative facsimile for Nurkic through the rest of the first round? There’s reason for skepticism. Expect Oklahoma City to isolate Kanter on the perimeter plenty through the rest of the series, with Russell Westbrook gaining a head of steam before barrelling to the tin. Westbrook’s ferocious drives won’t be enough to bury Kanter on the bench, though. Zach Collins would get torched in significant minutes. Al-Farouq Aminu will hemorrhage offensive rebounds. Kanter will log plenty of court time, tasked with crashing the boards on each end, and his team living with his shortcomings.

Kanter will fill a similar slot to Nurkic spatially, though his offensive game is less suited to spur playoff success. Nurkic evolved into a canny post passer in 2018-19. He became comfortable slinging dimes across the floor to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, recognizing cutters with increasing ease. Perhaps Nurkic learned more than we think from Nikola Jokic during his stint in Denver. 

Kanter is habitually a step late recognizing coverages. He’s a back-to-the-basket brute, albeit an effective one. Portland’s offense doesn’t hum with the same movement sans Nurkic, and the reliance on Lillard rainbows increases. Portland faces an uphill battle against the Thunder without Nurkic, and Kanter’s Game 1 dominance is more likely an aberration than the new norm. 

Blake Griffin, Pistons

Portland can advance to the second round without Nurkic. The Pistons are dead to rights without Griffin. What was previously a potential sweep is now all-but-guaranteed, fittingly in the NBA TV spot on Wednesday. The resistance to Giannis continues to wilt. 

Even with a potential sweep, it would still have been enjoyable to watch Griffin go mano-a-mano with Antetokounmpo. The former Clippers star isn’t afraid to embrace his high-usage potential. His recent Point
Blake turn
has resulted in 27 games with 20-plus shot attempts this season, including a 35-shot effort against the Sixers and 32 shots against the Nuggets. With such a weak supporting cast, Griffin might as well empty the chamber. 

Antetokounmpo should move on to Boston by early next week. He’s the likely MVP and could hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy sooner than we think. Griffin’s future is murkier. The upside of Detroit’s roster is limited, and the miles continue to accumulate on his knees. Griffin’s career rebirth has been impressive. It’s unlikely to be joined by playoff success in the coming years.

Marcus Smart, Celtics

Smart’s absence won’t be felt against Indiana, and the Celtics' chances against the top-seeded Bucks likely won't be drastically impacted by his injury either, should he remain sidelined. Boston has no shortage of wing depth. Gordon Hayward’s April has been encouraging, and Jaylen Brown should slide into the starting lineups and absorb most of Smart’s minutes. The Celtics could even experiment with small-ball lineups featuring Terry Rozier at the two next to Kyrie Irving, though that lineup should be saved for the rare Giannis breather. 

Yet even with a collection of capable bodies, Smart adds an extra edge that may be irreplaceable in a competitive series. He is Boston’s defensive soul and its most versatile defender, forming a plus-defense next to Al Horford and any three other members of Boston’s roster. He hounded Eric Bledsoe in last year’s matchup and even held his own when posted by Antetokounmpo. Giannis’ evolution has vaulted him to another level, but Smart is still a valuable body to throw his way. Every resource is necessary to stop the Greek Freak. Boston’s Finals dreams take a notable dent without Smart. 

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