What on earth happened to the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns in the seventh games of Sunday's NBA Eastern and Western Conference semifinals?
Pro basketball fans nationwide — and I realize there aren't a lot of those here in the South — have been asking that question ever since the Boston Celtics pounded the 2021 NBA world champion Bucks 109-81 and the 2021 runner-up Suns lost to Dallas 123-90 in a game that wasn't even that close.
But with the Eastern Conference finals getting underway Tuesday night between Boston and its suddenly dangerous former Tennessee Vol Grant Williams and East regular-season No. 1 Miami, and Dallas traveling to Golden State on Wednesday for the opening game of the Western finals, should the unexpected ousters of Milwaukee and Phoenix have been less unexpected?
Should they instead have been predicted, if only for the unusual wear and tear the stars of both teams have experienced over the past 10 months due to COVID-19, the Olympics and the later-than-usual 2021 playoff format?
Were the Bucks and Suns merely burned out, as the 2020 champion Los Angeles Lakers and runner-up Miami Heat appeared to be during last year's NBA postseason?
Before everyone trashes Phoenix star Devin Booker for scoring but 11 points on Sunday and failing to hit his first field goal until the middle of the third quarter, perhaps someone should consider that after the Suns lost to the Bucks in the sixth and deciding game of last summer's Finals on July 20, both Booker and Milwaukee star guard Khris Middleton — who missed the entire Boston series with an injured knee — boarded a plane for the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan with zero recovery time.
Thanks to noteworthy production from both players, as well as fellow Buck Jrue Holiday and the incomparable Kevin Durant, America brought home gold on August 7th against France.
Why is this important in judging the late collapses of the Bucks and Suns?
Merely consider that between the last game of Golden State's 2017 world championship win over Cleveland and the first game of its 2018 Finals victory over the Cavs, 353 days passed. The Warriors then saw 356 days come and go between that final 2018 Finals win over Cleveland and the first game of its eventual 2019 Finals loss to Toronto.
Even then a lot of folks thought the Warriors' fifth straight Finals appearance did them in, especially with Durant and Klay Thompson suffering injuries that sidelined them not only for the remainder of those Finals, but for the entire next season and into 2021 (or 2022 in Thompson's case).
Beyond that, to return to the 2020 playoffs, the ones played in an Orlando, Fla., bubble due to COVID-19, with the Lakers knocking off the Heat, only 228 days passed between LA's title and the start of the 2021 postseason. Given that, is there any surprise that both the Lakers and Heat lost in the opening round of last year's playoffs.
"An elite athlete's body needs down time," said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga director of athletics performance Gerry Pacitti on Tuesday. "It needs to recharge, both physically and mentally. It's so important. What the pandemic has done the last two or three years is dramatically alter that in some cases.
"We need to get all these athletes back to a normal rhythm. Their bodies and minds need a normal rhythm in terms of preparation, competition and recovery time. In some cases, they need that break for their mental health. Every athlete's different, but they all need some time to wind down after their seasons."
This is not to say the Suns or Bucks would have won with an extra month or two to bounce back from the previous season, especially the Olympians Booker, Holiday and Middleton.
But Durant hasn't been the same long-term since his Achilles injury his final year with the Warriors. Nor have the Lakers' LeBron James and Anthony Davis since having a short window between the "bubble" title and the 2021 season. In fact, these entire playoffs have seemed to be as much about who was injured as who was healthy.
NBA injuries never having appeared to be so prevalent.
And maybe this will be the last of it, or at least the worst of the injury bug. Next season will be the first since 2019 — the pandemic willing — that all sports will operate in their normal windows, with their normal offseasons for athletes to relax, recover and recharge.
Until then, said Pacitti, "It's not a secret why (injuries) are happening."
It would just be nice for the athletes who are struggling with fatigue, injury or both to get a little sympathy and understanding for their effort if not their results.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.