There are a few moments in life that feel deflating. When Giannis Antetokounmpo – built like a Greek God and radiating with youth – folded over in the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on the Atlanta Hawks’ floor, the entire basketball world stopped. Everyone’s Twitter fingers began typing in shock.
This has become a familiar feeling for fans this year. The regular season's constant churn of DNPs, as it turns out, was just a taste for what the playoffs had in store. There was a twinge in the chest when the defending champions Los Angeles Lakers lost Anthony Davis for their final two playoff games. Watching Chris Paul brave through a shoulder injury, before having to finally miss a game in the first round was a headache, as well as Donovan Mitchell missing a game and Mike Conley’s DNPs for much of the Utah Jazz's playoff run. When the Brooklyn Nets lost James Harden then Kyrie Irving in the span of four games in the second round, it was tough to watch. There was no time to move on, Kawhi Leonard right around the same time suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Heading into Game 4 of Bucks-Hawks, the feeling of “what if?” was starting to settle in. Atlanta was going to be without Trae Young, their dynamic point guard and offensive leader, due to a foot injury from the previous game. Without their catalyst, what were the Hawks left with?
It turns out, the Hawks were very resilient. Nate McMillan’s squad came out and, behind Atlanta’s favorite son Lou Williams, ran the Bucks off the court from the start. What everyone was expecting to be a one-sided affair turned into a display of the spirit of team basketball and never giving up. For the first half of the game, it looked like we were in for a classic.
The Bucks came back, trimming a massive halftime deficit down to eight halfway through the third quarter. Leading the way was Giannis, careening around the court like only the Greek Freak can. In a routine play for the ball, his legs got entangled with Clint Capela's midair, causing Giannis to come down on his leg awkwardly. He had to be helped off the floor. The feeling of deflation crept back in.
Sure, it's right to say the Bucks should still have a chance, even if Giannis doesn’t come back for the series. The Hawks won a game without their star. The Clippers closed out their West semis series without their Finals MVP. If anything, these playoffs have been a showcase of resiliency. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have each had their moments in these playoffs. Now it's their time to carry Giannis to the next round.
Still, the specter of these injuries has loomed in the postseason. Many are already affixing an asterisk to the 2021 season. Injuries may be cruel, but they are part of the game. No matter how much load management or post-game treatment a player gets, injuries are inevitable.
This season’s champion won’t get a smaller trophy just because they went through what some perceive as an easier route to get there. The Larry O'Brien trophy will still be as shiny for whoever hoists it. It’s rough, but teams can't just be good. They also have to be a little lucky.