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Sports Writer Explains Why It's Been Such A Bizarre, Injury-Marred NBA Postseason

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, casual and not-so-casual basketball fans, we're going to catch you up. Because if you're trying to remember the last time you saw even one of the four remaining teams win the NBA title, you probably can't. Take the Eastern Conference finals. The Milwaukee Bucks haven't won in 50 years. They face an Atlanta Hawks team that hasn't won since 1958, when they were the St. Louis Hawks. And in the Western Finals, the Phoenix Suns are looking for their first title ever. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's laughing stock for most of its history, has never, ever made it this far before.

Well, Maitreyi Anantharaman covers pro basketball for Defector and joins us now to talk about this very weird year.

Welcome.

MAITREYI ANANTHARAMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So just catch us up a little bit. How did we even get here? I mean, preseason super team favorites like the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets are out. But why? Like, how much did injuries affect their ability to compete?

ANANTHARAMAN: Yeah, it's been weird. That's the best way of putting it. The general rule in the NBA postseason is that there's not a lot of variance. The teams with the best players win. I think if you're a baseball or hockey fan, you're probably much more used to upsets. The nature of those sports is that your star players can't quite take over a game. And these are seven-game series. So unlike the NFL postseason, one bad game won't kill you.

So take the Brooklyn Nets, the pre-, postseason favorite, this bona fide super team headlined by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, three offensive superstars. Something's going to have to go pretty wrong for them to lose the series. And that's what happened. James Harden was injured in Game 1. And even though he came back in Game 5, he never quite looked like his old self. And Kyrie Irving is injured in Game 4 and never returned. And that's how you have the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.

CHANG: So why, then, do you think there were these injuries during such a critical time for actually many top teams, right?

ANANTHARAMAN: Right. Yeah. I don't think it's a coincidence that the two teams in last year's NBA finals were not even in the second round of the playoffs this year. This is the shortest offseason in NBA history. And teams who made deep postseason runs last year in the 2020 season really felt it. A lot of players said that they felt fatigued, that there was injury risk. The NBA, for its part, has said that the injury numbers it tracks internally are about on par with what they've been in previous seasons. I suspect that it feels a little bit more conspicuous because a lot of the injuries have been to star players.

CHANG: Well, the Suns have a two-zero lead over the Clippers in the West finals, despite not having their star point guard, Chris Paul. Are they the team to beat at the moment, you think?

ANANTHARAMAN: I think so. I was kind of dreading this question...

CHANG: (Laughter).

ANANTHARAMAN: ...Because all of my predictions have been wrong.

CHANG: Oh (laughter).

ANANTHARAMAN: I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen. But, yeah, the Suns have looked great. They've had performances from role players who have really stepped up. And they have not really missed a beat in Chris Paul's absence.

CHANG: And the East finals start tonight. The Bucks are favored. But we need to talk about the Atlanta Hawks. Because how does a team that fired its coach in February get this close to the finals in June?

ANANTHARAMAN: The Hawks are maybe the most fun story of all. I, again, did not even predict them getting out of the first round. I thought the Knicks would win that one. They're led by (laughter) a small guy named Trae Young, who I don't think would object - in fact, might even relish my calling him extremely annoying.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ANANTHARAMAN: He just shoots from weird angles, annoys all his defenders. And I think he really has embraced his role as heel of the NBA.

CHANG: Maitreyi Anantharaman covers pro basketball for Defector.

Thanks so much for joining us today.

ANANTHARAMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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