No one ever claimed sports are fair. You can condition yourself incessantly, micromanage your diet and spend hours in the film room, but when the injury bug bites, none of it matters.
Welcome to David Lee’s world. He worked his butt off last summer to get into the best shape of his life, put together a career year after critics blasted him for being soft and finally qualified for the playoffs after eight seasons in the NBA. Then, with less than a quarter to play in his first postseason game, he tears his right hip flexor on a seemingly innocent collision in the paint. Game over.
The injury could signal the end for the Warriors, too, a bitter twist to the team’s second playoff appearance in 19 years.
Coach Mark Jackson spoke with the candor of a Christian minister on Sunday when he said, “We cannot replace David Lee.”
The Warriors will get scrappy minutes out of Carl Landry, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green when they return to the court at the Pepsi Center for Game 2 of their first-round playoff series with the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday.
They’ll work, hustle and play defense, but they can’t replace the 18.5 points per game, 11.2 rebounds per game and 56 double-doubles that were sucked out of the lineup when the team’s lone All-Star hit the floor.
Jackson isn’t just losing offensive production, either, Lee’s a leader on a team that features three rookies who are averaging more than 13 minutes a game and a sophomore starting at the two. Lee is the guy who brought the team together for extra work in the gym before the season tipped off, and he is the player they could always turn to for a key basket when the jump shooting went cold. Lee is Mr. Consistent, and consistency is the last thing you want to lose when you’re trying to win a best-of-seven-game playoff series. With Lee out of the lineup, the Warriors’ depth will be stretched, role players will be asked to make bigger contributions and the rookies will need to play like fearless veterans.
Jackson’s club is facing a steep climb, but I don’t expect them to roll over. Throughout the season, this team has shown a tendency to bounce back, to rise up when you think they’re dead.
In November, when news broke that Andrew Bogut’s ankle surgery was more serious than initially reported, the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream. But the team responded by winning 14 of 18 games, jumping into the mix of things in the Western Conference. Later, when the Warriors lost 12 of 17, surrendering an average of 106.8 points per game, it looked like the season was slipping away. But they finished strong, tightening the screws on defense and clinching a playoff berth for the first time since 2007.
And on Saturday, the team almost stole a win in the Rocky Mountains, even though Lee was in the locker room, his future in doubt.
Yes, sports aren’t fair, but character is defined by how you respond to adversity. Without Lee, victory might be a long shot, but the Warriors can set the tone for next year by making it a long series.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.
18.5 Points per game David Lee averaged this season
11.2 Rebounds per game Lee averaged this season
56 Double-doubles Lee accumulated this season