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With congested schedule, NBA teams like the Utah Jazz start to worry more about injuries

League says injuries are occurring at their normal rate, even 6% below last season

Brooklyn Nets forward Jeff Green is attended to after being injured in a collision with Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

It’s clear: The mindset of some of the NBA’s executives and coaches changed the moment Denver’s Jamal Murray’s ACL tore.

On Monday night, Murray was driving the paint when his left knee simply collapsed out from under him, in what didn’t seem like even particularly unusual movement. Murray was out for the previous four games due to right knee soreness after carrying a heavy load this season, and so there’s some worry that it was the kind of compound injury that can occur when the body isn’t correctly balanced.

“You can see the fatigue on our players,” Denver coach Michael Malone said this week. “You can see it on their bodies, in their body language.”

Murray isn’t alone. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and James Harden have all suffered injuries this season that have kept them out for weeks to months. Luckily, none of them suffered the kind of tears that Murray did. Murray’s devastated the Nuggets’ chances; the others, their teams could survive.

“I think it’s become apparent across the league when you start looking at it league wide, about how many guys are getting injured. How they’re getting injured — or the non-contact or contact, you know, all those things come into play,” Utah’s Mike Conley said.

But for those who lead the NBA’s teams, Murray’s injury was a harsh reminder: Their stars could go down at any moment, those nasty bumps and bruises could become season-ruiners. So in the last week, we’ve seen teams flagrantly violate the league’s rules about resting. In the past 24 hours, two teams have been fined $25K by the NBA for resting players when they shouldn’t: the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors.

JAZZ AT LAKERS

When • Monday, 8 p.m. MT

TV • ATTSN

It’s possible that the Jazz could be next on the list of fined teams, as a number of players sat against the Lakers on Saturday for a national TV game, technically against league rules. However, they officially listed Rudy Gobert’s absence as a right knee contusion, and Mike Conley’s usual habit sitting on the second night of a back to back as “right knee soreness” rather than the old standby “hamstring injury management.” If the league approves those injury diagnoses, the Jazz would be in the clear. (Derrick Favors sat both games of the back-to-back with right knee soreness. And both Donovan Mitchell and Udoka Azuibuike had obvious ankle sprains, explaining their absences.)

Now, the NBA would argue that teams’ injury worries have been overblown. The league told the AP this week that, according to their data, injuries were occurring at relatively normal rates, even down 6% from last year. That’s despite the schedule being about 5% more congested than last season, about 3.6 games per week for NBA teams.

“Injuries are incredibly unfortunate,” NBA senior vice president David Weiss said. “We hate to see them. They’ve always been a part of the game, and how we’re seeing them this year is not that different from how we’ve seen them in recent seasons: lower than some, higher than others.”

Conley has been regularly rested this season, and while he wishes he could play more, he trusts the Jazz’s training staff to protect him.

“As we go through the season, the back to backs and (difficult) scheduling, I’m always just taking a back seat to our training staff and letting them kind of tell me — what I should do, and what’s the best option,” Conley said.

And understandably, the Jazz’s training staff is playing it with relative caution. A Jazz win over the Lakers would have been nice to get, establishing more of a cushion for the No. 1 seed. But when choosing between a regular season victory and a player’s health going into the playoffs, they’ll choose the latter every time.

“We understood coming into this year... that this season was going to be different. This season was going to be compressed,” Conley said. “We have to take care of our bodies as best as we can because we know that injuries do come from lack of rest, not having as many days off and having to travel every night.”

The good news is that the Jazz have the league’s easiest schedule remaining — they likely can afford to sit some of their key players in games and still come out with wins with relative frequency. They’ve already played their last road game against Eastern Conference opposition. That means there’s 9,613 more miles to fly in the month to come, about the NBA’s average. For Utah, which typically is among the NBA’s leaders in miles flown, that’s not so bad.

With playoffs starting 30 days from Sunday, fans both locally and nationally may not see a sprint to the finish. Rather, the league’s teams might consider a more leisurely jog — all the better for avoiding injury.

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