NBA Star Power Index: Kyrie Irving, CJ McCollum shine in play-in;  Luka Doncic's injury is nothing to fool with

NBA Star Power Index: Kyrie Irving, CJ McCollum shine in play-in; Luka Doncic’s injury is nothing to fool with

Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players getting the most buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing — it simply means you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This is also not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order. This column will run every week throughout the regular season and playoffs.

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Doncic’s injury is tricky. The Mavs are calling it a strained calf, which is vague. Strain makes it sounds harmless, but a strain is a tear; it’s only about degrees, or ranks, as you may recall hearing with Kevin Durant’s calf strain back in 2019 with the Warriors. That was called a “mild” strain at first, and was eventually ruled a Grade 1, or possibly Grade 2 strain. Durant wound up missing over a month before returning in Game 5 of the Finals, when, of course, he tore his Achilles.

That’s the thing about calf injuries. They can pretty easily become Achilles injuries if you return too soon. It’s all connected, and if the calf isn’t fully healed (depending on the location of the calf injury), you could be risking a much more serious injury, either to the calf or the Achilles. Dr. Alan Beyer, an orthopedic surgeon and the executive medical director at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Newport Beach, Ca., warned me about this with Durant’s initial calf injury.

“Understand, a strain and tear are the same thing,” Dr. Beyer told CBS Sports after Durant’s initial calf strain in 2019. “So Durant has a tear in that calf. The grading just indicates how many fibers have been affected. So a mild strain, or a Grade 1 or 2 tear, whatever you want to call it, that is one thing. But if he were to come back on a partially healed calf, and then end up tearing it all the way by landing or taking off wrong, now you’re talking about potentially never coming back 100 percent. He would regret that decision the rest of his career.”

Dr. Beyer also told me this prior to Durant tearing his Achilles, which became an almost eerie warning in hindsight.

Now, none of this is to say Doncic is going to tear his calf worse or blow his Achilles. It’s merely to point out that a “strain” isn’t as harmless as it sounds. Doncic, whose injury, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi, is being described as “more than just a mild strain” — could easily be out for longer than you might think. As it stands right now, the Mavericks are reportedly skeptical about how soon Doncic might be available to play in Dallas’ first-round series vs. Utah.

Unlike with Stephen Curry, who is expected to play in Game 1, Doncic is likely to miss Dallas’ playoff opener.

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Irving issued a masterpiece in the Nets’ play-in victory over the Cavs on Tuesday. He made his first 12 shots, which would be an NBA playoff record if we were calling the play-in tournament the playoffs, which, technically, we aren’t. He didn’t miss through the first three quarters. Irving finished with 34 points and 12 assists on 12-of-15 shooting, including 3 of 6 from 3 and 7 for 7 from the free-throw line.

Irving and Kevin Durant, who was terrific in his own right, especially defensively, finished the first quarter with a combined 19 points on 10-of-10 shooting. Cleveland actually outscored the Nets by 13 points over the final three quarters, an effort aided by holding the Nets to eight points through the first nine-plus minutes of the second quarter, which Durant started on the bench. Brooklyn will have to figure out the non KD-Kyrie combo minutes, but there won’t be many. Steve Nash is going to play both these guys 40 minutes per game, at least, moving forward. He has no choice.

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Beverley went full heel in Minnesota’s play-in victory over the Clippers (the team that traded Beverley last summer to save luxury-tax money) on Tuesday. I wrote about it here, and I’ll repeat: Do not let Beverley’s antics fool you into thinking the only place he has in the league is as an instigator. This man is a big-time basketball player. A true winner. A top-level defender. Beverley’s teams have made the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons in the league, and the one year that didn’t happen (2017-18 Clippers), Beverley only played in 11 games.

It is not a coincidence that Beverley showed up in Minnesota and suddenly the Wolves are in the playoffs for just the third time since 2004. He has arguably been more instrumental than any single person in that organization in terms of changing the identity. Beverley expects to win, and man did he play like it on Tuesday. He finished with seven points and 11 rebounds, but as usual, his impact was not box-score based.

Against his former team, which he feels like disrespected him and treated him as a castoff, Beverley was ready to scrap from the jump. This is a few seconds into the game.

That wasn’t the last time Beverley and Marcus Morris would come into contact. Less than a minute into the second half, Beverley nearly baited Morris into his second technical foul, which would’ve gotten him ejected. Upon review, it was rightly determined that Beverley…go figure…was the instigator.

From my postgame story:

Don’t even try to argue that Morris started this establishing contact with Beverley. Players do this all the time to keep a feel on their man, to know his whereabouts, as they watch the jump ball. Beverley is chopping down on Morris’ arm like it’s a cement block in a Kung fu video. Beverley knew he was baiting Morris into his second tech, and when he initially thought he’d succeeded, he started skipping down the court waving goodbye like the villainous showman he’s always been. Seriously, if the guy wasn’t so good at this basketball thing, he’d have a job as a wrestling heel in a second. Vince McMahon would back up a Brinks truck.

The thing that gets lost in all these antics, however, is that Beverley is a really good player. Defense is a skill, and for all the emphasis on long, versatile, off-ball defenders who roam around making passing-lane plays, an old-fashioned, get-inside-your-jersey defender remains the opposition no scorer or ball-handler wants to see. Beverley is low and laterally quick. He has fast, aggressive hands. And he anticipates the way a great passer sees plays developing ahead of schedule.

Watch the entirety of this crucial fourth-quarter possession below. Beverley starts on Paul George, which tells you how great of a defender he is that Chris Finch would stick him on the opposing superstar who has been cooking in the second half in a two-point game with under five minutes to go. When Morris pops open for a 3, Beverley races out to harass him for a bit. Then Morris gives it up to Reggie Jackson, who goes into a pick-and-roll, which Beverley switches so he’s guarding Jackson straight up. Now the shot clock has ticked under five seconds. Beverley knows Jackson has to act quickly, and he also knows that Jackson likes to hang his dribble out to the side before pulling up into a jumper or crossing over. He anticipates it. See it. And in that split second, he strikes. Knock it loose. He basically single-handedly kills the whole possession.

Beverley picked Jackson again with under 30 seconds to play to officially seal the game:

All of which preceded a celebration befitting a championship — which, to be fair, is about what a playoff berth in Minnesota feels like.

The Timberwolves will face the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, with Game 1 scheduled for Saturday at 3 pm ET.

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McCollum led the Pelicans past the Spurs in the West’s 9-10 play-in game on Wednesday, posting 32 points, seven assists and six rebounds on 12-of-23 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3. He outscored the entire Spurs starting lineup in the first half, 27-25.

With all the talk of the Blazers not being able to win with McCollum and Damian Lillard paired in the backcourt, you might’ve allowed yourself to forget that McCollum is a bucket. Always has been. Always will be. In a one-on-one situation, there may not be 10 players in the world that I would rather have creating a shot than McCollum in a playoff scenario.

Blazers fans know that. McCollum was a wildly popular player in Portland, and now the Rip City faithful has to root against McCollum — because if the Pelicans make the playoffs, the protected first-round pick that Portland got back from New Orleans in the McCollum trade won’t convey. That pick only goes to the Blazers if it falls between No. 5 and No. 14. If New Orleans makes the playoffs, it can’t pick any higher than No. 15 in the upcoming draft, which would then turn the pick the Blazers are owed into a 2025 Milwaukee first-rounder, which doesn’t hold nearly the same value.

Portland wants, needs, New Orleans in the lottery. This way the Blazers would have their own lottery pick and most likely a second lottery pick from New Orleans (unless the beat the ping-pong-ball odds and jump the line into the top four, which isn’t likely). That would give the Blazers two really nice assets to potentially hit the trade market with as they try to rebuild a contender on the fly. if McCollum, of all people, ends up costing the Blazers that pick because he balls out in a couple play-in games (he’s already halfway there), this is going to be an extremely bitter pill for the Blazers and their fans to swallow.

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Curry has been out since March 16 with a sprained ligament in his left foot, and his status for Golden State’s playoff opener vs. the Nuggets on Saturday is “undetermined,” according to the team.

It goes without saying how badly the Warriors need Curry not only back on the court, but as close to 100 percent as possible if they intend on making a real run at a title. Based on the reports of how Curry is progressing, I would be surprised if he didn’t play on Saturday. But even if he doesn’t, he’ll almost certainly be back on the court relatively early in this series.

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