The Most Devestating Injuries that Ruined Championship Aspirations
Injuries suck, but when they occur during the playoffs, their impact is felt even more, their consequences multiplied. An untimely injury in the playoffs can derail a championship effort and erase a season’s worth of hard work in just the snap of a finger (or leg).
Without further ado, here are the worst playoff injuries in sports history.
Kyrie Irving 2015 NBA Finals
Kyrie Irving has the best handles in the NBA, but the problem is he’s not on the court enough to use them. Irving, for all of his flashy moves, is one of the most injury-prone players in the league. In the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cavs squared off against the Warriors. Cleveland entered the series without big man Kevin Love, which we’ll address in the coming slides, while Golden State entered at full strength.
But Cleveland was not to be counted out, as they had the league’s most skilled ballhandler and LeBron James, playing in his fifth consecutive Finals. Game 1 was a close matchup that needed to be decided in overtime, and that’s when Cleveland’s misfortunes began. With two minutes left in the contest, Irving went down with an awkward knee injury. The injury was later revealed to be a fractured kneecap. Cleveland lost the game, their star guard, and, in six games, the series.
Kevin Love 2015 Eastern Conference First Round
Cleveland’s 2015 playoff experience was a rough one. As we just mentioned, star point guard Kyrie Irving went down in Game 1 of the Finals, ending Cleveland’s hopes of winning right then and there. When Irving went down, Cleveland became the LeBron James show, a one-man team comprised of the King himself. You’re probably thinking, O.K., the Cavs lost Irving, but what about the third piece of the “Big Three,” Kevin Love?
In Game 4 of Cleveland’s first-round series against the Boston Celtics, Kevin Love got tangled up with Celtics center Kelly Olynyk. In what appeared to be a deliberate attempt at injuring Cleveland’s star, Olynyk yanked Love’s shoulder out of its socket, tearing it in the process. Love, who described the play as “bush league,” was forced to miss the Finals and underwent surgery shortly after. Cleveland limped to the Finals where Golden State put the wounded Cavs out of their misery in six games.
Russell Westbrook 2013 Western Conference First Round
Look closely at Russell Westbrook’s face. It looks like he’s exercising his demons. In actuality, Westbrook is trying to cope with the pain of a serious knee injury. Russell Westbrook, along with Kevin Durant, led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a No.1 seed in the Western Conference at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. The Thunder were in prime position to head back to the Finals, that is until Houston’s Patrick Beverley collided with Westbrook in the second game of the series.
Westbrook, who appeared bothered by the collision, played through the pain and finished the game with 29 points. The next day, OKC’s title hopes were all but dashed when the injury was revealed to be a torn meniscus. Westbrook underwent surgery while the Thunder managed to stave off the Rockets. However, with their star guard cheering from the rehab facility, the Thunder were no match for the Grizzlies and lost their second-round series in five games.
Derrick Rose 2012 Eastern Conference First Round
Derrick Rose’s career will forever be remembered more so by his devastating knee injuries than his on-court accomplishments. At just 22-years-old, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history, and his future looked incredibly bright. The season following his MVP award, Rose led the Bulls to the No.1 seed in the East where they faced the eighth seed 76ers.
In Game 1 of the series, Rose tore his ACL on an awkward jump. The heavily-favored Bulls, reeling from the shocking blow, faltered to the 76ers in six games. Rose underwent surgery and missed the entire 2012-13 season, and when he returned, he was a shell of his former self.
Yao Ming 2009 Western Conference Semifinals
The 2002 NBA Draft was forgettable, save for Yao Ming, the greatest Chinese export not to come from a sweatshop. The Rockets selected Yao first overall, and the 7-foot-6 behemoth integrated smoothly into the league. He was putting up big points and pulling down boards with ease, and players across the league praised the big man’s skill and dexterity. The Rockets finished the 2008-09 season as the fifth seed and breezed passed Portland in the opening round.
In the second round, Houston faced top-seeded Los Angeles. Following Game 3, Yao was diagnosed with a sprained ankle. Further testing, however, revealed the sprain to be a hairline fracture, forcing Yao out of the series. Without their star big man, the Rockets faltered to the Lakers, the eventual champions, in seven games.
Dirk Nowitzki 2003 Western Conference Finals
In the first round of the 2003 playoffs, Dirk and Co. beat a stingy TrailBlazers squad in seven games. Their next series also came down to seven games, with Dallas hanging on to beat the Sacramento Kings and advancing to the Western Conference Finals. The 2003 Western Conference Finals was a Texas showdown between the Spurs and the Mavericks, with the winner of the series playing a much weaker team from the East. This was the Finals before the Finals.
In Game 3 of the series, Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki collided with San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili. The result of the collision was a sprained knee for Nowitzki, forcing him out of the game which Dallas ended up losing. Head Coach Don Nelson, speaking on the injury, said, “The News on Dirk Nowitzki is not good. His knee is very sore… I wouldn’t be sure he’ll play in this series [again].” And he didn’t. With Dirk out, the Mavs failed to weather the storm, losing the series in six games. San Antonio went on to beat New Jersey in the Finals in six games.
Chris Webber 2003 Western Conference Semifinals
We mentioned that Dallas beat the Sacramento Kings in seven games of the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals. What we didn’t mention were the circumstances surrounding the seven-game series. Chris Webber was coming off his fifth-consecutive All-Star appearance and had the Kings primed to compete for a championship.
They were the two seed and had a stacked roster full of playoff experience. But their fortunes dramatically changed in Game 2 of the series. Kings star Chris Webber drove into the lane untouched before suddenly collapsing on the court. The diagnosis was a torn ACL. The Kings, shellshocked and depleted, fought valiantly without their star and managed to take Dallas to seven games, losing in heartbreaking fashion yet again.
Magic Johnson 1989 NBA Finals
The Los Angeles Lakers won the 1987 and ’88 NBA Finals and were on a quest for a three-peat, and they had the roster to do it. Led by regular-season MVP Magic Johnson and future Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers met the Pistons in the Finals for the second straight year. The Lakers cruised through the first three rounds of the playoffs, sweeping each of their opponents. They entered the Finals fresh and confident.
After dropping the first game of the series, Los Angeles looked to rebound in Game 2, but tragedy would strike, sucking all the wind out of their sails. Late in the third quarter, Magic Johnson fell to the floor in agony after pulling his hamstring. The injury proved to be devastating as Johnson was unable to return to the series. Without Johnson and Byron Scott (next slide), Detroit managed to sweep L.A. Following their defeat, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired from basketball.
Byron Scott 1989 NBA Finals
“I came down with all my weight on my left leg, too much weight on it, and I heard it pop,” Lakers starting shooting guard Byron Scott told the New York Times. Sadly for the Lakers, that “pop” didn’t happen during a game, it happened in practice during a rebounding drill leading up to the 1989 NBA Finals.
Scott, who scored 19 points per contest during the regular season, was ruled out of the series. That wasn’t the final nail in the coffin, but once the aforementioned Magic Johnson popped his hammy, the Lakers, on their last legs, simply ran out of offensive firepower. Let this be a lesson in the importance of stretching and hamstring maintenance.
Carson Palmer 2005 AFC Wild Card
In 2005, Carson Palmer finally led the Bengals back into relevancy and gave the franchise its first playoff birth in 15 years. The Bengals were playing their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, at home in front of a feverous crowd. The nervous energy and excitement were palpable, but on the Bengals’ first pass play, the stadium went silent. Palmer launched a 66-yard pass to Chris Henry — the longest in Bengals playoff history — but after his release, Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into his knee, tearing the ACL, MCL, and severely damaging surrounding cartilage.
The injury was career threatening. With Palmer out of the game, Pittsburgh hung onto win 31-17 en route to their Super Bowl XL victory of the Seahawks. The following year, the NFL adopted the “Carson Palmer” rule, prohibiting defenders from hitting a quarterback below the knees. Palmer, fortunately, was able to make a full recovery and had his knee reconstructed using an Achilles tendon from a 44-year-old woman who was killed by a drunk driver two years prior to the injury.
Robert Griffin III 2012 NFC Wild Card
Robert Griffin III never quite learned how to protect his body. He was the spark plug that Washington needed and led the team to the 2012 playoffs. Coming off a sprained knee, Griffin’s health was already in question leading up to Washington’s Wild Card matchup against Seattle. Trailing in the fourth quarter, Griffin fumbled the snap, and as he went to retreive the ball, crumbled to the turf.
The stadium held its breath for as long as it could, but when Griffin didn’t get up, the collective sigh turned into a collective cry. Griffin tore his LCL and ACL. Washington lost the game while the injury became an omen of health-related issues to come.
Kendrick Perkins 2010 NBA Finals
Timing is everything. As you read a few slides ago, the poor timing of the Los Angeles Lakers’ hamstring injuries in the 1989 Finals all but cost them a championship. Well, in 2010, history repeated itself, albeit not identically. In the first quarter of Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Celtics starting center and defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins tore his MCL and PCL.
Boston, vulnerable on defense without their stalwart, was blown out of Game 6 and limped into the deciding seventh game. Despite Boston’s best efforts, the injury-plagued team was unable to win its second championship in three years and lost to the Lakers 83-79.
Kenyon Martin 2000 NCAA Tournament
As a senior, Kenyon Martin was the National Player of the Year and led his Cincinnati Bearcats to a No.1 ranking at the conclusion of the regular season. The Bearcats earned a first-round bye in the 2000 Conference USA Tournament, which to them was a warm-up for the NCAA Tournament. In Cincinnati’s first game of the tournament against the lowly St. Louis Billikens, tragedy struck the Bearcats in the worst imaginable way. Just three minutes into the game, Martin suffered a broken leg.
The shocked Bearcats were unable to overcome the massive loss and fell to St. Louis, the tournament’s eventual champion. But that was just the start of the devastation for Cincinnati. A two seed in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, the Martin-less Bearcats clawed their way to the second round before bowing out to Tulsa. The silver lining? Martin made a full recovery and was the No.1 overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft.
Willis McGahee 2003 Fiesta Bowl
The 2002 Miami Hurricanes squad was replete with future NFL talent. Led by running back Willis McGahee, the Miami Hurricanes entered the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, that season’s national championship game, undefeated. Their opponent, the Ohio State Buckeyes, was also undefeated, but Miami was the huge favorite and was projected to win by two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter of a closely contested game, McGahee caught a screen pass and was hit immediately by Ohio State safety Will Allen.
The hit shredded McGahee’s ACL, PCL, and MCL. Thanks to a heavy arsenal of offensive weapons, Miami was able to shake off the gruesome injury and took the game into double overtime. There their luck ran out, as Ohio State pulled away 31-24, handing Miami their first loss of the season. McGahee had a massive rehab process ahead of him but recovered well enough to get drafted in the first round and went onto play in two Pro Bowls.
Ted Ginn Jr. 2007 BCS National Championship Game
Self-inflicted wounds are the worst, just ask Ted Ginn Jr. Star Ohio State receiver Ted Ginn Jr. started the 2007 BCS National Championship Game off with a bang, returning the opening kick 93 yards for a touchdown. Just 16 seconds into the game, Ohio State was on top, looking like a team destined to win it all. But just as soon as the party started, it came screeching to a halt.
Moments after Ginn scored, his delirious teammates rushed the field, jumping on the receiver with joy. In the process, Ginn sprained his ankle as he was dragged to the turf, not by the Gators but by his own teammates. Ginn retreated to the sidelines and tested the injured ankle to no avail. With their star playmaker wearing a walking boot instead of his Nike cleats, Ohio State’s offense sputtered. Florida showed no mercy and thrashed the Buckeyes 41-14 in a forgettable game.
Brandin Cooks Super Bowl LII
Brandin Cooks is a great receiver except when it comes to Super Bowls. When it’s all on the line, Cooks doesn’t shine. Early in the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins walloped Cooks with a vicious hit to the head. Cooks immediately went down and stayed on the turf while trainers attended to the injured Patriot.
The Patriots, without their top receiver, still managed to score on seemingly every position until a perfectly-timed stip sack by Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham ended their bid at back-t0-back Super Bowls. The injury to Cooks undoubtedly affected the team, but at the end of the day, it was really New England’s inability to come up with a timely play on defense that cost them the game.
Sebastian Janikowski 2019 NFC Wild Card
Kickers usually affect the outcome of the game by either missing or hitting their kicks, not by getting injured, but in the 2019 NFC Wild Card matchup between the Seahawks and the Cowboys, it was the injury bug that bit the kicker and altered the gameplan. On the final play of the first half, Seattle kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who had drilled both of his prior field goal attempts, lined up for a 57-yard field goal. Janikowski sent the deep attempt wide, and his reaction was much worse than that of a standard miss.
He was grimacing in pain as he clutched his hamstring. Janikowski hobbled to the sideline and did not return to the field after halftime, leaving Seattle without a kicker. At the end of the game, Seattle was forced to use their punter on an onside kick attempt. Suffice it to say, it failed horribly. Seattle lost the game 24-22, making that missed field goal all the more painful.
David Beckham 2006 World Cup
David Beckham was the torchbearer of English football on and off the pitch. He was a global ambassador to the game who helped pique the interest of millions thanks to his exciting kicks and highly-publicized marriage to Victoria Beckham, the lead singer of the Spice Girls. Despite all of Beckham’s physics-defying goals and club team success, the former captain of the English national team was not able to bring home a World Cup title.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, England looked like it had a promising team capable of defeating anyone, that is until Beckham went down in the quarter-final match against Portugal. Shortly after halftime, Beckham suffered an Achilles injury and was unable to continue playing. England took Portugal to penalty kicks where they ultimately lost 3-1.
Neymar 2014 World Cup
If Neymar wasn’t the biggest flopper in all of sports, people would have more than an ounce of remorse for the Brazilian phenom. The problem is the adroit scorer flops more than a fish out of water and acts more than a Hollywood star. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Neymar and Co. were the favorites to win the tournament on their home turf, and from the start, Brazil looked like an unstoppable force destined for a fairytale ending. Well, that fairytale ending Brazil was waiting for never happened. In the quarter-final game, Columbian winger Juan Camilo Zuniga nailed Neymar in the back with a questionable flying knee.
The crowd was hushed to a deafening silence as Neymar writhed, squirmed, and moaned on the turf before being stretchered off. The diagnosis was grim: a fractured vertebra in his spine. The prognosis was worse: no more World Cup. Brazil hung on to beat Columbia and advanced to face the Germans. At that point, the blitzkrieg was on as Germany hammered the home-town team 7-1. Brazil ultimately placed fourth in the tournament, not the result they were hoping for.
Allen Hurns 2019 NFC Wild Card
The playoff woes continue for the Dallas Cowboys. America’s team, as they so proudly call themselves, cannot get it done in the playoff. This isn’t news, but with arguably one of the league’s best running backs, a solid defense, and a dual-threat quarterback, Dallas should be able to make a few more waves come postseason. After a promising 2018 regular season, Dallas was in position to finally make a run at a Super Bowl.
In the Wild-Card round against Seattle, wide receiver Allen Hurns suffered a gruesome injury that stunned viewers across America. The injury was a dislocated ankle and a broken fibula. Hurns was carted off the field and transported straight to the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Dallas hung onto beat Seattle but the depleted team was no match for L.A. in the Divisional Round, falling to the upstart Rams 30-22.
Sheldon Rankins 2019 NFC Divisional Round
Former first-round pick Sheldon Rankins was having a career year in 2018. The Saints were one of two teams to beat in the NFC, the other being the Rams. Fans, analysts, and players alike thought it was finally time for Brees to win his second Super Bowl, but a series of misfortunes hampered and eventually ended their chances. In the NFC Divisional Round against the Eagles, starting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins went down with a torn Achilles.
The Saints were able to weather the storm, at least initially, and hung onto beat the Eagles. However, in the NFC Championship against the Rams, the Saints defense staggered, allowing 378 yards of offense and 26 points. Of course, this injury has nothing to do with the egregious missed call that would have virtually sealed the victory for the Saints.
Travis Kelce 2018 Wild Card
The Chiefs are kind of like the Cowboys of the AFC- they have productive regular seasons, have high playoff expectations, and utterly disappoint their fans come postseason. In the 2018 Wild Card game against the Titans, Kansas City built up a big, nearly insurmountable lead against the Titans. They were up 21-3 at half time with everything going their way, but when they returned to the field, they did so without any of their swagger and, more importantly, without their top offensive weapon, Travis Kelce.
Kelce was knocked out of the game in the first half after sustaining a concussion. The blow to Kelce and the Chiefs was devastating, and Kansas City squandered their lead in memorable fashion, losing at home in the playoffs once again.
Chris Jones 2018 Wild Card
As if losing Travis Kelce wasn’t enough, Kansas City sustained another brutal injury to one of their top players in the 2018 Wild Card game. On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, the Chiefs best interior lineman, Chris Jones, went down with a torn MCL. From that point on, the floodgates were open.
Tennessee rattled off 19 unanswered points, largely in part because of the gaping hole in the line left by Jones’ absence. A year after the loss, Jones spoke with the media regarding the epic meltdown in 2018. “It still haunts me,” Jones said. “I felt like I let my team down by getting hurt. I thought about that all summer.”
Jeremy Lane Super Bowl XLIX
The Seattle Seahawks were looking to repeat as champions, and they had the defense to back it up. Super Bowl XLIX was a matchup between Tom Brady and the Patriots versus a young Russell Wilson and Seattle’s vaunted Legion of Boom defense. From the outset, it appeared that Seattle was going to control the game thanks to their defense. Seattle took a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, and against a sound Seattle secondary, that lead should have been insurmountable.
But it wasn’t, because Seattle’s defense was missing a key player, Jeremy Lane. Late in the first quarter, Lane intercepted Brady in the endzone, halting a Patriots drive in its tracks. On the return, Lane suffered a gruesome army and leg injury, breaking his wrist in the most disgusting way while also tearing his ACL. Brady and the Patriots tormented Lane’s replacement for the rest of the game and used Seattle’s lack of depth at corner to mount their historic comeback.
Todd Gurley Super Bowl LIII
This injury is more mystery than anything, but Gurley’s shocking disappearance in the 2019 NFL Playoffs deserves a spot on the list. Throughout the entire 2018 season, Rams running back Todd Gurley looked like an MVP candidate. He was the best back in the league and was a driving force behind one of the league’s most explosive offenses. Gurley made his third Pro Bowl in his first four seasons and was named first-team All-Pro.
The Rams looked like the team to beat, led by their star back and wunderkind head coach Sean McVay. Then the real magic happened, as Gurley began his now infamous disappearing act. In the NFC Championship Game against the Saints, Gurley ran the ball a mere four times for 10 yards and had just one catch. Rumors began to swirl leading up to the Super Bowl against New England. In the biggest game of the season (and his life), Gurley was a virtual no-show, rushing for a paltry 35 yards on an inexplicable 10 carries. Still, no details leaked out about what was wrong with Gurley. Nearly a month after the Rams defeat, Gurley’s injury was revealed to be arthritis in the knee, and a case more severe than initially thought.
Tim Krumrie Super Bowl XXIII
This was a crummy way to go down. In the first quarter of Super Bowl XXIII, Bengals’ Pro Bowl defensive lineman Tim Krumrie severely broke his leg, snapping both the tibia and fibula. The gruesome injury shocked the underdog Bengals who tried their best to cope with the massive loss. In the end, Joe Montana and the talent-replete 49ers would be too much for the Bengals to handle, winning their third Super Bowl 20-16.
As for Krumrie, the defensive lineman made a miraculous comeback. Krumrie underwent surgery where doctors inserted a 15-inch steel rod in his leg. He healed up in time to start the next season and played until 1994, six years after the devastating break.