High-profile injuries in NBA Finals put pressure on athletic training staffs
TORONTO — A man you’ve probably never heard of is under immense pressure at the NBA Finals. He doesn’t dribble, shoot, pass or draw up plays.
His name is Rick Celebrini, and he is the Golden State Warriors' director of sports medicine and performance.
Celebrini and his staff are working hard to get star Kevin Durant back on the court while keeping the player’s best interest in mind. Durant, who will be a free agent this summer, has been out since May 8 with a strained calf.
"When he's ready to play, he'll play. That's our approach," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said earlier in the series against Toronto, which the Raptors lead 3-1.
The Warriors hope to have Durant back for Game 5 on Monday (9 p.m. ET, ABC), but Durant's health hasn’t been Golden State’s only concern.
They weren’t sure about the availability of DeMarcus Cousins, who sustained a torn quadriceps in the first round of the playoffs. In the big picture, he had played just 30 games before that since returning from a devastating Achilles injury. He came back for Game 1 of the Finals.
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Klay Thompson missed a game against Toronto with a mild hamstring pull. Kevon Looney was ruled out for the series after fracturing cartilage in his rib-chest area in Game 2. He returned for Game 4 after the Warriors did more research and got a second opinion.
"We have been playing a hundred-plus games for five years now — not all of our players, but our team," Kerr said. "So we have a lot of guys who have played long, difficult seasons. They take great care of themselves.
"But there's a certain amount of luck involved with this, too, and we know that. We have been on both sides of that. Some of our opponents have suffered injuries. We have suffered injuries. It's just part of the deal. You just keep pushing forward."
Five Warriors — Thompson, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston — have played in five consecutive Finals. That’s another season-plus of games squeezed into those five years. Two others – Durant and Looney — are in their third consecutive deep playoff run.
The Warriors are navigating injuries that present a threat to their third consecutive championship and fourth in five seasons, and it puts their medical and training staff under the microscope at the most intense time of the season.
Warriors director of sports medicine and performance Rick Celebrini, left, with coach Steve Kerr. (Photo: Ben Margot, AP)
To a lesser degree but no less important, Toronto’s medical and training staff is an integral part of the Finals, too. The Raptors' staff managed Kawhi Leonard’s health during the regular season, allowing him to be the best player in the postseason after a frustrating nine-game season in 2017-18, when he was with the San Antonio Spurs.
“I worked so hard to get to this point with the season I had last year, just always betting on myself and knowing what I feel and what's right for me,” Leonard said.
He played in just 60 of 82 regular-season games with the Raptors employing the phrase “load management,” which might be a newer concept in North America but has been used for years in Australia, which is known for its progressive approach to sports science.
Toronto’s assistant coach/director of sports science Alex McKechnie is considered one of the best sports physiotherapists in the world. He spent 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and has also worked with pro and national team soccer clubs and NHL teams in Canada.
Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal credits McKechnie with helping him overcome an abdominal injury early in his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, who eventually hired McKechnie. During the 2011 NBA lockout year, McKechnie was without a contract and the Raptors hired him.
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If you spend enough time around the NBA, you notice the ties that bind.
Celebrini worked for McKechnie for nearly two decades at Fortius Sport and Health outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.
“I've never coached at this level where we have had this type of expertise,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “From my standpoint, I'm not sure half the time I know what the hell he's doing. I just know that I trust him a hundred percent. He's got tremendous experience. He's innovative.”
McKechnie, a silver-haired Scotsman who sits behind the Raptors bench, invented the torsion board, which he sold to Reebok, and developed the Core X system of resistance bands designed to strengthen the core and ultimately help prevent injuries.
Injury prevention is a major part of McKechnie’s job. Modern-day sports and training staffs are focused on prehab and keeping players on the athletic field just as much as they are on rehab. It is a holistic approach to a player’s health that has turned into a year-round effort. Players are given specific training routines to prevent injuries based on that player’s body makeup and history.
With millions of dollars invested in players, teams have invested significantmoney in training staffs. Besides McKechnie, the Raptors employ a head athletic trainer, two assistant athletic trainers, a massage therapist, a strength and conditioning coach and a physiotherapist.
“It's incredible the difference in the size of training staffs, the expertise, the overall knowledge that we have now compared to 20 years ago,” said Kerr, who spent 15 seasons as a player.
The importance of these staffs can’t be overstated. When Chelsea Lane left Golden State as the head performance therapist after last season to become the Atlanta Hawks’ executive director of athletic performance and sports medicine, it was considered a major loss for the Warriors.
New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, who came on board in April, values the position so much that he hired Aaron Nelson, who developed a reputation with the Phoenix Suns for keeping players healthy and getting injured ones back on the court and playing at a high level.
“You want to hire top-notch people, and you want your players to be well taken care of and to participate in their own well-being,” Kerr said. “We have a really good group. We're very proud of our group and lucky to have them. And our players have done a very good job of being engaged with them all year.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt
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