Wednesday April 29th, 2009

While the Bulls and Celtics choreograph a series that mauls on and on like a Rocky Balboa fight, the rest of the playoffs have played out in the shadows by rote.

Of course, there have been some surprises -- such as the Mavericks' easy advancement as a No. 6 seed, which no one would have anticipated earlier this season when they were foundering. But let's be straight: Those weren't the real San Antonio Spurs who lost to Dallas in five games. With Manu Ginobili in slacks and Tim Duncan limping, the diminished Spurs turned into Tony Parker and a company of role players. Unless you're a fan with an emotional stake in either team, there was little reason to care about a series like Dallas-San Antonio once the Spurs became irrelevant to the championship race.

You have to go back two decades to the days of Magic's Lakers, Larry's Celtics, Moses' 76ers and Isiah's Pistons to find another era when you knew -- you just knew -- which teams were going to wind up meeting in the NBA Finals. It's as if the Lakers and Cavaliers already know they're going to win their respective primaries and are now preparing for the general election in June.

The point is that one player can make all the difference in this postseason. Try to imagine how much stronger the playoffs would be if all of these stars were healthy and productive:

Jameer Nelson, Magic: Orlando's two losses to Philadelphia came by two points each. Don't you think Nelson would have erased that deficit in one or both of those games? Before his February shoulder injury, Nelson was an All-Star point guard shooting 50.3 percent and managing the pick-and-roll in the half court, a staple Orlando would have exploited throughout this series. Topping all else would have been Nelson's leadership. He was the leader of the Magic, and his absence has forced Dwight Howard to grow into that role. Which isn't altogether bad, because in the long term the Magic may appreciate the leadership opportunities created for Howard. But for now, they're suffering without Nelson to show them the way.

Tyson Chandler, Hornets: He's back on the floor after missing 38 regular-season games, but New Orleans' lone 7-footer is providing a scant 23.5 minutes and 5.3 rebounds. The Hornets were a thin team already, and now, without a healthy Chandler (not to mention the back injury plaguing Peja Stojakovic), they have no chance against the ambitious Nuggets. The 58-point home loss Monday was a seminal catastrophe for the Hornets, who can't afford to strengthen their rotation as they slash payroll this summer to avoid the luxury tax next season. Chris Paul and David West look stranded, their future together discouraging.

Kevin Garnett, Celtics: The most important event of this season wasn't a trade or free-agent signing; it was the midseason knee injury to Garnett, which has taken the Celtics out of title contention and severely diminished the championship race.

For starters, if a healthy Garnett were on the floor this week, then Derrick Rose's lanes to the basket would be cut off and the Celtics would be getting back on defense, simply because Garnett has the power to demand such effort from his teammates. In the bigger picture, the Cavaliers would go from the prohibitive Eastern favorites they are today to a 50-50 choice to win the conference finals. Their home-court advantage would be offset by the championship confidence of the Celtics, turning an eventual Boston-Cleveland series into a last-minute-of-Game-7 toss-up. Meanwhile, the Lakers spent all summer and much of this season gearing up for a potential rematch with the Celtics, and now it will not come to be.

For all the excitement of the Chicago-Boston series, there's been an artificial quality to it because of Garnett's absence. In the bigger picture, it would be far more satisfying to watch a healthy Celtics team crush these Bulls in the first round to move closer to a thrilling rematch with the Cavaliers.

Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, Spurs: Ginobili surely could have driven the Spurs past Dallas, and a second-round matchup with the hot Nuggets would have been fascinating. Could the Spurs ultimately have challenged the Lakers in the conference finals? Only if Duncan were healthy, too. No good team burdens three players more than the Spurs, who rely on the trio of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker. But now that two of them are on the wrong side of 30 and wearing down, the prospects of another title run have dimmed. Our loss, because they set a standard of commitment and discipline that elevates the entire league.

Dwyane Wade, Heat: In Games 2 and 3, Wade totaled 62 points in Miami's victories against Atlanta. Then back spasms helped limit him to 22 points (on 26 shots) in an 81-71 home loss to the Hawks. So it's a simple formula: If he's healthy and productive, the Heat should win. He looks like the only player on either team who believes his side should and will prevail. Health permitting, of course.

Tracy McGrady, Rockets: The blue-collar Rockets have pushed Portland around for much of this series, leaving Houston on the verge of its first series win in a dozen years. Next up would be the Lakers in a second-round meeting, which the Rockets couldn't survive. They would defend and push for easy baskets, but they wouldn't have enough half-court scoring to beat L.A.

The version of McGrady whose injured knee kept him playing below the rim this season wouldn't be of any help. But the T-Mac of previous years, who was capable of exploding for 30, surely would put a scare into the Lakers. If McGrady makes a full recovery by next season, it is going to be interesting to see if he can make the transition that Paul Pierce and Ray Allen completed last year in adapting their games to fit the larger needs of a championship team. In McGrady's case, that's going to require effort defensively and a willingness to play without the ball, as the Rockets attack the open court via their young point guards. Those are a lot of ifs, but they have major implications for the Rockets and McGrady next year.

Andrew Bynum, Lakers: He has been in and out of focus while working his way back from a midseason knee injury. The Lakers can survive the next two rounds without their young center, but they may need Bynum in a Finals against LeBron's tall Cavaliers. Bynum's progress will be watched closely in the month ahead.

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