Less than two weeks before the start of the first-round series, several playoff teams are coping with key injuries. Predicting what the future holds for these clubs and their ailing players is no easy task -- remember, a year ago at this time, most people figured Kevin Garnett would return at some point to help the then-champion Celtics defend their title.
With that cautionary note in mind, what follows are semi-educated guesses from a cloudy crystal ball about how injuries will affect some playoff teams.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS: We'll begin with what seems like the easiest prognostication: The Bucks will be first-round roadkill without center Andrew Bogut, who is finished for the season after dislocating his elbow, breaking his hand and spraining his wrist against the Suns last Saturday. The 25-year-old fifth-year center was enjoying a breakout season, especially on defense, where his average of 2.5 blocks per game (second behind Dwight Howard) was the backbone of a team that ranks third in defensive efficiency, allowing just 102.9 points per 100 possessions.
Bogut's replacement, Kurt Thomas, 37, is a heady but slow defender by comparison, and on the other end he won't draw the double teams in the paint that open the floor for guards Brandon Jennings and John Salmons. With their 7-foot team MVP on the floor, the Bucks would have been intriguing first-round underdogs against likely foes such as the Hawks or the Celtics. Bogut's gruesome fall has taken much of the mystery out of that matchup.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: The Cavs traded for Shaquille O'Neal last summer specifically to improve their ability to match up with Howard and the Magic in the playoffs. But the league's heaviest and second-oldest player has been out since Feb. 26 with a thumb injury, and isn't expected back until the first round. Can enough rust be knocked off the Diesel for him to make a difference against Orlando, provided the top two seeds meet in the conference finals? Maybe, but either way, the much-ballyhooed acquisition of Shaq was always overrated. Getting long, lean forwards and swingmen such as Antawn Jamison, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker who can defend the perimeter against Rashard Lewis, plus the improvement of J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao, are better solutions against the Magic than deploying a Shaq who is well into the dusk of his career. In fact, a recurrence of Varejao's pesky hamstring injury would be a deeper concern for Cleveland, which has gone 15-3 in Shaq's most recent absence.
CHARLOTTE BOBCATS: One potentially significant playoff injury that has gone mostly under the radar is center Nazr Mohammed's back spasms, which have kept him out of the lineup since Feb. 22. Mohammed, who has been practicing with the Bobcats, would give them more offense in the low block than the 36-year-old Theo Ratliff and foul-prone Tyson Chandler, and he wouldn't hurt them much on defense. Larry Brown's grind-it-out but inconsistent club becomes a more viable sleeper for a first-round upset if Mohammed can provide a contrast to Charlotte's two other defensive-oriented big men and occasionally even kick Chandler over to the power forward slot.
MIAMI HEAT: Center Jermaine O'Neal has missed the last four games with a hyperextended right knee but is expected to return before the playoffs. The injury is still worth noting because the effect of hyperextensions can linger; the 31-year-old O'Neal has little NBA tread left on his tires since coming to the league right out of high school; and, if he's limited or unavailable, the Heat would be hard-pressed to replace their second-leading rebounder, third-leading scorer and quality low-post defender with the undersized Joel Anthony and the older and slower Jamaal Magloire.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Already regarded as one of the NBA's most charismatic clutch performers, Manu Ginobili has been spectacular this month in the wake of the broken hand that sidelined point guard Tony Parker. Now San Antonio's other point guard, George Hill, is out with a sprained ankle. Parker was cleared to play Tuesday and Hill is expected back for the playoffs, but neither is likely to be at 100 percent efficiency. That matters less now that Ginobili has elevated his game into a pretty fair imitation of Dwyane Wade, averaging 28.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists over his last nine games while initiating the offense in half-court sets.
Ginobili has almost single-handedly altered the trajectory of the Spurs' season, from disappointing underachievers to proud, gritty veterans who have a chance to become a fearsome Cinderella story in the West. Ironically, a rapid return to vintage form by Parker could diminish the incredible roll Ginobili is on and ultimately hurt San Antonio's playoff chances. But if anyone can overcome pecking-order issues, it's the Spurs' Big Three of Ginobili, Parker and Tim Duncan. (And don't count out Hill, a Gregg Popovich favorite.)
PHOENIX SUNS: The Suns seem perpetually snakebit by injury come playoff time. This year it is second-year center Robin Lopez's back injury that is casting a pall on the Suns' postseason fortunes. Lopez (bulging disc), who has missed five games in a row and whose status for the playoffs is unknown, provides a low-post defensive presence that is dramatically better than what de facto power forwards Amar'e Stoudemire and Channing Frye can muster playing out of position deep in the paint. That's why coach Alvin Gentry has been going with the seldom-used Jarron Collins at center. Collins obviously isn't a viable fix for too many minutes, and with Lopez not at full strength, the Suns are even more apt to try to outscore opponents with a breakneck pace -- not usually a sound strategy in the playoffs.
Add in point guard Steve Nash's ongoing back woes and shooting guard Jason Richardson's recent back spasms, and that's 60 percent of the starting lineup unable to tie their sneakers on a given day. A surprisingly deep bench -- especially point guard Goran Dragic and defensive hustlers Jared Dudley and Louis Amundson -- could be crucial to the Suns' first-round survival, regardless of whether they secure home-court advantage.
DENVER NUGGETS: Forward Kenyon Martin was scheduled to return to practice Tuesday after sitting out a month with knee tendinitis; it's difficult to imagine his operating at full capacity if he is able to play. That's bad news in the Rockies. His credentials as the team's best defender have been reinforced by Denver's lackluster 12-10 record in games he's missed, compared to its 38-17 mark when he plays. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups can ratchet up their defensive coverage, and Chris Andersen and Anthony Carter are quick, opportunistic players at the defensive end. But Martin is the ringleader on D, a poor man's Garnett in that sense, and if a bum wheel hinders his mobility, the Nuggets' chances of returning to the conference finals are reduced dramatically.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Like Phoenix and Denver, the defending champs must be concerned about the health of a stalwart low-post defender -- in this case, the youthful but injury-prone center Andrew Bynum. Bynum said last week that it still hurt to walk on the strained left Achilles tendon that has sidelined him since March 20, and the Lakers said Monday that there is no timetable for his return. While a front line of Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom is plenty big and rangy enough, having Odom replace Bynum in the starting lineup depletes an already thin bench and taxes Gasol's time in the pivot more than you'd like before what is expected to be a long, grueling playoff run.
If Luke Walton's back ailments subside enough for him to increase his minutes and foster consistent ball movement in the second unit, and if Bynum restores height and depth to the front line, the Lakers are well positioned to survive in the West. But neither one of those benefits is guaranteed, and without a highly functioning Bynum, the rugged Lakers defense we've seen most of this season is likely to wear down, exposing the offensive slippage that can't continue to be camouflaged by Kobe Bryant's late-game heroics.
Click below for notes on Michael Beasley's sluggish development and the Timberwolves' puzzling use of Kevin Love ...
Nearing the end of his second season, Heat forward Michael Beasley still isn't mature enough to justify being taken with the second pick, behind Chicago's Derrick Rose, in the 2008 draft. Beasley still has cover-your-eyes ugly games like a March 28 appearance against Toronto, when he missed nine of 10 shots, committed four turnovers and was a minus-15 in 19 minutes during a three-point Heat victory.
And he still has aggravating outings like the one last Saturday in Minnesota. There was no shame in the two quick fouls the 6-10, 235-pound forward picked up trying to guard 7-foot, 275-pound center Darko Milicic (Jermaine O'Neal was out with an injury and the Heat chose to put replacement center Joel Anthony on Minnesota's top scorer, Al Jefferson). But his third foul was glaringly unwise -- he jumped into Damien Wilkins (hardly a long-range threat) during a three-point shot with 2.7 seconds remaining in the half. A silly fourth foul a mere 91 seconds into the third period cemented his lack of self-awareness.
Reporters who cover Miami expect Beasley to be shopped hard this offseason as the Heat seek to add a second star in order to retain Wade, one of the summer's top free agents. Of course, Beasley was supposed to be that stellar sidekick, and as Miami has surged to fifth in the East thanks to an eight-game winning streak, it's hard not to imagine all the sugar plums -- home-court advantage in the playoffs, the assured return of Wade next year -- the Heat would likely reap if Beasley was, as expected, on a par, talent-wise, with Rose.
The Heat, not surprisingly, are downplaying the disappointment. "He's getting better and helping us win," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That is part of the process of playing for a playoff team, one that is fighting for best possible seed. You learn how to impact the game in different ways to help the team win. He is making progress and we are encouraged by it. We keep it all in perspective with Michael. There are a lot of expectations and there is a lot of analysis about him. He is coming along at we think is a healthy rate."
You don't have to watch the Timberwolves very long before concluding that Kevin Love and Jefferson are the team's two best players. But while Jefferson is the team leader in minutes per game, Love is fifth, and has frequently been supplanted to better emphasize the development of first Ryan Hollins and more recently Milicic, each at least three years older than the 21-year-old Love.
Yes, Minnesota is rightfully trying to develop a legit center, and both Hollins and Milicic are 7-footers. But playing either one at Love's expense seems like a long-term absurdity for a 15-62 team that has a double-double machine to nurture, a player who already is among the game's elite rebounders and ranks second in scoring and third in assists on the team.
"I'm sure Kevin on some level is frustrated he's coming off the bench. But we need him, this team needs him," coach Kurt Rambis said before the loss to Miami. "To me it wasn't a demotion, which is the way most people look at someone going to the bench. In my mind it's a promotion -- our second unit needs help and you're someone who can support it and make it better."
But then what? Trying to break a franchise-tying 16-game losing streak against Sacramento last Wednesday, Love and the Wolves built a 16-point lead with 7:06 to play. Rambis replaced three players, including having Milicic sub in for Love. Less than three minutes later, the lead was down to six. (Minnesota held on to win 108-99.)
Three nights later against Miami, Milicic left in the second quarter with a concussion after absorbing an elbow to the jaw. But rather than plug Love into the starting lineup alongside Jefferson (against an undersized Heat front line that included Joel Anthony and Beasley), Rambis opted for Hollins, who owns one of the league's worst plus/minutes ratings. Sure enough, by the time Love entered the game with 6:23 to play in the third quarter, the Heat had expanded their lead from nine to 19 and the outcome was essentially decided.
What makes matters worse is that Love was shorted minutes during the first half of his stellar rookie season by former coach Randy Wittman, a lack of playing time that cost him a spot in the rookie-sophomore game at All-Star weekend.
Asked if he felt like he had been "promoted" to the second unit this year and how he responded to watching his team struggle while he sits, Love said: "I don't look at it as a promotion or a demotion or whatever -- I just have to get it done in the time that the coach gives me. But it is tough sometimes coming in when we are down and in the third quarter it kind of seems like the team needs me.
"Hopefully, looking into next year, I would like to determine what my role is, talking with the coaches going forward about knowing what I am to the team. It is still up to them to decide and for me to work my butt off showing them what I can do. But I feel like I can do other things out there and I'd like to know going forward what they think. That's why you have exit interviews at the end of the season."