Lakers and Celtics, blood brothers until the end.
Or so it would appear.
These storied franchises would prefer to live in parallel universes on the highest of planes, adding to the shared lore on elite battlegrounds just as they did in an epic NBA Finals last June. But they're suffering together in the dirt at the moment, without a tourniquet and without something that matters far more than their late-season stumbling acts.
Andrew Bynum hyperextended his right knee in a 102-93 win over San Antonio on Tuesday night at Staples Center, an injury that overshadowed the end of the Lakers' five-game losing streak and cast a shadow of undetermined darkness on the two-time defending champions' playoff landscape. No team knows their pain more than the Celtics, who justified the mid-February Kendrick Perkins trade with Oklahoma City by touting their record while he was injured this season (33-10) only to see a downturn at the worst of times (they've lost 11 of their last 20 games).
The hard road is theirs then, with the Celtics -- who received Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic in the deal with the Thunder -- having already settled for the third seed in the Eastern Conference that pits them against No. 6 New York in the first round. The Lakers are still fighting for No. 2 in the West, a spot they can secure with a win at Sacramento on Wednesday night in their finale, or if visiting New Orleans defeats Dallas.
It's more about the men in the middle than it is the mediocrity, though, as these sorts of slumps have often proved pointless in projecting the playoffs. The Lakers lost seven of their last 11 games last season before winning it all, while the Celtics lost seven of their final 10 before lasting all the way to the grittiest of Game 7s.
The Lakers' 2009 Finals victim, the Orlando Magic, lost five of their last nine in that regular season. Ditto for the Finals counterparts in 2007, as eventual champion San Antonio lost its last three regular-season games while Cleveland dropped seven of 12 in a late stretch.
But being without the defensive anchor, whether by circumstance or by choice, is where the real cause for concern comes in. Boston has received almost no help from either O'Neal; Shaquille continues to deal with a calf injury (he's expected to return for Game 1 of the playoffs) while Jermaine offered a chilling playoff preview for Celtics fans when he tallied zero points and zero rebounds in 14 minutes of a tone-setting torching by Miami on Sunday (100-77).
Bynum, meanwhile, had been playing the best basketball of his six-year career. He entered Tuesday's game having averaged 12.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks since the All-Star break, his play a dream realized for Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak after so many years of incessant knee injuries and disappointments from the 10th pick of the 2005 draft. Kupchak, who had to be feeling some form of vindication in recent weeks, even deemed Bynum untradable in a mid-March interview on his team's website.
"When Andrew is healthy, and he plays like he is playing right now, you are hard pressed to look at anybody in this league and say, 'I would trade him for that person,' " Kupchak said then.
Or, as put more bluntly by Lakers small forward Ron Artest this week during his team's visit to Golden State: "Andrew has been unbelievable. Anybody who ever said he should be traded should stop watching basketball. They should never watch basketball again."
An MRI on Wednesday revealed that Bynum had just a bone bruise and should be fine for the Lakers' playoff opener this weekend. As for the Celtics? They won't be getting Perkins back whether he's healthy or not.
He is fine, of course, having recently signed a four-year extension with Oklahoma City and promptly gone to work fitting into coach Scott Brooks' system. And while he continues to help the Thunder form this new, championship-worthy identity, he admitted on Monday night that he has kept a close watch on his old club.
"Yeah, I am surprised [by Boston's struggles without him]," he said while in Sacramento on Monday. "But I know one thing about them. They've been through this [expletive] before. When the playoffs come, they'll be there. It's going to be hard and tough on them, but they'll get it together."
The Lakers' and Celtics' wounds certainly look fatal, but guesswork this time of year can be futile too. A few playoff wins, and the cuts will be cured. A few more losses, and the blood brothers will be no more.
"We can't get caught up in the way the package is supposed to look," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said after Sunday's home loss to the Thunder. "At the end of the day, we just want to have the gift that we want and that's to be champions.
"Every year there are situations where it makes you feel like this might not be the year -- every time. We won the first [championship in 2000], and Shaq dominated the regular season and we just seemed to be a team that wasn't going to be beat. We're in a five-game series in the first-round against the Kings, [then] our backs are completely against the wall in the conference finals against the Blazers. Every year presents challenges and adversities that you never see coming. That's why grown men cry when you finally win that championship, because you remember when you lost five games in a row and things looked pretty bad."