Most Devastating Injuries That Will Swing the 2013 NBA Playoff Race
Injuries are an unfortunate fact of life in the world of sports. The NBA is anything but immune to this reality.
As one might expect from a league that features giants with superhuman speed and athleticism flying up and down wooden courts (and into each other) for 30 to 40 minutes a night, 82 times a year.
The wear and tear of a long and grueling regular season has emerged in full force with the calendar's turn from March to April. Nearly every team in either conference's playoff picture is dealing with a significant injury to one key player or another, with but two weeks left on the schedule before the games really start to mean something.
I'm not talking about injuries like those to the knees of Derrick Rose and Danny Granger, either. The Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers have spent the vast majority of the current campaign operating under the assumption that their respective All-Stars wouldn't be healthy enough to help them.
Rather, I'm referring to setbacks, like those encountered by these seven stars, that have emerged in recent weeks to cast doubt on the hopes and dreams of the teams in question.
7. Dwyane Wade's Knee and Ankle
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Chances are, Dwyane Wade won't be in uniform whenever it is that the Miami Heat hit the 60-win threshold.
The nine-time All-Star missed the last two games of the Heat's historic 27-game winning streak with tenderness in his troublesome knee and sprained his right ankle during Miami's recent loss to the Chicago Bulls. That sprain cost Wade a starring role in the Heat's win over the San Antonio Spurs and a spot on the court for the team's fourth and final meeting of the season with the New York Knicks.
Of course, the only way Wade's problems will have any impact on the playoff picture is if they persist past the end of the regular season. The Heat have long since clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are well on their way to securing the best record in the NBA.
Wade figures to get plenty of rest over the next two weeks to ensure that he's right and ready to go when the Heat re-engage for a run to their second consecutive title—and third straight NBA Finals.
But if D-Wade's 31-year-old knee and ankle aren't at or near full strength by then, Miami's path back to the Larry O'Brien Trophy may not be as clear as previously thought.
6. Tyson Chandler's Neck
As with Wade's knee and ankle, the bulging disc in Tyson Chandler's neck would be a bigger problem for the New York Knicks if not for a few factors:
1) Chandler's listed as day-to-day and figures to be back in action before the end of the regular season.
2) The Knicks have won their last eight games, all without Chandler.
3) New York's odds of advancing past the Eastern Conference Finals rest somewhere between "slim" and "none."
That being said, the Knicks could certainly use Chandler's acumen as a rebounder, defensive anchor and pick-and-roll finisher as they look to fend off the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division and outlast the Indiana Pacers in the race for the No. 2 seed in the East.
5. The Lakers' Laundry List of Problems
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The Los Angeles Lakers, considered legitimate title contenders what seems like eons ago, are on the brink of missing the playoffs entirely for the first time since 2005. Plenty of folks will point to coaching chaos, poor roster construction and a startling lack of cohesion and chemistry as the reasons for the Lakers' failure, whether the team's autopsy is conducted in mid-April or a week or two thereafter.
But if there's any culprit for LA's fall out of the top eight down the stretch, it's injuries. Between Metta World Peace's surgically repaired knee, Steve Nash's hamstring and Kobe Bryant's ankle/foot/everything, the Lakers can't seem to keep their most important players healthy.
Let's not forget, either, that Dwight Howard's back has bothered him all year, that Pau Gasol's foot only recently recovered from a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis and that backup big man Jordan Hill has long been lost for the season with a hip injury.
Even if the Lakers limp into the playoffs, they're bound to have their lunch handed to them by either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Still, as disastrously disappointing as the 2012-13 season has already been, a seat at home would secure the Purple-and-Gold's campaign as (arguably) one of the biggest failures in NBA history, if not the history of all professional sports.
4. Kevin Garnett's Ankle
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As with their historic rivals, the Boston Celtics saw their hopes of stealing a shot at the title from the Miami Heat spiral down the drain months ago. The loss of Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL merely sealed the C's already-written fate back in late January.
As such, the sight Kevin Garnett in street clothes on account of inflammation in his injured left ankle should hardly have impacted the lowered expectations of folks in Beantown.
Not that the effects of KG's latest setback won't be felt. With him in the lineup, the Celtics are capable of making the Eastern Conference playoffs interesting at the very least, thanks to KG's strengths as an anchor on defense and a jump shooter on offense.
Without him, the C's are left to rely all too heavily on inconsistent, defensive sieves like Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox to carry the load up front and on the aging duo of Paul Pierce—who's playing through his own ankle pain—and Jason Terry to pick up the slack from the backcourt.
On the bright side, Garnett should return soon to give the C's a lift before they slip into the No. 8 spot and invite a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat.
3. Ty Lawson's Foot
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It wasn't two weeks ago that the Denver Nuggets looked like dark-horse contenders in the Western Conference.
Since then, they've dropped two of three and, of greater import, lost Ty Lawson to a complete tear of his plantar fascia.
According to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post, Lawson's foot troubles first arose on March 19th, during a 114-104 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time, team doctors diagnosed Lawson with a heel strain/contusion and didn't discover the trouble with the underside of Ty's foot until nine days later.
As a result, the Nuggets now have Lawson listed officially as day-to-day, though there lingers an expectation that he'll miss significant time to allow his foot to recover. Luckily for head coach George Karl, he has Andre Miller, a crafty veteran with no shortage of starting experience, waiting in the wings to take over for Lawson in the interim.
Still, there's no replacing what Ty brings to the table. He leads the Nuggets in scoring, assists and minutes. With his blinding speed and stocky strength, he serves as the catalyst behind Denver's chaotic up-and-down style. His absence may well jeopardize the Nuggets' play for home-court advantage now and, in turn, their pursuit of a deep playoff push later.
2. Chauncey Billups' Groin
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Once upon a time (i.e. just over two years ago), Chauncey Billups was tutoring Ty Lawson in the fine art of being an NBA point guard. These days, he spends the bulk of his time working with another floor general with prominent ties to the state of North Carolina in Chris Paul.
Except, this time around, Billups is doing so while dressed in "business casual" attire, rather than in his team's chosen threads.
Mr. Big Shot has missed all but 20 of the Los Angeles Clippers' games this season—the exact number in which he played during the 2011-12 campaign before succumbing to a torn Achilles tendon. The 36-year-old former NBA Finals MVP has dealt with all manner of maladies in the wake of his recovery, the latest of which involves Billups' groin.
The Clips could certainly use Billups' services right about now. They're 14-6 when Chauncey plays and have dropped their last three games in a row without him. That slide has LA on the verge of losing out on home-court advantage in the West—a sizable disappointment, given preseason expectations and the Clips' ownership of the league's best record at the halfway mark.
Moreover, Billups is the one player on the roster with the ability, as both a player and a leader, to elevate the Clips from mere playoff power to potential title contender.
LA comes equipped with tremendous depth behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but it's Mr. Big Shot who could put the Clippers over the top.
1. Manu Ginobili's Hamstring
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Like clockwork, Manu Ginobili is back on the shelf with a late-season injury that threatens to derail the San Antonio Spurs' championship push. This time, it's a balky hamstring that has Ginobili back on the bench for what could be as long as a month.
To be sure, such news would've been far more devastating in years past, when the Spurs were more reliant on their Big Three—Gino included—to carry the bulk of the load.
But head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have done a masterful job over the last two seasons of cultivating a much deeper, more complete roster. In fact, the Spurs currently sport seven players who average better than eight points per game, with Ginobili's 11.9 checking in just a hair ahead of Kawhi Leonard's 11.7 in the race for third fiddle in San Antonio.
That being said, Manu remains vital to the Spurs' operation over the long haul. As apparent (and tragic) as the effects of age have been on Ginobili's health and productivity this season, he's still the lone creative force among San Antonio's second unit and is the crunch-time killer whose mere presence forces opposing defenses to fret over their coverage of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
As such, the Spurs' narrow lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the West looks as tenuous as ever, especially with a trip to OKC on the docket. Slipping to No. 2 would pit San Antonio against the Houston Rockets, with whom the Spurs have had some difficulty this season, in the first round.
Either way, the Spurs would be hard-pressed to win the West and give Timmy another shot at a title if Gino's hammy isn't up to snuff by May, at the latest.