Effect of injuries on playoff teams (cont.)
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 ...
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