Effect of injuries on playoff teams
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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.
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