Injuries Heavily Impact First RoundInjuries can change the fortunes even of a team that seemed destined to capture the NBA championship; for instance, in 1972-73 the Boston Celtics--who would win titles in 1974 and 1976--cruised to the best record in the NBA (68-14, eight games in front of their closest pursuers) but after Hall of Famer/Top 50 selection John Havlicek separated his shoulder the New York Knicks eliminated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This season, injuries have profoundly affected the playoff seeding and the first round of the playoffs. Look no further than the defending champion Celtics, who started out with a record setting 27-2 mark (including a 19 game winning streak); sans defensive anchor Kevin Garnett (and key frontcourt reserve Leon Powe), the Celtics are in a hard fought first round battle with a 41-41 Chicago team.
Out West, it is highly unlikely that the Utah Jazz would have fallen to the eighth seed--and a death match versus the powerful L.A. Lakers--if Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer had been healthier during the season; for that matter, if former All-Star Mehmet Okur had been full strength during the series with the Lakers the Jazz could have put up more resistance, though the Lakers would still certainly have been expected to prevail.
The Denver Nuggets only added four wins to their 2008 total but they vaulted from the eighth seed to the second seed largely because so many of their injury-hit rivals lurched into reverse, including the Jazz, the Spurs, the Mavericks, the Hornets and even the Suns, an underachieving team to be sure but one that was still obviously damaged by the season-ending injury suffered by All-Star Amare Stoudemire. The Nuggets just completed a five game massacre of the Hornets, a team that last year finished second in the West and pushed the defending champion Spurs to seven games in the second round of the playoffs; with Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic hobbling, the Hornets simply could not keep up with the Nuggets, though the Hornets' 58 point home loss in game four is embarrassing and disgraceful.
In 2007, the Spurs won their fourth championship in nine seasons and last year they reached the Western Conference Finals but with Manu Ginobili sidelined and Tim Duncan not 100% the Spurs bowed out to the Mavericks in the first round, the Spurs' earliest playoff departure since 2000. The Mavericks got off to a horrible start this season--in part due to Josh Howard being hurt--but they are at full strength now and seem to be a formidable team, though they will have their hands full with the Nuggets, who are also deep and healthy.
The Lakers posted the best record in the West for the second year in a row even though starting center Andrew Bynum missed nearly half of the season. Most people assume that they will cruise to the Finals but their depth has been seriously compromised by several injuries: Bynum is still not 100%, Luke Walton will likely miss the rest of the playoffs and Jordan Farmar has not been the same since coming back from midseason knee surgery. If the ESPN/ABC "experts" talk this weekend about the Lakers' supposed great depth then you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were not paying close attention to the first round: the Lakers' sixth man is currently Shannon Brown, a player who was 13th in playoff minutes played for the 2007 Cleveland team that advanced to the NBA Finals. The Lakers hope/expect that Bynum will play an important role in a second round matchup with Houston or Portland but he has yet to prove that he can stay healthy or that he can be a consistently productive playoff performer.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:36 PM