You can make arguments for the West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder trying to pay back the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers after Chris Paul's Wednesday night game-winner as Monday night's most exciting matchup, and I won't fault you too much. When Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, CP3 and Serge Ibaka all occupy the same court, the opportunity exists for some amazing stuff to happen, and it should be watched. Sure.
But we already know OKC and the Clips will be playing beyond next week; for me, the four games Monday night with major postseason implications for the lower portion of the playoff bracket are much more interesting ... in large part because everything we see could be, to some degree, bastardized.
Take the Orlando Magic. (Please.) They come into Monday night's matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers at 35-25, sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and assured of a playoff spot by virtue of their Sunday win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. They're also preparing to head into the postseason without All-Star center Dwight Howard.
Whatever issues roil in the Orlando locker room and upstairs in the offices of management, Howard is the unquestioned focal point of the Magic, the one piece without which they have no hope of contending for anything beyond two games of gate revenue in the playoffs ... and he's got a herniated disk that's had him shelved for the last four games, will keep him out for at least 10 days and has coach Stan Van Gundy approaching things as if it'd be a "bonus" if Howard came back at all.
Ditto for Hedo Turkoglu, who is out for the remainder of the regular season after suffering a facial fracture that required surgery, although it's way more fun to say that he has a broken face. Despite the continual degradation of his play over the past few seasons, Turkoglu has still started 52 games and averaged 31 minutes per contest for Van Gundy's squad this season. Almost all of his individual offense has fallen off a cliff, but he's still averaging five dimes per 36 minutes and assisting on nearly a quarter of the Magic's baskets while he's on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference.com. As a facilitator, if nothing else, he still matters for that team, in that system, in that context, and they don't have him.
Orlando also probably won't have Glen Davis, who'd largely been something less than stellar since coming to the Magic after a dire 2010-11 postseason with the Boston Celtics in a trade for fellow four-five type Brandon Bass. But Davis was enjoying his best two-week stretch of the season before hyperextending his right knee against the Cavs, an injury that will likely keep him out of Orlando's bottom-of-the-bracket faceoff with the 76ers on Monday night. The Magic have Ryan Anderson back from his ankle sprain, but he's been off-target since returning a week ago, hitting just seven of his 33 field-goal attempts in the last three games.
So when the Magic line up against the healthy-as-it-goes Sixers in a game that could tractor-beam Philly to within 2.5 games of tying Orlando for the sixth seed with six games left in their season, they'll be running their offense through ... who? A still-busted Anderson? Memories of Jason Richardson? Is Jameer Nelson going to have to pop for 40?
The Magic are perhaps the most extreme example of the injury run-down, but they're far from the only team bitten by the bug.
The Memphis Grizzlies — the bruising bunch that no one wants to play, the beat-'em-down crew that's taken out multiple playoff-caliber opponents in a 10-4 run since March 25 — may have just lost their starting center, as Marc Gasol hyperextended his left knee on Sunday, has a bone bruise on the knee and is doubtful for Memphis' game Tuesday night. The No. 3-seeded Indiana Pacers could be without starting point guard Darren Collison as a groin injury has him listed as doubtful for the Pacers' Monday night game against the flagging Minnesota Timberwolves, a great opportunity for Frank Vogel's team to cement its status as the East's third-best squad and put the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks permanently in its rear-view mirror.
Marcus Camby left the Houston Rockets' Sunday night game against the Denver Nuggets with a sore back; his status for the Monday night rematch between the West's seventh and eighth seeds, who are separated by just a game in the standings, remains uncertain. Dallas' Rodrigue Beaubois has a strained calf that could keep him out Monday for the Mavericks, clinging to the sixth spot out West and in need of a win after dropping an overtime heartbreaker to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. Luckily for the Mavs, their Monday night opponent, the Utah Jazz, come in without four rotation-player veterans and could be without two other young contributors, DeMarre Carroll and Jeremy Evans, as they look to win for the first time in three games and stay alive in the playoff chase.
The Phoenix Suns are just ahead of the Jazz in the conference, only a game back of the Rockets for eighth, and sorely need a win against the struggling Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, with their final five games of the season coming against Western Conference squads with winning records. Even with Phoenix's universe-leading medical team, though, Steve Nash (back/hip) and Grant Hill (knee) are questionable for the ninth-seeded Suns' game against Portland, whose whole season (and, really, franchise arc) has been derailed by injury.
This is when you say to me (if you haven't already), "Well, tough [EXPLETIVE], Dan. Injuries happen.
Ricky Rubio limps off, helped by Timberwolves teammates. (AP)"Chicago a one-seed and they've been dealing with Derrick Rose's injuries all season. The Clippers might have been a No. 2 seed with Chauncey Billups, and Minnesota is a playoff team if Ricky Rubio's knee holds up. Atlanta hasn't had Al Horford for months; Houston hasn't had Kevin Martin for five weeks; the Knicks have been about 11 different teams thanks to the Carmelo Anthony/Amar'e Stoudemire/Jeremy Lin injuries this season; and so on, and so on." And you're not wrong.
Injuries are part of life in sports; this is why coaches make such a big deal about not using them as excuses. We have enough to win, the coaches always say — we just have to band together and do it. Which is, of course, not only the right thing for them to do, but also the only thing for them to do. If every team that lost an important player to injury just threw in the towel, then the best way to win in the NBA would be to not try really hard, run really fast or jump really high, because you can get hurt doing that. Then we'd be watching, like, darts or something.
As a fan, though? Which, y'know, we all still are, to some degree, whether or not we're being paid to write about this stuff? It kind of sucks. No, wait, I'm hedging: It totally sucks. Yes, we root for stories worth writing about, which are so often offered by underdogs, castaways and the overlooked end-of-the-bencher who makes good. But you know who else provides stories worth writing about? Amazing athletes, the best in their field, who are healthy, able to play and can have a legitimate impact on how the fates of games, teams and leagues are decided. They tend to do some pretty fantastic stuff. It's great to watch. It's, arguably, even better to get to write about.
Going into the final half-dozen games of the NBA's regular season — a regular season truncated, accelerated and pushed at a perhaps-unsound pace thanks to interminable discussions of how to whack up basketball-related income and the parsing of the stretch exception — we're missing a lot of those kinds of guys. Maybe if the season was 82 games long — with standard rest, normal travel and practice schedules, and plenty of downtime for players to recuperate — we'd be seeing the exact same strains, pulls, tweaks, bumps and bruises to groins, ankles, knees and all the rest of it. And yes, sure, the playing field's level, because everyone's got to deal with the same schedule, the same rest, and so on and so on. But we're going to see some things get decided over the next week or so by the absence of deciders rather than their presence. To some degree, I can't help but feeling like, one more time, it's the fans who get the shaft in this scenario, being forced to live and die by every Daniel Orton hook shot.
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