The battle to become the third-best team in the Eastern Conference has been simultaneously competitive and pathetic so far this NBA season, with various deeply flawed teams struggling to stay on the right side of .500 and provide some vague challenge to the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat at the top of the standings. The 16-13 Atlanta Hawks have staked a claim to the spot, if only by default, becoming the third and last East team with more wins than losses and something better than deeply embarrassing.
However, on Friday, the Hawks received news that will throw their current status into doubt. After leaving Thursday night's 127-125 double-overtime win vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers with injury, star big man Al Horford will be out indefinitely with a complete tear of his right pectoral muscle. From Charles Odum for the Associated Press:
Al Horford, the Atlanta Hawks' leading scorer and rebounder, is out indefinitely with a torn right pectoral muscle, leaving his status for the remainder of the season in question.
Horford left during the first overtime of Thursday night's 127-125 double-overtime win at Cleveland and did not return. The Hawks said an MRI and examination on Friday by Dr. Michael Bernot in Atlanta revealed the complete tear of the muscle.
''We will work with Al and complete our due diligence to determine the next best steps for him,'' Hawks general manager Danny Ferry said in a statement. ''Injuries are part of the challenge of an NBA season.''
Take a look at the play during which Horford suffered his injury below:
While the Hawks did not announce a timetable for Horford's recovery, his own history suggests a lengthy stint in street clothes. Horford missed all but 11 regular-season games of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season with the same injury to his left pectoral, sitting out four months before returning to play three games of the Hawks' first-round series against the Boston Celtics. If that timeline holds for this injury, then Horford could return for the postseason, should the Hawks make it.
Their chances are decent even if Horford does not return. Although the Hawks will certainly miss their starting center's considerable production (per-game averages of 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 33.0 minutes), the East is in such poor shape that they can hold onto a playoff spot with forward Paul Millsap and guard Jeff Teague leading their attack. At the same time, the dropoff to likely replacements Pero Antic and Elton Brand is considerable. With a mere four-game lead on the ninth-place Chicago Bulls, it's not as if the Hawks have far to fall to become a lottery participant.
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