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NBA Stretch Run: Is Anybody Healthy?

   by Al McMordie - 02/24/2009

News flash: Cavaliers/Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Big 3 back in December were the Lakers out West and the Celtics and Cavs in the East. Two of those three were expected to meet in the NBA Finals. Not much has changed since, with the exception of all the injuries to key players preventing any other team from cracking that elite list.

Orlando? Certainly not a fraud, with a superstar center in 23-year old Dwight Howard and a sizzling road record. Alas, its best backcourt player, Jameer Nelson, is out for the season after recent surgery. That’s why it traded for 10-year veteran guard Rafer Alston last week from the Rockets. He’s a steady player, a good ball handler and distributor, but not a good outside shooter. The loss of Nelson was significant.

The Celtics have had minor depth problems, as their bench lost two key players from last year’s championship team, big man P.J. Brown and do-it-all sixth man James Posey. Boston didn’t add anyone significant during trade time last week. The injury to Kevin Garnett is significant in more ways than just losing a star player. Sure, he will be back in three weeks and likely healthy for the playoffs, but during that stretch Boston is going to lose ground on the home court battle with the Lakers and Cavs. Boston’s home court edge in the 2008 postseason was huge, given that the Celts started 0-3 SU/ATS on the road.

Atlanta? Detroit? No and no. The Hawks have had injury concerns all season while the Pistons are an aging, dysfunctional, disinterested group under a first-year coach.

Out West, can anyone challenge the Lakers? On paper, the Rockets were an interesting collection of talent just waiting to get healthy for the playoffs to show how good they can be. But that plan is already in the waste basket with Tracy McGrady now gone for the year. They traded Alston, so now the backcourt is leaning on Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry.

They have a new look, too, as Rockets coach Rick Adelman wants point guard Brooks to start pushing the ball up the court at a faster pace to take advantage of his quickness. This is not going to be a run-and-gun team like the Suns or Knicks, however. The Rockets want to use Brooks’ and Lowry’s speed more, sometimes in fast breaks, but also in getting into their halfcourt offense to set things up for Yao Ming. Don’t look for a huge change in offensive philosophy.

Don’t ever count the veteran Spurs out. The knock on San Antonio was age and being more susceptible to injuries, and now Manu Ginobili is out with a right leg problem. They went 6-6 when Ginobili missed the first 12 games of the season and they started 1-1 with out him now. They need him back 100% and chasing the Lakers for the West’s top seed is out of the question.

Denver? Hmmm. It’s tough to get fired up about a Denver team that got swept by the Lakers last season, packing it in at home. Portland? The young Blazers are loaded with talent, but now center Greg Oden is out least three games with a sore left knee/chipped patella.

Finally, should we consider the Suns and their new coach an option to get hot down the stretch? That’s certainly a possibility, as firing Terry Porter was just the medicine this veteran team needed, starting 3-0 SU/ATS under Alvin Gentry. But the team got bad news with forward Amare Stoudemire out eight weeks after retina surgery, possibly ending his season. And even if they stay hot, they are currently the No. 9 seed in the West, not even eligible for the playoffs yet. That’s a steep hill to climb.

The Lakers expect center Andruw Bynum back for the postseason and they made it to the Finals last year without him. Plus, the Cavaliers have already recovered from their injury-problem with the Big Z at center now back and playing well. With too many "ifs" and "problems" with all those other teams, bring on a LeBron/Kobe NBA Finals! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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