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NBA Stretch Run

   by Al McMordie - 03/31/2012

The Heat and Thunder might be the TV executives’ dream for the NBA Finals, but San Antonio, Chicago and the new-look Lakers want a say in the proceedings. As we come down the stretch for the NBA season, the top teams are vying for playoff seeding AND health.

Miami looks like the team to beat in the East, but there are minor injury concerns to two of their big stars. LeBron James sustained a dislocated finger on his left (nonshooting) hand in the Heat’s loss at Indiana last week. The injury had no obvious ill effects on James as they dismantled Dallas in a revenge game, 106-85 , revenge for blowing the 2011 NBA Finals, that is. James was battling minor injuries two years ago in the playoffs when his No. 1 seeded Cleveland team got upset by Boston in six games.

And Dwyane Wade has had plenty of injuries the last few years, missing 8 games this season. With the win the Heat extended its home-winning streak to 15 games, starting 21-2 at home this season. And the Knicks are hoping to get healthy for a playoff run, but Amare Stoudamire is out for a few more weeks, a big blow.

Even though Miami looks like the team to beat, they are not even the No. 1 seed in the East yet. That distinction belongs to Chicago, the top rebounding team in the NBA and second defensively in points allowed, two key areas that are necessary in postseason play.

But how healthy is Chicago? The fact is, they haven’t been healthy all season, so it’s remarkable they are playing so well. The big story is star guard Derrick Rose, who has been battling a groin injury. The Bulls are 13-5 without Rose, who has missed eight straight games recently.

And that’s not all: Rose, Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng have all missed time. This past weekend Hamilton and Rose were both “gametime decisions” against the Pistons. Hamilton is close to getting the green light medical clearance and is thought to be "pain-free" in his right shoulder. With the playoffs on the horizon, that’s a big plus. Last week Hamilton completed in several shootarounds and contact drills. Rose took part in just a fraction of the shootarounds -- "only the shooting part," he said. "Other than that, I sat out the whole time."

Hamilton played 32 minutes in Detroit on Jan. 4 but re-aggravated a groin injury, forcing him to miss the Bulls’ next eight games. He is 34 years old and has missed 36 of the 52 games this season with leg and shoulder injuries, so the Bulls are being extra cautious.

Not related to injuries, another story is brewing in the Chicago game: That is, Coach Tom Thibodeau is “dismayed” by the lack of progress on a contract extension and that “his displeasure with the situation is an open secret in team circles.” Apparently Thibodeau has raised the topic – his lack of an extension – with Bulls players. Given the Bulls’ injury situations, the team has clearly overachieved for him for the second year in a row. It will be interesting to watch if the organization doesn’t give him an extension, something that may add an extra element to the postseason.

Like last year, San Antonio is one of the top seeds in the West, but their main concern again is not the No. 1 seed but health: the health of 37-year-old Tim Duncan. A year ago he had a sprained left ankle and Duncan’s 13.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game were career lows as was his 28.3 minutes per game. This season, Gregg Popovich has wisely rested his veterans at times, especially in the second of back to back spots. In one recent game Duncan didn’t play, Popovich showcased his sense of humor by listing the reason Duncan didn’t play in the official stat sheet as “old.”

If the playoffs began today, the Spurs would be battling the Grizzlies, Rockets or Nuggets – all younger, athletic teams offering an interesting challenge for the old men of San Antonio. Two years ago at this time, LA and Cleveland were the favorites to make the NBA Finals, but key injuries can change everything. The thing about injuries is that you never know what they will become down the road. Injuries can be temporary, if a player takes some time off and completely heals, then it's all forgotten. Or, an injury can fail to heal all the way and nags at an athlete, putting him at less than 100%. Or, the injury can get worse going from a minor problem to a major one.

The 2009 defending champion Celtics suffered through that. Kevin Garnett hurt his knee in a game in Utah and it only got worse. By the time the playoffs came, Garnett wasn't even suiting up with a surgery on the horizon.

In 20102, Garnett was back, but still not his old defensive self, and Paul Pierce had a sprained right thumb late in the year. They focused on getting healthy, then made a remarkable run. Down the regular season stretch the Celtics imploded in the second half in a 108-88 home loss to Cleveland, their most lopsided loss of the season. Then it got worse, a mind-numbing 104-96 loss to the New Jersey Nets –- at home!

In the hallway that leads from the home bench at TD Garden to the locker room, there was silence. The Celtics walked in single file, heads hung, their egos and spirits dampened by a Nets team that was 6-52. But they got healthy and turned it on in the playoffs, a No. 4 seed that got all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Injuries and bad luck can throw a wrench in long range plans, so it's best to focus on how a team is playing week to week -- and keep close tabs on injuries, even seemingly minor ones.

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