HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — One injury to the wrong player can be devastating to a team’s aspirations. See the Thunder during last year’s playoffs once Russell Westbrook went down.
The Lakers weren’t winning the title this season with or without Kobe Bryant, but they certainly aren’t dragging up the rear in the Western Conference with him.
But this post isn’t about sob stories. This season’s injury stories, three in particular — OK, four, keep reading — are about inspiration and not desperation, about three young stars (no, four!) rising to the occasion and pushing their teams when the receding tide could have drowned the whole thing in the deep blue sea of lost seasons.
Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin made history in February, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, as the first quintet to average 30 points or more in any month going back to 1962. Durant, Love and Griffin rose to extraordinary heights as their teams lacked a key component due to injury, and in Love’s case two.
In good conscious we could not limit this discussion to three. Yes, the Spurs were terrific without Tony Parker after the All-Star break, but that’s just the Spurs being the Spurs. And Portland did a fine job recently without LaMarcus Aldridge. No. 4 is the Phoenix Suns’ non-All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, who was playing fabulously before backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury, and he’s been downright nasty ever since.
How Dragic isn’t in the MVP discussion even as a footnote is criminal. A team destined for 25 wins already has 35 and is in the heat of the ferocious West playoff chase, and Dragic is the reason why. The West coaches couldn’t give The Dragon his due. It’s the least we can do.
So here’s how the three superstars — and Goran — did it:
The skinny: First, let’s not kid ourselves. The Timberwolves are nowhere near out of the woods. Their inability to win close games during the first couple months of the season and overall inconsistent play sabotaged their hopes of finally contending for a playoff spot. Then injuries dropped their second- and third-leading scorers, 3-point-bombing shooting guard Kevin Martin (on Feb. 7) and low-post monster center Nikola Pekovic (on Jan. 27), respectively. Stick a fork in ’em? Not exactly.
What happened?: Love went nuts. In February, he averaged 34.0 ppg, a franchise record for any month. He grabbed 14.1 rebounds to lead the league. He became the first player since Moses Malone in March 1982 to average 34 and 14 in one month. Without Pekovic, who missed 13 games, and Martin in the lineup, the Wolves went 4-3. Whole again, the they’re 2-0 in March to get back over .500 at 30-29 just when it seemed like they were sunk.
The outlook: It might not be sunshine and daffodils, but the storm clouds are parting. Minnesota enters Wednesday’s home game against stumbling New York 4.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. It’s a lot of ground to make up, but the Wolves have an upcoming schedule that should make them salivate: the Knicks, Detroit, Toronto and Milwaukee at home, then at Charlotte and back home for Sacramento before things turn decidedly tougher against West foes. Take care of the six in front of them and who knows?
Banking on Blake
The skinny: The Clippers were 23-12 even though they hadn’t played terrific basketball adjusting to new coach Doc Rivers and meshing in new players. But my oh my, what would they do now without point guard and floor leader Chris Paul? On Jan. 3 at Dallas, Paul went down in a heap and came up with a separated right shoulder. The prognosis was negative: four to six weeks. He missed 18 games.
What happened: Griffin when nuts. In Paul’s absence, the power forward from Oklahoma averaged 27.5 ppg on 55.4 percent shooting. He grabbed 8.2 rebounds and dished out 4.4 assists. He became a vocal leader on the floor, taking over a role that Paul had dominated, a development that should aid the evolution of this team. The Clippers emerged from their CP3-less stretch with 12 wins and six losses to get to 35-18. They maintained position to seize a top four seed. Griffin didn’t miss a beat once Paul returned on Feb. 9, averaging 30.0 ppg and 10.7 rpg for the entire month.
The outlook: The Clippers are 7-2 since Paul’s return and have won five in a row to get to 42-20. They’re in a virtual tie with Houston for the No. 3 seed. The schedule plays out pretty favorably throughout March, and if L.A. continues to come together and avoids any more injuries, they could make a serious run over the next three to four weeks.
Overserved on KD
The Skinny: The Thunder were rolling along and put a Christmas Day whipping on the Knicks behind a triple-double from Russell Westbrook. Then came the stunning news that he needed a third surgery on his troublesome right knee. OKC had just racked up 21 wins in 25 games with Westbrook, and now this. OKC announced he would be out all the way through the All-Star break. Now the question was whether the Thunder could hold onto a top-four seed?
What happened: Durant went nuts. In 27 games without his sidekick, Durant racked up 35.0 ppg on 52.7 percent shooting overall and 39.9 percent from beyond the arc, plus 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg. He was so good as OKC won 20 of those games and took over the top spot in the West that he was widely considered the clubhouse leader for the MVP trophy. And why not? At 43-12 when Westbrook made his return on Feb. 20, nobody was doing it better.
The outlook: A return to the NBA Finals. The team is built for it barring anything else going wrong with Westbrook’s right knee. His triple-double in 20 minutes Tuesday night revealed an explosive player at his best. He’s regaining his shooting touch and continues to talk of being a smarter player after having sat out all but two of 11 playoff games last season and a large chunk of games this season. Any notion that Westbrook somehow detracts from Durant should finally be dead and buried.
The skinny: Remember when the Suns traded Marcin Gortat to Washington like a week before the season started and everybody rolled their eyes at the obvious tank job taking place? Recent times have gotten a bit ragged for Dragic and his mostly unknown teammates, castoffs from other clubs, but nothing can take away the effort that’s propelled them to a 35-25 record and the eighth seed in the hotly contested West. And to be there with Bledsoe out with a knee injury since Dec. 30 is beyond amazing.
What happened: Dragic went nuts. Since Bledsoe left the lineup, Dragic has averaged 22.3 ppg on 52.9 percent shooting overall and 46.3 percent from deep. He’s become one of the game’s premiere rim attackers, either running the break or capable of getting to the basket coming off screens seemingly at will. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Without him, the Suns would be where we all thought they’d be: deep in lottery position.
The outlook: Bledsoe is practicing and could be back soon to give this club a real boost headed into the final 20 games. The Suns’ playoff hopes are on life support, but if they can survive the next three games against Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers, they’ve got a favorable 11-game stretch through the end of March that includes eight East teams (none against Indiana or Miami), plus the Lakers. The Orange can still crush this.