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After a relatively healthy start to 2017, the latter part of January has featured a multitude of injuries. There are so many teams affected that there's no such thing as survival of the fittest, but rather, of the most resilient. This week's 3-pointer takes a look at the teams bitten hardest. There are so many, we were apparently fouled too, turning this into a 4-point play.
Los Angeles Clippers
Even with Blake Griffin returning on Tuesday night, the Clippers have immediately put on display just how wild their next few weeks in scramble mode without All-Star point guard Chris Paul are going to be. L.A. dropped the first two games without him before Monday's upset win in Atlanta and will rely on J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton to help bridge the gap and stay afloat. That quartet combined for 77 points and 16 assists. Doc Rivers went with a small-ball approach in Monday's 115-105 win over the Hawks, but ran out of gas in blowing a 19-point lead in Tuesday's surprising loss in Philadelphia.
There's little reason to expect consistency over the six-to-eight weeks Paul will be sidelined after thumb surgery. L.A. hit 12-of-19 3-pointers in the first half to go up by as many as 19 points, then were outscored 62-42 in the second half despite the fact the 76ers were without prized rookie Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Their defense was horrendous and shots weren't falling. It didn't help that assistant Mike Woodson was coaching for an ill Rivers, but it may not have made much difference since they didn't have the legs to hold on.
After a tight loss late last week to a Timberwolves team that hadn’t won a game all season decided by four points or less, the Clips were beaten by 25 points in Denver on Saturday to open a stretch of 10 of 11 on the road. The lone game they play at Staples Center (Feb. 2) will see them in an underdog role against Golden State, who they will also visit this Saturday night. Holding off the Hawks as a 7.5-point underdog definitely helped alleviate some of the pressure, especially with Griffin's return imminent.
Getting their five-time All-Star power forward back to run offense through with Paul gone should ease the burden on everyone else, but he’s returning from a five-week absence and figures to require an adjustment period that the heavy road schedule isn’t going to facilitate. The Clippers are going to rack up the mileage, having traveled to Atlanta from Denver and immediately heading to Philadelphia after Monday night’s win. They’ll have a few days in between leaving the East Coast for Oakland for this weekend’s clash at Oracle, so Griffin may be able to truly get comfortable returning and getting his legs under him while not having Paul out there with him. After nearly notching a first-half double-double against the Sixers, Griffin finished with three points and two boards in the second as his team collapsed down the stretch.
A second five-game road swing follows the home date with the Warriors and will see L.A. visit Boston, Toronto, New York, Charlotte and Utah just before the All-Star break. Even at full strength, that would've been a brutal trip, so there’s a chance things could go drastically south for this group, who may be destined to wind up as the West’s No. 7 seed given how top-heavy the conference is.
San Antonio Spurs
The team most likely to be waiting for the Clippers as the No. 2 would be San Antonio, which has also hit a rough patch trying to keep its veterans healthy. While marvelous depth has helped Gregg Popovich give older players nights off for years to ensure they’re fresh for April, May and June, legitimate injuries, and not Pop’s maintenance program, could force key Spurs out over the next month or two.
Center Pau Gasol broke his hand warming up last week and will be out for at least a month, probably two. Although he’ll be able to keep up with his conditioning and should be better off for it through fresher legs come postseason, his absence increases veteran power forward's David Lee’s importance. Guards Tony Parker (left foot pain) and Manu Ginobili (back spasms) are legitimately feeling discomfort and may be in and out of the lineup on the rest of a four-game road trip that began with Saturday night’s upset in Cleveland.
Small forward Kawhi Leonard, deservingly voted is a starter for February's All-Star game, sat out Monday and Tuesday's wins in Brooklyn and Toronto for precautionary reasons due to a hand injury, which helped the Spurs show off the depth they'll be counting on to stay on course despite the attrition. This is a new-look Spurs squad being built around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, so it will be fun to see guys like Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans getting minutes and improving since they'll be called upon to aid the cause this postseason.
Despite all the changes, San Antonio has only lost consecutive games once all season, way back in early November. They're 4-0 without Leonard, which is amazing. Guys are hungry and playing the right way, so it wouldn’t be smart to begin fading the Spurs simply because Gasol is out and vets like Parker and Ginobili will be cautious with their bodies going forward.
Murray, a rookie guard picked late in the first-round, scored 14 points against the Cavs, following up a career-high 24-point night in a blowout win over Denver, so he could be the beneficiary of increased opportunities over the next few months that should help get him prepared in case he remains a key contributor. His key runner with 1:29 left ended up being the game-winning basket in the 108-106 win over the Raptors.
West's No. 8 seed hopefuls
The race for No. 8 in the West was also heavily impacted by injuries as Sacramento lost Rudy Gay for the season after tearing his Achilles. It remains to be seen whether the Kings can hang without their second-leading scorer, even though he had been in and out of the lineup. They snapped a five-game losing streak with a 109-104 win over Detroit, but they're less than halfway through an eight-game road trip that picks back up in Cleveland on Wednesday, so don't hold your breath on continued success.
Pelicans star Anthony Davis suffered a nasty fall last week, so he’s been playing with numerous ailments that required multiple x-rays. Although he's intent on gutting it out, Davis sat out Monday's 124-122 home upset over the Cavs with a lingering leg bruise. It remains to be seen how long he sits as the Pelicans continue perhaps their most important homestand of the season with games against the Thunder, Spurs and Wizards this week.
New Orleans opened the six-game run with a 118-98 win over Orlando, but was trounced 143-114 by lowly Brooklyn on Friday night and managed to rebound against slumping Cleveland by getting a combined 69 points from Terrence Jones and Jrue Holiday. That's not exactly something they can count on.
Denver and Portland entered the week tied for the eighth and final playoff spot, so keep an eye on the Nuggets getting a boost from Gary Harris’ return from a sprained ankle that cost him three games. He hit all four of his 3-pointers in Sunday’s 111-108 loss to Minnesota and is a major upgrade at shooting guard due to his defensive prowess. Denver will need him to stay healthy.
Detroit got good news in shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returning to the lineup after a shoulder strain. He serves a similar role to Harris’ in Denver as the Pistons’ top two-way wing. Cleveland’s Kevin Love also returned after dealing with back issues, but while teams in the Central are getting closer to full strength, the Atlantic was bit significantly by the injury bug.
Toronto All-Star DeMar DeRozan will miss at least one more game with an ankle sprain and may be out all week if the Raptors are rightfully cautious with him, while Boston’s Avery Bradley remains out with a strained Achilles and won’t play in a week where the Celtics will be tasked with four games in five nights.
Embiid will also miss at least one more due to knee pain, stunting the momentum of the surging Sixers, while Nets guard Jeremy Lin has been ruled out for an additional 3-to-5 weeks after suffering a setback in rehab by aggravating his left hamstring. Brooklyn entered the week as the only team still stuck in single-digits in wins.
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