Key Injuries Impacting Playoff Race in West

As the All-Star break approaches, it is at this time of the year most clubs just want to get to the break relatively healthy. They want to rest their players, recharge their batteries and mentally reboot for the stretch run.

Well, as we’re less than two weeks away from the All-Star game, a couple of Western Conference teams have been hit hard from the injury bug and the absence of some key stars (namely Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard) could impact how the playoff seedings align come April.

First we saw injuries impact the New Orleans Pelicans. They have played six out of the their last 10 games without their star Anthony Davis, as he has been sidelined with a toe and groin injury. He came back on Monday, though, and was instrumental in the Pelicans snapping the Atlanta Hawks 19-game winning streak. Davis scored 29 points and hauled down 13 rebounds, while chipping in with three assists.

NBA: DEC 17 Pelicans at Warriors

New Orleans is also dealing with an injury to point guard Jrue Holiday, as he has missed the last 10 games with an ankle injury, and he could be out for another week or two. The Pelicans need these guys on the floor at almost all times if they want to make a sustained run at the playoffs.  With Monday’s win, they are now a game and a half back of the Phoenix Suns for the last spot in the NBA playoffs. Their margin for error to make playoffs is small as it is.

Then there is a minor (or so we think) toe injury Kevin Durant is dealing with at the moment. He has now missed three out of his last seven games. With him suffering a foot injury in the preseason and missing the first 17 games of the year and then suffering an ankle injury in December and missing an additional six games, Durant is having a difficult time staying on the floor this season.

While Russell Westbrook, who has dealt with a broken hand that knocked him out of 14 games this season, is having a great season, the Thunder clearly need their dynamic duo on the floor and healthy for the stretch run. For a Thunder team just .500 and three and a half games back of the Suns in the race for the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, they can ill-afford any more injuries or slip ups, as they are already behind the eight-ball.

Side note: wouldn’t it would be weird to see the Thunder not in the playoffs after making it five years in a row?

NBA: JAN 31 Mavericks at Magic

Besides the minor injuries, there are injuries that can severely impact a couple of the teams in the middle of the conference, too. This is reference to the maladies affecting the Mavericks’ Rajon Rondo and the Rockets’ Dwight Howard.

Rondo, who was traded for back in December, was said to be the last piece to the puzzle in the Mavs’ quest to win another title. He’s done a fine job leading the Mavericks (the team has gone 13-9 with him at point), even though his assists (6.5) have dropped a little in Dallas. However, he took a nasty hit to the face on Saturday and he now has an orbital and nasal fracture. There is no concrete timetable for his return, but it could be a week or two before he returns. And if that’s the case, the All-Star break will prove to be vital for Rondo and the Mavs, who have no All-Stars on their club.

In the interim, the Mavericks will try to get by with Raymond Felton, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea at point guard. The three aforementioned players are no where near the player Rondo is, but if it is only a couple of games that Rondo misses, the Mavs can manage. If Rondo’s injury lingers and knocks him out for a couple of weeks, Dallas could definitely be possibly looking at one of the bottom four seeds in the Western Conference playoffs. After all, they are currently sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference standings. Having home-court advantage in the Western Conference could be prove to be huge this year and if Dallas has a healthy Rondo, they could move up the conference ladder.

They are just two and a half games from securing a top-four spot. So, the longer Rondo is out, the harder it is for the Mavs to make a charge toward the top of the standings in the West.

Don’t forget about the knee injury that Howard is dealing with. Howard has an edema in his right knee that will likely sideline him for approximately a month. He has missed the last four games and his defense and rim protection will be sorely missed.

Expect the Rockets to turn to Josh Smith, Terrence Jones and third-year forward/center Donatas Motiejunas for help in the post. Motiejunas, in particular, could be a player to watch in the next month or so, as he has really stepped up his game of late.

Although this excerpt from Chris Towers of CBSSports.com is from a fantasy basketball column, it still speaks volumes about how well Motiejunas has been playing, especially when Howard misses time. From Towers:

Motiejunas has been a tremendously useful Fantasy option this season, especially since taking over as a starter after the first few weeks. He has especially impressed whenever Howard has missed time, averaging 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game in the 16 games Howard has missed, while shooting 55.9 percent from the field and adding 0.8 3-pointers per game.

After spending the first few years of his career drifting around the perimeter as a stretch-four, Motiejunas has become much more active near the basket, a good sign for his ability to remain productive in Howard’s absence. He is taking 78.3 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim, and is shooting 56.5 percent on those shots. He shot 52.6 percent on such shots a year ago, but they represented just 65.5 percent of his total attempts, as he spent much more time hoisting 3-pointers in an attempt to provide the floor spacing the Rockets needed next to Howard.

The Rockets are sitting pretty at 33-15 and in third place in the Western Conference standings. How they respond without Howard roaming the middle will be paramount to their seeding come playoff time. Will Motiejunas, Smith and Jones step up and be competent post players, especially on defense?

Outside of the Golden State Warriors, who barring any major injuries should secure the top spot out West, it’s a crapshoot for which teams end up where in regards to seeding. Based on what we’ve seen the last couple of weeks, injuries will play a key role down the stretch— as they almost always certainly do.

We’ll soon see how each corresponding team deals with their injuries leading up to the NBA playoffs.

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