(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
Turns out NBA Commissioner David Stern spoke too soon.
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Barely a week after ruling out any connection between the injuries suffered by players and the compressed regular-season schedule that was thrown together in the wake of the lockout – ”Zero,” is how Stern put it in an April 30 radio interview – the commissioner has started walking that statement back.
”There is some part of it that may be related to that,” Stern said Tuesday during an appearance on the CBS Sports Network. ”I think some part of it is luck and some part of it is lack of preparedness by our players before the season began. It’s a combination of things.”
The strange thing is that while season-ending knee injuries to the Bulls’ Derrick Rose and Knicks guards Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis in the first round of the playoffs gave rise to suspicions that the schedule was to blame – it began on Christmas and shoehorned 66 games into roughly four months – Stern said the total number of such injuries, five, was about the same as in previous years. But with fewer breaks available for players to heal – teams played an average of two more games each month, from 14 to 16 – the time lost because of all sorts of injuries was greater.
”The one thing I do know is that we’ve had more lost games because of injuries, because the compressed schedule takes away a day of rest for a minor injury. … We’re going to look at the precise numbers at the end of the season and we’ll try to have a view of it because it’s spread out differently as well. Some teams don’t practice. Some teams do. I don’t know whether it relates,” the commissioner added.
”Some teams actually worked out with the players alone all summer and some didn’t. We’re going to try to see whether we can learn something from this compressed season in the way that teams approach it.”
That’s all well and good, but the teams still in the playoffs are being forced to deal with the implications on the fly. They know, for example, that while the number of games lost to injury is up, points and shooting percentages are down. It has spawned an interesting game-within-a-game where coaches and players try to convince themselves they aren’t feeling exhausted but that their opponents are.
”My hope, I don’t know if this is true or not, is that fatigue will come our way,” Denver coach George Karl said after his Nuggets beat the Lakers 102-99 and pulled within 3-2 in their series. ”The running of the game, the tempo of the game, and the pace, the way we play.
”They’re getting tired of hearing it, and you’re probably tired of hearing it,” he told reporters, ”but our only chance to beat them is run them and play with tremendous energy and intensity.”
Kobe Bryant is probably feeling every bit of 33 after a grueling season playing through a handful of ailments. But the old man of the Lakers says no team can afford to feel sorry for itself at this juncture of the season. Asked whether he and his teammates would regret not closing out Denver on the first try and getting some additional rest, Bryant replied, ”Doesn’t matter.
”I don’t care if you give us a year to rest. If we’re fortunate enough to move on to face Oklahoma City,” he continued, ”that year isn’t going to make us any faster.”
Maybe not, but two of the teams the Lakers could run into, the Thunder and the Spurs, are both at home with their feet up after first-round sweeps over the defending champion Mavericks and the Jazz, respectively. And another likely Western contender, the crosstown rival Clippers, lead the Grizzlies 3-1 and could close out their series Wednesday night.
Rest could prove an even more precious commodity in the East, where only the Pacers, taking advantage of a season-ending back injury to Orlando star center Dwight Howard, won their fourth straight Tuesday night to close out the Magic. Indiana trailed by two at the end of the third quarter, but outscored fast-fading Orlando 36-16 over the final 12 minutes.
”That’s a testament to the type of team we have,” Pacer David West said. ”We’re deep, man. We’ve got guys, that when their number’s called, they’re prepared.”
The Bulls might have been able to say that at one point. But with Rose out and Joakim Noah questionable after an ankle injury, their win Tuesday night against the 76ers resembled a holding action more than a comeback. They go to Philadelphia still trailing 3-2 and struggling to score, coach Tom Thibodeau’s brave words notwithstanding.
”Injuries are part of the game, so whether it’s a lockout season or not, you’ve still got to deal with them,” he said.
As if the Heat weren’t already favored, their relative good fortune in the injury department compared to their rivals has only widened the gap. The depleted Knicks will bow out soon enough, the Bulls likely will follow soon after, and the aging Celtics, who have struggled to keep the trio of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett up and running all season, lost an opportunity for some much-needed rest by failing to close out the Hawks when they had the chance Tuesday night.
But the Heat don’t dare celebrate their good fortune yet.
”Hopefully no one else goes down with these type of injuries,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. ”It’s not anything that we want to see … You don’t know if it was because of the condensed season. You don’t know what the case may be.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.