Top teams in a holiday funk

If you’re planning a holiday toast on behalf of the NBA, it might be a good idea to include a few wishes for relative good health.

In case you hadn’t noticed while converting those gift cards into goodies, several upper-tier teams are suffering through a painful time of the year. The list of woe includes a home trip in Los Angeles, scheduling trauma in Atlanta, groin pains in Denver and myriad maladies in Boston, where we begin our review.

OK, so after entering the season as a fortified threat to once again become bullies in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics soon realized that free-agent acquisition Rasheed Wallace had mistaken himself for Eddie House. Then another important newcomer, Marquis Daniels, went down and Kevin Garnett’s knee didn’t seem to have rallied enough for KG to be as predatory as usual. But the Cs mustered up enough defensive grit to fight their way back to the top of the conference.

Just when they were rollin’, Paul Pierce, Boston’s leader in creating and making shots, is lost for a couple of weeks with a knee infection. This is a big reason why the Cs dropped road back-to-backs in L.A. (the Clippers) and Golden State. But the parade of pain was just beginning. Throw in a thigh bruise for Garnett, and the Celtics have added a convincing loss at Phoenix, during which point guard Rajon Rondo played through a sore holiday hamstring.

But everyone should be just ducky in time, giving the Celtics — who won 14 of 15 before losing to the Clips — a really fine chance at returning to the Finals … if Wallace spends at least a little time behaving like a big on the post.

Our next stop is L.A., where first-year Lakers forward Ron Artest is providing the cornball maneuvers the team really didn’t seem to need in winning a championship last season. Wearing boxer shorts as a guest on a national TV talk show? That’s just terrific. To be fair, it should be noted that Artest’s contributions also assisted the Lakers in rising to the top of the league in team defense. For a bit.

Anyway, to celebrate the Lakers’ home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas night, Artest tripped over a box and fell down a flight of stairs. Maybe he was heading downstairs to see if Santa was performing an encore.

The loss to Cleveland can be traced to simply being outplayed by the Cavs at both ends of the floor. Officiating also has been suggested as the culprit, but many of us also believe dismal productivity from the Laker bench has more to do with that loss — and a subsequent thumping at Phoenix — than the guys holding whistles.

So, after falling down the stairs at a reported speed that his field-goal tries are not, Artest has a concussion and an elbow contusion. Teammate Kobe Bryant has attempted to remedy Ron’s absence by scoring 116 points in the last three games. The opponents for these salvos have been Sacramento, Phoenix and Golden State, which — given the tempo-exchange rate — means Kobe would be credited with about 90 points in normal games.

Let’s bounce over to Denver, where the defending Western Conference bridesmaids have lost three in a row and five of their last six. The Nuggets, who currently are enjoying some down time, fell by six in New Orleans, six in Memphis, 11 in Portland, lost by eight to the Dallas Mavericks in Denver and were defeated by five in Sacramento.

This inability to keep pace with the conference elite — or beat lesser teams than that — can be blamed on the groin injury afflicting point guard and team leader Chauncey Billups. Billups, who — aside from a 19-minute appearance against the Trail Blazers — has been unable to give Denver anything without the lateral mobility compromised by such an injury.

Without Billups, team superstar Carmelo Anthony has attempted to overcome several nagging ailments of his own and carry the Nuggets to glory. Unfortunately, without Chauncey to create easier opportunities, ‘Melo — a 47-percent marksman for the season — has managed to bag a measly 41 percent of his shots during those five setbacks.

Although "groin strain" certainly doesn’t read like something severe enough to wreck a team’s season, please be aware that the injury requires a nice chunk of time for proper healing. Premature return only prolongs the recovery and the Nuggets aren’t interested in losing any more ground.

Checking in on the league’s most unexpected powerhouse, the Atlanta Hawks are suffering their own self-inflicted swoon, losing four of their last six. Well, they did lose to the Milwaukee Bucks with Josh Smith out of the lineup, but the aforementioned scheduling pain can be linked to some of the problem.

That pain includes back-to-back games with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who went out and played just better enough than Atlanta to prevail.

That’s right, while we’re toasting the improved health of their rival powerhouses, LeBron James and the Cavs are figuring out how to utilize all of their new faces and big bodies. Now that Coach Mike Brown is attempting to punish foes with a 1-2-3 inside punch of newcomer Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, Cleveland has triumphed in 11 of its last 12. The lone defeat was a road loss in Dallas, where the Mavericks are threatening to become a major challenge to the Lakers.

The Cavaliers’ recent run includes victories in their last six games. LeBron — who poured in 48 points against Atlanta on his birthday — and his cronies have been clobbering teams. The list includes a win over the Suns by 18, the 15-point skunking of the Lakers on Christmas, a 25-point shellacking of the Houston Rockets and an 11-point win in the first of two with the Hawks.

The Cavs finished Wednesday night with a 1.5-game lead over Boston and Orlando for the conference’s top seed.

If they can maintain balance — like LeBron negotiating all stairways without incident — they may be equipped to reach the Finals, after all.