Race for the title

Joel Blank: Health will be a key factor in NBA playoffs

Lebron and the Cavs have had a rough season. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Survival of the fittest?

With the NBA playoffs about to begin, it has been most fans’ dream that the Rockets and Warriors would end up playing in the Western Conference Finals and that Kyrie and Lebron would face off in the East. It's obvious why the Rockets and Warriors matchup would be compelling, as the Warriors have been the dominant team in basketball over the last several years and the Rockets have had a Cinderella season with the addition of Chris Paul and company to an already talented roster led by soon-to-be MVP James Harden. Most people wanted to see Cleveland and Boston square off to decide the Eastern Conference this year, in part because of all the drama that surrounded Kyrie Irving’s shock departure from the Land.  With Irving and Gordon Hayward, who chose Boston in free agency, the C's looked primed to dethrone the King and reign over the East. Unfortunately, 3 of the 4 teams that people wanted to see in the Conference Finals have been devastated by injuries. The Cavs, Celtics and Warriors have been forced to fight through several setbacks throughout the campaign and in the case of Boston, they just recently found out they will be without Kyrie’s services in addition to Hayward. It has become increasingly more realistic that whoever can stay healthy entering and throughout the playoffs may have the best chance to end up with the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end of the season.

When you look across both conferences and the teams that have wrapped up a playoff spot, more than half of them are dealing with injuries to superstars and/or rotational players that play a key role on their team. Let's look at a few contenders that may only be

Pretenders unless they get healthy in a hurry:

The Minnesota Timberwolves.  

For most of the season, the T-wolves were in the top 4 of the Western Conference standings and looked to be a formidable opponent for either the Rockets or the Warriors. With Jimmy Butler leading the way and Karl Anthony Towns establishing himself as one of the best centers in the game, Minnesota looked to have that inside-outside punch necessary to be a contending team. Unfortunately Butler went down with a knee injury a month ago and was forced to have surgery. Since he has been out, the Wolves have gone from the No. 3 seed all the way to the 8th spot in the West. Butler is projected to return to the team sometime near the start of the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if that timetable is realistic, and even if he returns there is no telling if he will be anywhere close to the top form that had him stuffing the box score on a nightly basis. Without Butler at 100%, Minnesota has no chance to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

The San Antonio Spurs have been as close to a dynasty as the NBA has seen since The legendary Celtics teams of Larry Bird and before him, Bill Russell. They looked to be contenders again this season holding on to the 4 seed out West while enduring a lingering and very stange injury situation to Kawhi Leonard. Legendary coach Greg Popovich made LaMarcus Aldridge the centerpiece of a revamped offense that had the Spurs as one of the surpise stories of the season. That was then and this is now. Aldridge ssuffered a knee issue that has hampered him down the stretch and Leonard's injury has lasted all season instead of just a few weeks and now there are more hurt feelings and strained relationships than any lingering affects of the leg issues. Without a healthy Kawhi, the Spurs have no chance of going anywhere in the playoffs.

The Washington Wizards were a team that was projected to be on the cusp of competing for a title with an All-Star backcourt featuring John Wall and Bradley Beal. After taking the Celtics to 7 games in the playoffs a year ago, it looked like this was the year that the Wiz made a statement and  took the next step in becoming contenders in the Eastern Conference. That was before Wall hurt his knee and subsequently went under the knife. He just recently returned to the team after an extended abscence as well as a feud with players in his own lockeroom who insinueded that the team may be better without their injured point guard in the lineup. Since his return Wall has hardly looked like the same player he was prior ot the injury, and time is running out for Scott Brooks and company to figure it out and right the ship in time for a long playoff run.

The Celtics, as mentioned above, were looking to dethrone the King and his Cavaliers court this year and take over the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future. The addition of Hayward from Utah and Irving from Cleveland, along with a rotation of young and talented complimentary players had them the sexy pick to be the beast of the East. Then Hayward went down opening night with a gruesom season ending lower leg injury and Irving had complications after minor knee surgery that recently ended his season and playoffs as well. Boston isn't going anywhere without their 2 best players, period.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entire season can be defined in one word, turmoil. First it was Isaiah Thomas and his hip injury that kept him out for most of the first half of the season. That led to Thomas doing more damage with his mouth then he ever could have done with his jump shot and eventually the entire team was blown up as they traded six players at the deadline. The moves created a positive culture and fresh start for the team and they were playing good basketball until Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson went down with injuries that would keep them out for weeks. Love missed significant time but has returned and is getting close to being back to 100%. Thompson is a different story as he just returned to the active roster this week and may not be 100% for the first round of the playoffs, if at all the rest of the year. Without Thompson at full strength, the rim protection and rebounding for the Cavs could be an issue and make the odds of the Cavs returning to the finals a stretch, Regardless, after the crazy season the fans in Cleveland have witnessed, the deck seems to be stacked against the Cavs in their quest to repeat as the best in the East.

The Golden State Warriors are the reigning world champions but may have had to endure more injuries than any team in the league this season. We all know that Golden State has four all-stars in their starting lineup but all four of them have suffered significant injuries during the course of this campaign. Kevin Durant and his ribs, Klay Thompson with his thumb and Draymon Green's bad ankle have all healed to the point where they were cleared to return to the court. Steph Curry has not been as lucky as his strained MCL is scheduled to have him out until the second round of the playoffs. The Warriors have always had the confidence that they can flip a switch at any time and turn it on to beat any team at any time. This may be the year that it all catches up with them as Curry is the straw that stirs the Dubs drink and even if he is able to return down the line, there is no guarantee he will be anywhere close to 100%. When you factor in that their bench isn't as deep or talented or experienced as it's been in the past, Golden State is vulnerable and could be headed for a huge fall come this post season. However if the knee heals and he is able to get back in shape, you can never count the champs out.

The two healthiest contenders have been the Toronto Raptors and the Rockets. It's no coincidence that those two teams are the squads with the best records in their conference and are also the healthiest teams going into the playoffs. DeMar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry are seemingly injury-free and ready for another deep run in the East. James Harden and Chris Paul have the Rockets coasting through the rest of the regular season as they have already wrapped up the best record in the West, as well as top spot in the entire NBA. They both have a lot to prove and a ton of unfinished business from previous post season  failures, but unless the other playoff teams above as well as a few underachieving units like the Thunder can get healthy and happy, it looks like they are the teams to beat. This could be a year where the last two teams standing are those that didnt have too many players sitting when they needed them most.

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The Astros need to beat up on the lowly Rangers. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Collectively so far this season the Astros would not make for very good garbage men. Meaning they haven't been so good at taking out the trash. Swept in a series at Detroit when the Tigers were terrible, swept at Minute Maid Park by the sorry Orioles, swept in an early season series at the Rangers. Presently the Rangers are an atrocity. A nine game losing streak has them 35-62, buried deeply in last place in the American League West, 23 games behind the Astros. So the Astros need to whip up on them in this weekend's three game set, before the Astros head west for a three city road trip with stops in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

15. The number of home runs Jose Altuve has hit over his last 37 games. Multiply by four and that's a 60 homers in 148 games pace. Over those 37 games, Altuve is batting just .242. But slugging .577.

.029. Carlos Correa's batting average dating back 10 games played. One hit in his last 34 at bats. 14 strikeouts and just one walk over the stretch. That is what you call a funk. Certainly not a way to curry 300 million dollar contract offers.

The Rangers have just two 100 loss seasons in their history, their first two seasons after becoming the Rangers upon moving from Washington D.C. In 1972 the Ted Williams managed squad went 62-100, Ted quit, and the next year the Rangers finished 57-105. If the Astros sweep them this weekend, the Rangers will be on pace to lose 105 games.

It will be a decade ago this October that the Rangers came as close to winning a World Series as any team has ever come without winning the Series. In 2011 the Rangers carried a three games to two lead into game six at St. Louis. The Rangers led game six 7-5 with two on, two out, and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. The Cardinals' David Freese drilled a ball toward the base of the right field wall. Rangers' right fielder Nelson Cruz didn't make an error but didn't play the ball well, going back awkwardly and reaching out at the last second as if afraid of the wall. It went for a two run triple to tie the game. Two innings later Freese hit a game winning homer to force game seven.

The inning before that the Rangers again came within one strike of winning it all. A Josh Hamilton two run homer had the Rangers up 9-7 going to the bottom of the 10th. The Cards got within 9-8. With the tying run on second and two out, Rangers' Manager Ron Washington opted to intentionally walk Albert Pujols. Albert was still a tremendous player in 2011 (his last with the Redbirds), but he was not better than Lance Berkman that season, definitely not against right-handed pitching. Walking Pujols brought up Berkman to face right-hander Scott Feldman (a matchup of former Astro and future Astro). Berkman lined a two-two pitch to center field tying the game 9-9, ahead of Freese's 11th inning walk-off homer. One of the most incredible games in World Series history.

NCAA

Quite the story hitting that Texas and Oklahoma may be plotting to bolt the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. That neither UT, OU, nor the SEC denied it has smoke billowing. The Sooners have won the last six Big 12 football championships. The Longhorns last won in 2009. Oklahoma St., Kansas St., Baylor, TCU, all have more recently won at least a share of the conference title. An SEC UT could be looking at being in a division with Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M. UT marketing folks should be exploring a huge sponsorship deal with 7-Eleven. You know, Big Gulp. But as usual, follow the money.

The week ahead…

Wednesday: The Texans open training camp! Wait. Delete the exclamation point. Whither Deshaun Watson?

Thursday: The NBA Draft. Unless the Rockets pull off a thunderbolt of a trade to move up to number one and select Cade Cunningham, the winds of opinion are blowing in the direction of the Rockets taking wing Jalen Green second overall pick. That would be fine. Green is generally considered the most potential-laden explosive scorer on the board. The Rockets can use just about everything, a premium wing scorer would be excellent.

Friday: The MLB trade deadline. Does James Click bolster the Astros' shaky bullpen. The Astros have also been linked to Marlins' center fielder Starling Marte. Growing from his wretched start Myles Straw has been plenty acceptable. Free agent-to-be Marte would be a notable upgrade.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. First big beat the deadline win goes to the Rays. 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz still mashes. Simple frame of reference: he's been notably better than Yordan Alvarez this year.

2. The delayed by a year 2020 Summer Olympics are underway. Any interest at all?

3. Baseball's greatest Cruzes: Bronze-Jose Jr. Silver-Nelson Gold-Jose Sr.

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