March 23, 2002
They'll remember it as Black Friday.
In a 12-hour span yesterday, Toronto announced that Vince Carter was facing surgery, Allen Iverson saw his regular season go down the tubes, and Tracy McGrady was taken to the hospital with severe back spasms. (Aren't all back spasms severe?) And that was before the West Coast games.
The Celtics lost a game but, apparently, had no casualties. That, in the end, may mean much more than their 96-91 loss to the 76ers.
The injuries to the three All-Stars could have a dramatic impact on the final 25 days of the regular season. OK, duh. They will have a dramatic impact. How could they not?
Iverson is merely leading the league in scoring and accounts for about 90 percent of the Sixers' offense. The Sixers are 1-7 in the eight games he has missed this season. Philly also is without reserve Aaron McKie, and Derrick Coleman is playing with a hyperextended left knee.
"I imagine he's done," Philly coach Larry Brown said of Iverson. "Hopefully, we'll get Aaron back and make the most of it. The kid [Iverson] is playing as good as anyone in the league. You just don't replace him. But we gotta find a way."
Carter has been playing hurt for a while and the Raptors' season took a tumble thanks to a hideous 1-17 post-All-Star game run. Toronto won last night in Cleveland, but has probably dug a hole too deep from which to extricate itself. Carter will have surgery soon and is not expected back this season.
The loss of McGrady could vaporize the Magic, who, until last night, had won six straight and had that certain feeling. McGrady already has missed three games because of back woes, and he had to be carried off on a stretcher last night after hitting the floor and staying motionless for several scary minutes.
All of which, in a circular way, leads us back to the Celtics. Injuries are a way of life in the NBA; every team gets them. But, among top Eastern teams the Celtics have had the best luck with injuries this season. It's not even close.
Let's start with the obvious: Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker have not missed a game this season. Pierce went wire-to-wire last season, as well, while Walker missed one game to attend his grandmother's funeral. These guys have set the durability bar high and, like most players at this point in the season, have their share of aches and pains. But, needless to say, you lose one of them and this team would be in serious trouble.
The Celtics will tell you they've lost 184 man games because of injuries which, to quote late agent Ron Grinker, might be accurate, but is not right. That's because of those 184 games, only eight have been to starters; one to Kenny Anderson and seven to Tony Battie. (Boston is 8-0 in those games.) Eric Williams missed eight games earlier this year, so 16 is the operative number for man-games missed. (Joseph Forte has been healthy as a horse for months, yet he must be characterized as injured to be on the IL. Contrast that, if you will, with last night's guests. The Sixers may seriously think about never coming here again. In their last three visits, all victories by the way, someone has gotten hurt. Iverson landed on his hip here last March and was bothered by the injury through the rest of the season and playoffs. McKie sprained his ankle here eight weeks ago and still isn't right. Last night, Iverson got chopped by Battie in the first quarter and broke a bone in his left hand. He still kept playing until halftime.
"He'd shoot with his left hand in a sling," Brown said.
Among Philly regulars, the injury total is right up there with the first 30 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." Iverson, as noted, has missed eight games, and that figure will likely rise to 22. Coleman already has missed 19 games and probably should not be playing. McKie has missed 31 games and Eric Snow another 21. That's 80 games from four of Brown's top eight. Throw in another 10 missed games for Speedy Claxton (a killer last night), and the number is 90.
Orlando, of course, has been without Grant Hill for, basically, the last two seasons. The Bucks were without Glenn Robinson and Tim Thomas last night and have even see Ray Allen miss seven games. The Nets have been without Todd MacCulloch for the last month and, of course, never know when Kenyon Martin is going to be suspended. The Pistons? Jerry Stackhouse has missed six games but, beyond that, they've been reasonably healthy. Maybe that accounts for why they are the surprise leaders in the Central.
Right now, the defending champs in the Atlantic are just trying to hold this thing together with duct tape and wire. They've gotten used to playing without key people but, not surprisingly, they haven't gotten used to winning without key people.
Very few teams do. The Celtics know that as well as anyone.