Now, pain may spell gain

Mar 20, 2007 6:24 AM

For serious sports bettors, it’s essential to keep a close eye on basketball injuries especially this time of the year.

College basketball tournaments are in full swing. NBA teams continue to fight for division titles and postseason positioning. Key basketball players, both college and pro, can often be highly significant in how a team performs.

This was evident with the Boston Celtics, who were without star Paul Pierce during their horrendous 18-game losing streak. The Celtics won just two of 24 when Pierce was out with foot and elbow injuries. Despite the long skid, the Celtics were installed as a 5-point favorite over Milwaukee.

Many sports bettors were thinking, "How can a team that has lost 18 in a row be a 5-point chalk?" The Celtics fell behind 32-19, but ended up winning easily 117-97. The leading scorer was Pierce with 32 points.

Since there are so few players in basketball as compared to football, the loss of any one from the starting five means a 20 percent change in the lineup. This can affect not only offense or defense, but team chemistry that takes weeks and months to develop. Asking a role player to play defense and pull down nine rebounds is hard to do if that person is out and the coach must depend on the bench.

Of course, losing one player, even a star, doesn’t automatically mean that a team will fall apart or change abruptly. An extremely young team like Boston is likely to fall hard. Pierce is the lone veteran, team leader and does so many things well.

Houston is a different story. The Rockets lost star center Yao Ming (foot injury) for 10 weeks, yet played very good basketball and didn’t fall apart.

Why? A lot of reasons. The Rockets still had another star player in Tracy McGrady, something Boston didn’t. Also, the Rockets have a coach in Jeff Van Gundy who demands a great defensive effort. Van Gundy knows how to teach defense to get the most out of his players defensively.

Houston is second in points allowed and tops in opponent’s field goal shooting allowed. When Ming went out, the Rockets had other things they could fall back on to help them remain competitive. The Celtics, by contrast, had no other go-to scorer and play poor team defense.

From a handicapping perspective, it’s essential to examine each team’s strengths and weaknesses and gauge how much they will miss a key player. The Clippers, for instance, have had two significant injuries to the backcourt. Point guard Shaun Livingston blew his knee out and is lost for the year, while veteran Sam Cassell has been in and out of the lineup battling injuries.

Instead of a talented backcourt offering depth and flexibility, the Clippers have been forced to start Cuttino Mobley and newcomer Jason Hart. The offense has sputtered and the Clippers went on an 11-3-1 run under the total.

It’s not easy to stockpile quality depth in the NBA, like the Dallas Mavericks have with the salary cap and the draft. The Lakers have had injury problems, which contributed to a recent 0-6 SU, 1-5 ATS run. However, they got good news over the weekend with Lamar Odom (torn labrum in his left shoulder) and Luke Walton (sprained ankle). Key reserve Ronny Turiaf also reports that the spasms are gone from his back. With Odom’s return adding some needed depth, the Lakers may begin to improve.

It’s essential to study injury logs and keep track of who’s playing and hurting when analyzing matchups. Some teams are deep and play good defense, which can help them survive injuries better. Others can fall apart, both straight up and against the number.

Bottom line: Make sure you check injury reports daily and know how to utilize the information properly.