Health always a key for Lakers
L.A.'s lack of injuries over time in stark contrast to teams like Oden-less Blazers
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Ron Artest has the body of an ox and in general has remained fairly healthy throughout his 12-year NBA career.
But too many times Artest has experienced the toll that an injury to a teammate has caused to the hopes of his team.
"I had three incidents where we had chances to win championships and guys got hurt in the playoffs," Artest said Saturday.
He rattled them off with precise detail, showing the scare his teammates' wounds have left on him. In 2004, Artest was on the Indiana Pacers and playing the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals. Jermaine O'Neal hyperextended a knee, Jamaal Tinsley pulled a hamstring and the Pistons went on to win the championship. In 2006, Artest was on the Sacramento Kings and playing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The series was tied 2-2 before Bonzi Wells pulled a hamstring and the Spurs advanced. In 2009, Artest was on the Houston Rockets and Dikembe Mutombo went out in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers while Yao Ming went out in the second round against the Lakers, who went on to win the championship.
Artest of course joined the Lakers a year later and went on to win a championship with a group that has remained remarkably healthy during its three straight trips to the Finals.
L.A. hosts Portland on Sunday night and will face a team at the polar opposite on the injury scale. The Trail Blazers' title hopes have been decimated the last several seasons by key cogs in their lineup missing big chunks of the season.
The Lakers know that as much as their Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson and their All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are responsible for the success they've had, they wouldn't have those banners hanging from the rafters if not for their bodies staying intact.
"Health is No. 1," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "Health is right there as No. 1. That's the one thing about the game and sports. Every team is one twist, break, sprain, strain away from not being the same team and going from contender to fighting for a spot."
Just last week Bryant had one such twist to his left ankle he feared would be season-ending, but he ended up being diagnosed with a sprain.
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As much as Andrew Bynum has a reputation for being injury prone (he even conceded as much during the playoffs last year), he still has been able to have a significant impact on the Lakers' championships as he suited up against Dwight Howard in the Finals in 2009 and dragged his bum right leg up and down the court for all 23 playoff games L.A. played last year.
The Blazers' franchise big man, Greg Oden, meanwhile, missed his entire rookie season in 2007-08 after being selected with the overall No. 1 pick and all of this season because of microfracture surgery to his left knee. In the two seasons in between when he did play, he missed an additional 82 games, meaning that at season's end he'll have played only one full season's worth of games in the four seasons since being drafted.
Oden's injury was compounded by the troubles of All-Star guard Brandon Roy, who underwent surgeries to both knees in January and is just making it back as a reserve after missing 34 games.
And that's not even mentioning the laundry list of injuries that has hit other rotation players for the Blazers in the last several seasons, knocking names like Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla out of commission.
"I feel bad for them," Gasol said. "I don't wish for anybody to get hurt. I know how bad I feel when I'm injured and I can't contribute and help my team and do what I love to do. I'm definitely sympathetic."
Rather than feel sorry for themselves, the Blazers have done an admirable job of plugging in the holes and keep forging ahead. LaMarcus Aldridge (22.3 points, 8.8 rebounds) is having a career year and Portland is currently the No. 6 seed in the West and a potential first-round playoff matchup for L.A. if the No. 2-seeded Lakers fall to No. 3 or the Blazers slip to No. 7.
"I think they've done a fairly good job at dealing with those injuries and losing players and adding players, whether it be in the offseason or the middle of the season, I think they've done a heck of a job with dealing with it," Odom said.
Jackson said he can remember a time with the Lakers several seasons ago when injuries became so overbearing that he had to start Aaron McKie, a 6-foot4 guard by Jackson's measurements, at power forward. But Portland has been able to avoid anything drastic like starting rookies Luke Babbitt or Armon Johnson.
"Health is always the most important," Gasol said. "If you get key players hurt or out of the loop, obviously the team is going to be affected by it and I think we've been fortunate enough to stay healthy for the most part and especially at key times of the year. I think you can always account our success to staying healthy."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.