Starting 5: A gamble that wasn't worth taking

STEVE LOUNG, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 4:02 PM ET

TORONTO -- As Shaquille O'Neal hobbled off the court with a right calf injury Sunday evening, so did the Boston Celtics' championship aspirations for this season and, perhaps, so did the team's window for winning.

O'Neal returned to the court after sitting out for almost two months with inflammation in his right Achilles and played just five minutes before his lower body decided to break down again with another ailment.

Even though team doctors are calling the injury "very minor" and expect the big man to be back in the lineup soon, that doesn't take away from the fact Danny Ainge and the rest of the Celtics' management made a serious mistake in even relying on O'Neal in the first place.

The decision to trade Kendrick Perkins at the deadline has come back to haunt Boston because it seems clear the gamble to count on a 39-year-old Shaq hasn't paid off.

To make matters worse for the Celtics, Jeff Green, the key piece whom they traded for, has been a disappointment under his new surroundings, while Perkins has flourished in an Oklahoma City Thunder uniform.

Boston did have sound financial reasoning to trade away its best defensive player in Perkins as he was probably going to demand more than they would be willing to pay given his own history of health problems, but keeping him would have at least stabilized the Celtics' short-term future.

With a roster that now sports key players who are all on the back ends of their careers coinciding with younger teams coming up to take their place, Boston's championship window may have just closed for good.

RACE FOR FIRST PLACE

As the closing of the regular season draws nearer, the Los Angeles Lakers' chance to catch the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the entire playoffs evaporates that much faster.

Los Angeles sits 3.5 games back of the Spurs with five games remaining in the season, while San Antonio only has four matches left to play.

The odds of the Lakers catching up aren't great, but they aren't impossible, particularly because the two clubs play one more time against each other at Staples Center on April 12.

Of course, to make this game more meaningful, a lot has to fall into place, and the way the two clubs have played recently gives reason to that possibility.

The Lakers have been the hottest team in the league ever since the All-Star break, going 17-3 in that stretch, and the Spurs have stumbled recently, going on a six-game losing streak, the longest in Tim Duncan's career.

Both sides have reversed their fortunes most recently as LA has lost two in a row and San Antonio has won two straight, but the trend is still there and the latest turn of events may just end up being anomalies for the two clubs' end to their seasons.

A SLAP ON THE WRIST FOR A PUNCH TO THE RIBS

Last Wednesday, Washington Wizards rookie John Wall got into a small tussle with Miami Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Wall punched Ilgauskas in the side after receiving a couple of elbows from the big man, who was trying to protect the ball.

The blows ended up in a one-game suspension for Wall, a $25,000 fine for Ilgauskas and a $35,000 fine handed out to the Heat's Juwan Howard for shoving Wizards center JaVale McGee, who was trying to break up the fight.

The NBA office should be commended for stepping in as swiftly as it did - dishing out the punishment the day after - but it didn't come down hard enough.

Even though Wall admitted his mistake after the game and doesn't seem to be the malicious type, he still clenched his fist and threw a big body shot at another player, something that's completely unacceptable in any level of organized basketball.

It's been seven years since the infamous "Malice at the Palace" incident between Indiana and Detroit, and ever since the NBA has faced an image problem. In order to correct this, violence like this incident needs to be snuffed out by giving offending players harsh penalties.

There's nothing wrong with physical play. It's just important to remember that playing physically doesn't mean it must lead to fisticuffs.

MELO NOT NEEDED

When the Carmelo Anthony deal first went down, the Denver Nuggets were applauded for the package of good young players and draft picks they got for the All-Star forward.

What no one expected, however, was that they would end up looking like the better team.

Ever since parting ways with Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets have gone on an impressive 15-5 run and have beaten the best two teams in the league in the Lakers and the Spurs.

This wasn't supposed to happen. After all, Denver lost its two best players and the team that gives up the superstar has historically almost always lost out.

However, just like some of the personalities on the team, the Nuggets have defied this notion, and a quick glance at the way they're playing explains why they've become so successful.

Without Anthony needing the ball to be effective, Denver's offense has become much more balanced and it seems that anybody can become the primary option on a given night. In fact, since the trade, the Nuggets have had eight different players be the team's high scorer for at least one game.

The departure of Billups also has enabled head coach George Karl to go with an interesting dual point guard backcourt featuring Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton. This combination lets Denver pick up the pace of the game when it feels like it can use speed to get easy transition buckets.

Finally, the defense has picked up significantly. Anthony was never known as a great defender and it shows as the Nuggets have allowed an average of 10 points per game less without him on the team.

The roster that Denver boasts may not be the most intimidating, but, if the expression "better than the sum of its parts" is actually true, then there's no other team out there that so perfectly matches it.

TOP PROSPECTS STAYING IN SCHOOL

The NCAA men's college basketball season came to a close Monday night with a dreadful game that saw the Connecticut Huskies emerge victorious over the Butler Bulldogs. With no more games to be played, the focus will shift to the best NBA prospects among the college ranks for the NBA Draft in late June.

The recent trend has been the "one-and-done" kids who just play out their rookie year in college in order to become age-eligible for the draft. This year was looking like it would be no different until rumblings came to the surface suggesting that some of the top recruits would be inclined to stay back.

Ohio State star freshmen Jared Sullinger has already stated he will be returning for his sophomore season and various mock drafts have removed players like Harrison Barnes and John Henson from their 2011 big board, indicating that they'll also be staying in school.

It isn't surprising that these players wouldn't want to make the jump into the NBA immediately as the uncertainty of a new collective bargaining agreement and talks of a shortened NBA season makes staying for another year a very attractive option.

The flip side to this, however, is with a new CBA, it may further affect when the NBA can draft college players and how much they could get paid as rookies, meaning these top prospects could be leaving a lot of money on the table by not entering the draft this year.


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