Protection paramount

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

Players don't even think about it. But coaches of successful teaams do.

A lot.

You always want to win, of course. And you want to build momentum for the playoffs.

But please, for the love of God, don't let anybody get hurt.

Imagine you're coaching an NBA team like the Miami Heat. There are 10 games left in your regular season.

You already know you're going to finish first in the Eastern Conference, but you're in a tight battle with Phoenix and San Antonio for the best record in the league. Having the best record in the league means having home-court advantage in every playoff series.

Raptors coach Sam Mitchell understands the dilemma Heat coach Stan Van Gundy faces.

"If you're Miami you have two concerns," said Mitchell, whose Raptors visited the Heat in Miami last night. "One, you want the best record. But two, it's more important that you're healthy.

"If one of your main guys goes down in a freak accident, it can derail all you've done this season. One injury to Dwyane Wade or Shaquille O'Neal -- and not even an injury to where they can't play, but an injury to where they're not 100% -- really can cost you. You tweak a hamstring and now all of a sudden you can't make certain moves.

"So that's the thing you have to balance when you're those teams. Home-court advantage is important. But being healthy is more important. Just slow it up, man."

That said, it's tough to play not to get injured. And some even believe that when you're trying not to get injured, that's the exact time you are most prone to getting injured, because you're taking your concentration away from playing, which is difficult enough.

"Well, you just have to play," Mitchell said. "But as a coach, you keep every joint in your body crossed that something doesn't happen.

"I think every team in this league is one player away from being an average team, even the good teams with the best records. You saw how Phoenix was without Steve Nash. Miami can struggle without Shaq or Dwyane Wade, San Antonio without Tim Duncan, Minnesota without Kevin Garnett. It's the key guys."

Mitchell had a lengthy NBA playing career, but he admitted these are the types of things he never even thought about before he was a coach.

"It's not in the players' minds, but I guarantee you it's in the coaches' minds," Mitchell said.

So what do you do?

Mitchell suggested coaches can keep an eye on things and take action when their star players cross the line from playing normally to doing something ridiculous.

"You don't play carefully, but you don't do stupid things," Mitchell said. "You don't go diving into the stands for loose balls. If I'm a coach and I see Dwyane Wade -- who has had some injuries before -- diving into the stands for a loose ball, and if he comes out unhurt, I may not play him anymore in the rest of that game.

"I'm using that as a hypothetical. But the fact is -- and it's hard to tell a player this -- you can't get hurt, man. You just can't."

When it was pointed out to Mitchell that the Raptors have been fairly free of serious injuries this season, he reacted as if his club had just been jinxed. But can you jinx a team that is not headed to the playoffs (barring a miracle) and has only 12 games to go?

"I still would like to win some of these 12," Mitchell protested.

Mitchell may not have any first-hand experience yet in how to protect a playoff-bound team from injury.

Suffice to say, however, it's a problem he hopes to get very familiar with in future years.


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