LOS ANGELES -- Injuries are a part of sports and timing is a part of life and when the two intersect in the worst way -- a bad injury at a critical juncture of the season -- a team's championship hopes can be shattered.
The Los Angeles Lakers were reminded of this harsh reality of their profession Sunday when two members of their starting frontline -- Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum -- suffered knee injuries against Denver that could have easily ended up sidelining them for months.
"It was scary because of the way I fell and the way I felt," said Gasol, who is day-to-day with a bone bruise in his right knee after he crashed to the floor following a foul, and the weight of his 250-pound body landed with his right knee folded underneath.
Bynum is a little bit better off than Gasol as he plans to play Tuesday against the Utah Jazz. But, seeing Lamar Odom inadvertently fall into the center's right knee was an eerie flashback to when Kobe Bryant crashed into his knee causing a MCL tear in January 2009. It was not fully recovered when L.A. was played Orlando in the NBA Finals that June.
One game can change everything -- even when you're six months and 76 games into a season as the Lakers were Sunday. A couple of dodged bullets brought the perspective about what really is most important to the team between now and the end of the regular season into a clear focus.
It's not about catching San Antonio for No. 1 in the West.
It's not about keeping Dallas at bay to hold on to No. 2.
It's about staying healthy.
That trumps all with six games remaining before the playoffs begin.
"It's always a wonder because the level of physicality and the size and the speed and the level of contact is always a wonder," Kobe Bryant said Monday. "It's great fortune that you don't have as many injuries as there potentially could be."
It's a wonder why some teams can make it through the minefield of serious injuries that can occur in any given game during the course of a season, while others seem to get snakebitten.
The three teams the Lakers are most likely to face in the first round of the playoffs have all had to endure a season-ending injury to one of their impact players. Portland lost Greg Oden to microfracture surgery to his left knee in November, New Orleans' David West suffered a torn ACL in late March and Memphis saw Rudy Gay require season-ending shoulder surgery just a few days before that.
"I always say sometime during December or January, 'Look at how many guys that have been injured so far,'" said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "Because there are a lot of guys who get injured. I wouldn't know how many season-ending there are, whether it's 10 percent or less, but there's a lot of injuries in this game because it's a very physical game. There's a lot of wear and tear that comes about."
Nobody is saying the Trail Blazers, Hornets or Grizzlies would have been in line for a title even with their star players in the lineup, but there have been countless examples of teams on the verge of a championship losing a player and then losing the big games.
Just ask the Boston Celtics. They'll tell you Game 7 last June, when they were outrebounded by 13, would have been different if the 6-foot-10, 280-pound Kendrick Perkins hadn't torn his ACL in Game 6.
Or ask Bryant, Jackson, Derek Fisher and Luke Walton if the 2004 Finals against the Detroit Pistons could have been different if they had a healthy Karl Malone. Malone averaged 13.1 points and 9.2 rebounds through the first three rounds of the playoffs before spraining his knee. Playing with the sprain his numbers dipped to 5.0 points and 7.3 boards through the first four games of the Finals before the pain was too much, causing him to sit out the series-ending Game 5.
So what's the solution? Should the Lakers just drape their stars in bubble wrap and keep them that way until the playoffs begin and the games really count?
They can't do that. Not with the Spurs within reach and the Bulls, Heat and Celtics right there in the mix for home-court advantage should they meet the Lakers in the Finals.
"I don't think we were playing very hard so that opens the door for bad things to happen," Bynum said of the reason the injury scares occurred against the Nuggets.
Continue to play hard, continue to play smart and continue to respect every game. That's the healthy way to go about finishing off the season.