Updated: Dec. 27, 2006, 11:09 AM ET

Taking measure of great pains

First, the good news. Tracy McGrady returned to action Tuesday and looked good. He seemed explosive in his play, especially turning the corner during the loss to the Indiana Pacers. To me, that says his aching back is better.

And that's about it for the good news. NBA courts are littered with injuries, with Hornets guard Chris Paul the latest to hit the deck with an ankle injury. In recent memory, there hasn't been a playoff race so difficult to project because of injuries to key players.

We now have the unhappy prospect of a Houston Rockets team again facing the familiar issues of playing without either Yao Ming or McGrady. Or both.

We've said it countless times in the past few seasons: if T-Mac and Yao are both healthy, then this is a team that can get out of the West and into the NBA Finals.

But now I'm joining those who wonder if that will ever happen.

Yao's knee injury will likely sideline him until after the All-Star break. The Rockets are now 16-12. I do think they will still be over .500 when Yao makes it back, and be in contention for those final two playoff spots in the West.

Though it's not going to be easy. So far this season, the Rockets are 0-1 minus Yao, 2-5 without T-Mac.

While Yao heals, the progress of Bonzi Wells will be the thing to watch. Wells, wherever he's been in the NBA, is a guy you can put in isolation to carry your offense.

He has one of those body types that can just blow up with inactivity, which it did in the off-season. Now he's getting lean again, but it seems like he has dead legs now, just like its training camp.

Overall, the loss of Yao ranks as one of the five injuries most likely to take the heaviest toll on a team's fate. Here's four other injury situations that affected teams most dramatically:

Heat center Shaquille O'Neal -- When the Miami Heat play disinterested hoop, they look like the worst team in the NBA. We really can't tell what kind of toll Shaq's absence is ultimately going to take on Dwyane Wade -- what he did on Christmas (40 points) is tough to do every night. He takes a lot of hits, and Shaq's not there to make things easier.

So Shaq, when he comes back, is going to take at least a month of playing to get into some kind of shape. Until then, he's going to put on some weight. If he's not going to aggressively go after his rehab, then he might not be a factor till we get very close to the playoffs.

Lakers forward Lamar Odom -- With him healthy, they're a top six team in the West, one that could challenge for conference supremacy. He was finally comfortable NOT deferring to Kobe. He was an All-Star player in his own right. Last season he was a spectator, relatively speaking. How he comes back from the sprained knee next month bears intense watching.

Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol -- Still making his way back from a broken foot, putting in 23 minutes in his sixth game Tuesday. Still the Grizz dipped to 6-23, the worst mark in the league. The loss of Gasol was devastating. This is a Grizzlies team, with a healthy Pau, that could post a win total in the high 40s as one of the tougher teams to play because of their halfcourt style. Without Pau, no.

The New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets -- Just a wounded team. When it seemingly couldn't get worse for one of the more promising young teams in the league, Paul, one of the great young floor leaders since Magic Johnson, is carried off the court Tuesday after spraining his ankle. The team was already missing key pieces, Peja Stojakovic (back surgery, return this season in doubt), David West (elbow) and Bobby Jackson (rib).

This was a team that showed major strides in the season's first three weeks. Now they're reduced to fighting to stay competitive every night.

That's gotta hurt.

ESPN analyst Tim Legler, who made 43 percent of his NBA 3-point attempts in the face of five knee surgeries, turned 40 on Tuesday.

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Pain For Paul
Chris Paul
AP Photo/Ron Wurzer
Reigning Rookie of the Year Chris Paul is treated for a sprained ankle. He left the game, an eventual road loss to the Sonics.

Thorpe Speed: Adam, Al And All That Jazz

HANDS UP: Adam Morrison is still struggling with a very basic defensive concept -- his hands are often hanging passively juxtapositioned to his knees instead of being up and active. Not only does this reduce his chances at getting deflections, but also adds valuable fractions of a second to his ability to contest shots. Those fractions of time are all a good shooter with a quick release needs to shoot over a tall (6-8) defender like Adam, who defends more like a 6-4 player when his hands are low.

JEFFERSONIAN VISTA: The reason why experts were (and are) so high on the prospects of Al Jefferson, as opposed to many similar looking players, was Jefferson's feel for sealing and scoring in tight spaces. He has a talent that is next to impossible to teach beyond a basic level, but is only effective when combined with a consistent fight for important positions inside. And therein lies AJ's problem.

HOW THE JAZZ ROLLS -- Mehmet Okur making big 3's late -- as he did again Tuesday night -- is a result of his talent and Jerry Sloan's strategy. Sloan puts good shooters in the corners and runs high ball screens with Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, with Okur spotted up behind the line opposite the action. The pick-and-roll action demands attention from the help defenders guarding the three spot-up shooters, mostly from the other big (what would a small player be able to do with a beast like Boozer inside?). As the other big dives towards a rolling Boozer, Williams makes the quick but simple pass to Okur. This is a classic case of "pick your poison" that, thus far, has typically resulted in death for Jazz opponents.

-- David Thorpe

Big Scorers In Abundance

Carmelo Anthony leads 13 players who are averaging 25.0 or more points per game this season.

This would set an NBA record for most players averaging at least 25.0 points per game in the same season. There are only two seasons in NBA history that even 10 qualifying players averaged 25.0 or more points per game. It happened 1971-72 and again last season.

The 25 Club
1971-72 PPG 2005-06 PPG 2006-07 PPG
Abdul-Jabbar 34.8 Kobe Bryant 35.4 C.Anthony 31.6
N. Archibald 28.2 Allen Iverson 33.0 Allen Iverson 30.6
John Havlicek 27.5 LeBron James 31.4 Gilbert Arenas 30.1
S. Haywood 26.2 Gilbert Arenas 29.5 Dwyane Wade 28.6
Gail Goodrich 25.9 Dwyane Wade 27.2 Michael Redd 27.9
Bob Love 25.8 Paul Pierce 26.8 Joe Johnson 27.7
Jerry West 25.8 Dirk Nowitzki 26.6 Kobe Bryant 27.3
Bob Lanier 25.7 C. Anthony 26.5 LeBron James 27.0
Archie Clark 25.2 Michael Redd 25.4 Paul Pierce 26.6
Elvin Hayes 25.2 Ray Allen 25.0 Vince Carter 26.3

ALSO OVER 25 THIS SEASON: Yao Ming (25.9) , Ray Allen (25.4), Zach Randolph (25.1)

-- Peter Newmann, ESPN Research

Records At A Glance

T-Mac Is Back

McGrady posts 7-for-22 FG, 7 TOs in return

The First W
Allen Iverson
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Allen Iverson enjoyed his first win as a Nugget, dropping in 28 points and 13 assists in Denver's 116-105 victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.

Extreme Behavior
Michael Redd

Tuesday's Best
Bucks guard Michael Redd: Scores 36 points (zero turnovers) in a 114-107 road win over the Spurs. Probably didn't help matters that Manu Ginobili and Brent Barry were home with a stomach flu. So Redd was very menacing.

Jarvis Hayes

Tuesday's Worst
Wizards forward Jarvis Hayes: When the Big Three for the Wiz is on, Hayes could miss 20 shots and still win. Tuesday, Arenas-Jamison-Butler was very much on fire, so Hayes could miss all seven shots in a 116-101 win over the Grizz. No problem at all.

Quote of the Day
"It's obviously a foul. But that's how the game works. They aren't going to change it. Never in the history of the game have they reversed a call.""
-- Nets coach Lawrence Frank, who aired his grievances at officials after Vince Carter missed a pull-up jumper with 1.5 seconds to go after a collision that knocked Rasheed Wallace to the court. The Pistons won, 92-91.

See how all 215 who played stacked up

-- Andrew Ayres

Considering Ron-Ron For Clipper Ship

I think Ron Artest, deep down, would be thrilled with a trade to the Clippers.

I'm even more convinced that the Kings have realized, rather suddenly, that they better trade Artest as soon as possible if they hope to get back something of value. To L.A. or wherever.

I'm not quite sure why the Clips believe their honeymoon with Artest would last any longer than it did for Sacramento, but they're apparently giving serious consideration to reviving the deal that was nearly consummated with Indiana in January 2005: Corey Maggette for Artest.

Artest has heard all of the above and more. He's well aware that skepticism about his conduct with the Kings and his relationship with the point guard is growing.

Yet he insists that No. 1 on my list -- the only one of those three items Artest can address directly -- is a skewed view.

"I want to finish my career here in Sac with Mike Bibby," Artest stressed in a series of e-mails we exchanged.

Artest also disputes the widespread notion that he and Bibby are wrestling for control of the team, insisting that he's "looking forward to buying a big mansion here [in Sacramento] next summer."

Complete Marc Stein blog Insider

Detonation Destination For Nets? Perhaps

Jordan (Boise, ID): What do you see the Nets doing now that Nenad Krstic is out for the season? Do you see them trading for another big man or just staying with the roster they have? Thanks, Marc!

Marc Stein: The bigger question, at least in my circle, is whether losing Krstic will prompt the Nets to go bold and blow the whole thing up. With Richard Jefferson ailing, too, rallying out of a slow start is not the foregone conclusion it usually is in Jersey, which has to make you wonder if it's time for the Nets to seriously consider breaking up its Big Three before Vince Carter hits free agency.

Full Marc Stein chat Insider

Youngest Rebounding Champions

Dwight Howard turned 21 years old on Dec. 8. This is already his third season in the NBA. After the Magic selected Howard as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, expectations were extremely high. But Howard has made significant progress in each of his seasons in the NBA to exceed those expectations and is currently leading the NBA in rebounding.

Here's the youngest rebounding champions in NBA history. Age was determined by the player's age on the final day of the regular season. Howard will be 21 years, 131 days on the final day of the regular season.

The Boy Turned Man
year Player Age
1950-51 Dolph Schayes, SYR 22-303
1955-56 Bob Pettit, STL 23-92
1951-52 Mel Hutchins, MIL 23-114*
1959-60 Wilt Chamberlain, PHI 23-201
1951-52 Larry Foust, FTW 23-265*

*Tied for league lead

-- Peter Newmann, ESPN Research


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