Tim Duncan could return to action on Thursday, potentially giving the San Antonio Spurs a much-needed boost as the Boston Celtics visit (8 p.m. ET, TNT). Duncan practiced Wednesday for the first time since being knocked out of the Spurs' March 21 win over the Warriors. The Spurs have lost all four games Duncan missed against good teams, with the Portland Trail Blazers -- a potential NBA playoffs first-round foe -- picking up two victories and the Grizzlies and Nuggets each picking up one.
Part of that can also be attributed to Gregg Popovich playing the percentages; with Duncan and Manu Ginobili unavailable for Monday's match against the Blazers, Pop sat Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess. The Spurs maintain a 3.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Lakers for No. 1 in the West; so long as San Antonio plays .500 ball the rest of the way, the Lakers need to be nearly perfect to catch them. (Of course, the Lakers have been nearly perfect since All-Star Weekend.)
The Celtics' troubles reach further back than those of the Spurs, and unfortunately can't be pegged on one player. Boston is 5-7 over the past three weeks and change; Rajon Rondo has been dinged up and neither Shaquille O'Neal nor Jermaine O'Neal have been available.
But otherwise, the slide is mysterious -- it isn't as if dozens of important NBA players are perfectly healthy this time of year, and the O'Neals have missed much of the season, a season in which the Celtics were regularly atop the East. The C's are now in the No. 2 spot, 2.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls. Because of a tough remaining schedule, Basketball-Reference.com's playoff forecast projects that Boston will fall behind the Miami Heat for No. 2, and that the Bulls will win the conference. A win over the Spurs could alter that dramatically.