MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Dwight Howard is sidelined again with an ailing shoulder and disgruntled Pau Gasol is back in the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting lineup, where he believes he should have been all along.
Howard was scratched from Friday night’s game at Minnesota with a sore right shoulder, and he returned to Los Angeles to receive platelet-rich plasma treatments. It’s the same injury that kept Howard out of three games in January.
The All-Star center is day to day and planned to rejoin the Lakers in Detroit on Sunday. For a team struggling to scratch back into the Western Conference playoff race, it’s the last thing Los Angeles needed.
“We got ourselves in this hole and we’re the only ones that can get us out,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s going to be some bumps along the way and this is a big one. But we have enough guys where we can win games and we have to do that.”
Howard’s arrival from Orlando before the season was hailed as a return to championship contention for a Lakers team that was aging with Kobe Bryant and Gasol still the focal points. But Howard hasn’t been his overpowering self very often this season. He was slowed early on while recovering from a back injury that occurred last season and is now hampered by a torn labrum that isn’t going away anytime soon.
“It’s always going to be there,” D’Antoni said. “Even if we shut him down for two months, it’s still going to be there. Once he gets hit, it’s going to hurt. It’s a pain thing.”
Howard is still averaging 16.5 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, but his level of intimidation and athleticism in the paint is not the same.
And the Lakers haven’t been the same, either. They entered Friday night’s game at 20-26, 10th in the Western Conference, and fresh off a loss to the lowly Suns.
The air of invincibility is not there, and Gasol’s waning production is a big part of that. One of the most gifted post players of the last decade has been marginalized since D’Antoni replaced the fired Mike Brown, a process that culminated with Gasol being moved to a reserve role for the first time in his career.
Usually measured and level-headed in his public remarks, Gasol has not hidden his disappointment with D’Antoni’s decision.
“Mike’s been trying to get his philosophy through us and try to get our team to do it,” Gasol said Friday. “At the same time our personnel is a little different than probably what would fit best for that kind of system. It’s a work in progress. We’re all trying to get a feel for each other. We’re all trying to figure things out. We’re all trying to win. At the same time, it’s been a struggle.”
Gasol is averaging a career-low 12.8 points while shooting a career-worst 44.8 percent. He’s been bothered by tendinitis in his knees, bursitis in his left elbow and a concussion.
D’Antoni has been trying to diffuse the situation with his trademark tongue-in-cheek humor.
“I know he wants to start. I’ve just kind of got to coach the team the way I think is better,” D’Antoni said. “It’s not a personality conflict. It’s not a dance contest. I like him. My dance card’s open.”
D’Antoni has been using Earl Clark as the starting power forward alongside Howard. He said he likes how the Lakers start with a smaller lineup.
“I still consider myself one of the best out there,” Gasol said. “It’s a game that you can’t be too self-centered and selfish. You have to put team first and have to make it work somehow. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make it work and I try not to be a negative influence at all.”
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio defended his fellow Spaniard on Thursday, joking that if the Lakers don’t want Gasol, the Wolves would take him. D’Antoni fired back, saying when Rubio coaches a team he can make those decisions. And Bryant took it a step further when asked about some of the criticism Minnesota All-Star Kevin Love has received this season.
“You can send him our way,” he said.
Asked what he can do to keep Gasol from letting the disappointment affect his play, D’Antoni cracked: “Pay him $19 million. Y’all figure it out. That should help. I think it’s fine. He wants to play. I’ve got it. And he’s going to play. He’s always going to be in there in the end of big games.”
For one night at least, it wasn’t an issue. Gasol was in the starting lineup and Bryant said it was imperative the Lakers figure out a way to get him back to being a featured part of the offense.
“We haven’t used him to his full potential, everybody knows that,” Bryant said. “That’s something we’re trying to figure out and something we’ll have to do a much better job at if we want to reach our full potential as a team. We have to use him more.”