In just his first game since missing the previous five because of a concussion, Lakers forward Pau Gasol pleasantly surprised coach Mike D’Antoni.
D’Antoni believed Gasol may lack stamina. Gasol showed energy. D’Antoni predicted Gasol’s timing may be off after missing a week and a half of basketball practice. Gasol showed more awareness possibly because he also further healed the plantar fasciitis in his right foot. D’Antoni assigned Gasol a bench spot to ease the transition. In the Lakers’ 99-90 loss Thursday to the Miami Heat, Gasol’s 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting, four rebounds and four assists in efficient 25 minutes showed the Lakers forward didn’t miss a step.
Perhaps Gasol provided too strong of a performance because it’s tilted D’Antoni’s thinking on how to use him. After proclaiming Thursday that Gasol will definitely start beginning Sunday against Toronto, D’Antoni says the starting spot at power forward remains uncertain.
“Today is a new day,” D’Antoni said. “Whatever we’ll see.”
Will the Lakers return with Gasol, who’s averaged a career-low 12.2 points on 42 percent shooting and 8.2 rebounds in 33 minutes? Or will the Lakers continue banking on Earl Clark, who’s had a breakout week after having an increased role during Gasol’s absence?
“We’ll see. I don’t know if that’s viable,” D’Antoni said about Gasol being a bench player. “He’s probably not going to like it. That’s just a wild guess.”
When I relayed the news on how D’Antoni suddenly changed his tune, Gasol’s reiterated his sentiments afterwards that he wants to remain a starter.
“We all have a job to do,” Gasol said. “I’m a believer you have to put the best team on the floor. I agree with that 100 percent. Hopefully I’m part of that team.”
Usually he has.
Gasol only started in three games during his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2001-02 campaign.
“I’ve been a starter my entire career,” Gasol said. “I’ve been a star starter my entire career. I want to continue to be a star starter.”
Gasol has hardly been a star under D’Antoni.
The Lakers forward has missed a combined 13 games, including eight from knee tendinitis and five from a concussion. Gasol continuously laments that D’Antoni’s offense that emphasizes floor spacing and outside shooting significantly hinders his post presence.
Meanwhile, Clark has shown in recent games that his outside shooting, energy and versatility helps space the floor better. He also serves as a better complement to Dwight Howard.
“I’m not a coach,” Howard said. “We all want to win. It might be good Pau comes off the bench and have Earl in the starting lineup or we can go back and have Pau in the lineup. Every piece in this puzzle is important. It doesn’t matter who is on the floor. They have to realize that whatever they bring to the table will help our team. They have to do it wholeheartedly and just play.”
Gasol did just that in his first game off the bench.
He aggressively found opportunities inside, made jumpers and hustled for rebounds. Even with a reduced role, Gasol and Howard played the entire fourth quarter together.
“Starting does not matter,” D’Antoni said. “Last 10 minutes of a game, last eight minutes, that matters. That’s where we’re going to have some problems if something happens.”
Gasol agreed with that point.
“The finishing is more important,” he said. “The best players should finish off games. That’s the way it has to be. When the game is on the line, you want to be on the floor. That’s important.”
But it remains to be seen whether Gasol will buy into D’Antoni’s vision as a possible role player. Does D’Antoni have to somehow convince Gasol to buy into his idea?
“My job is to put the best team on the floor,” D’Antoni said. “If I feel that’s the best way to go, I’ll go that way. If I don’t, then it’s nothing personal. I have to do what I think is right. I think every player has to accept that, whether they like it or not. Does he deserve to start? Yeah he does. He’s been here a long time and that will probably happen. If it doesn’t, you got go on. You got to contribute. You have teammates to think about. You have the Lakers to think about. You have to do whatever you think is best for the Lakers. Whether you agree or not, that’s something else.”
D’Antoni said he’s talked about such an idea. Gasol said they haven’t since initially agreeing he would come off the bench first before immediately phasing back into the lineup.
“It’s good to know and have that certainty,” Gasol said. “So there’s no unexpected surprises.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org