BOSTON — The popping sound didn’t just reflect the noise Pau Gasol made after tearing the plantar fascia of his right foot in the final minutes of the Lakers’ win Tuesday over the Brooklyn Nets. That pop also could illustrate the Lakers’ playoff fortunes. Gasol will sit out when the Lakers play Thursday against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, but the Lakers will offer a more definitive timetable after he’s evaluated today by team doctor Steve Lombardo and foot specialist Dr. Kenneth Jung.
Regardless, it’s safe to presume Gasol’s absence will negatively affect the Lakers in various ways. Below are five key variables.
1. Gasol’s return expedites the need for Dwight Howard to return quickly, but is that realistic? Howard has been listed as day-to-day since missing the past three games because of an aggravated labrum in his right shoulder. He’s also maintained he’s not going to rush his return because he doesn’t want the injury to worsen enough that he would need surgery. But will he change those sentiments now? The Lakers in recent days have suggested Howard will simply have to learn how to play through the pain and make adjustments in the post so he’s not as vulnerable with his shoulder.
It’s unfair for any outsider to say what Howard should do. We’re not privy to his MRI and literally can’t feel his pain. But it’s inevitable that pressure led by the Lakers’ coaching staff and Kobe Bryant for Howard to return will ring louder considering Gasol’s likely long-term absence. Both parties need to maintain the right boundaries in ensuring two things. Howard must somehow expedite his injury without compromising his long-term health by exploring every treatment injury imaginable. Howard and the coaching must also make adjustments in his post play and team sets to minimize the shoulder’s vulnerability to more physical contact.
2. Forget about the Gasol trade rumors for once. The Lakers hadn’t planned on shipping Gasol this season. They wanted to see how he’d pair with Steve Nash, and they considered it too risky since it’s unclear whether Howard will resign with the team this offseason. But that hardly stopped the speculation surrounding Gasol’s future. But with the trade deadline literally two weeks away, it’s safe to say no team is going to want Gasol while he’s recovering from a long-term injury.
3. Gasol’s absence continues the Lakers’ instability Even with a new coaching change and overlapping injuries, the Lakers have always featured at least two Hall of Famers on the floor. So there’s no excuse that the team’s talent alone couldn’t fare better than a current 10th place standing in the Western Conference. Still, it’s undeniable that the Lakers haven’t handled all the changes that Mike D’Antoni’s system and the numerous injuries have entailed.
When you add long-term injuries to Steve Nash (fractured left leg), Dwight Howard (back, shoulder), Gasol (knee tendinitis, concussion, plantar fasciitis), Steve Blake (lower abdominal muscle, groin) and Jordan Hill (season-ending hip injury),the Lakers have only featured Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace in the starting lineup on a consistent basis. That’s provided a trickle-down affect where Earl Clark has marked the lone exception in managing to fill the void. All the other reserves, including Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon, Darius Morris and Robert Sacre have only shown flashes of their identity, and it hasn’t proven enough.
4. The Lakers will likely go small. In a twisted way, the absences to Howard and Gasol will allow D’Antoni to fully utilize his preference to go small. Clark will likely slide to center. World Peace will go to power forward. Antawn Jamison could start at small forward. Or Kobe Bryant may slide over there, while Blake plays at shooting guard and Nash mans the point.
There’s no excuse for the Lakers not to fully maximize the size Howard and Gasol bring on the floor. But without them in the lineup, the Lakers are better served mixing both lineup combinations. Keeping Bryant at shooting guard will help keep intact his facilitating role. Even with a diminished lineup, its critical Bryant sticks to that routine since it will ensure balance on offense. But later on in the game, it will be necessary for Bryant to play at small forward so he can move off the ball, while Blake and Nash can organize the offense to perfection. It would be unwise to plug in Sacre at center in significant stretches considering his inexperience.
5. Will the Lakers feel more inclined to use their disabled player exception? The NBA granted them that tool last week because of Hill’s season-ending hip injury. But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak maintained he didn’t plan to use it because of Clark’s emergence. If Gasol it out for a long time, would that level of thinking change?
The Lakers can use this exception to sign a free agent for up to one season or acquire a player making up to $1.88 million through a trade. So don’t expect an firework acquisitions out of this. But from a pure numbers standpoint, it might be necessary for the Lakers to make a move with the exception.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org