Mike D’Antoni: Pau Gasol could return as early as Monday against Phoenix

INDIANAPOLIS — As he neared completion of another basketball workout, Pau Gasol seemed in incredibly good spirits.

Gasol enthusiastically took on the challenge Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham provided to make 10 consecutive free throws. Gasol joked around with center Dwight Howard. He laughed along with Lakers officials and reporters watching him shoot.

Gasol has a good reason to smile.

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said it’s a “definite possibility” Gasol could return as early as Monday when the Lakers play in Phoenix. Gasol has already missed the 17 games in the past five weeks while nursing a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. He will sit out tonight when the Lakers (34-32) play the Indiana Pacers (40-24) here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and will also likely sit out Sunday when the Lakers host the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center.

D’Antoni also suggested he will use Gasol differently whenever he fully heals from a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, an injury that has already sidelined him for 17 games.

“He’s going to be a starter at some point and is going to be a big part of what we do,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll work from there. Whether it’s the first day, fifth day or 10th day, I don’t know. It depends on his conditioning and how everything is going. But we will work that in where he starts.”

As Gasol exited the arena following his workout, a reporter told him of D’Antoni’s plan.

“Really?” Gasol said with his eyebrows raised. “That’s news. Big news!”

Gasol has averaged a career-low 13.4 points on 45.3 percent shooting. His numbers are fairly similar as both a starter (13.4 points) and a reserve (13.1 points), but Gasol boasts a stronger shooting percentage as a bench player (53 percent) than a starter (43.8 percent). Gasol’s numbers also bode similar despite the playing time discrepancy as a starter (34.5 minutes) and reserve (28.7). Part of that reflects the reality that Gasol is featured more inside as the Lakers’ backup center than he is sharing the floor with Dwight Howard.

Yet, there’s a strong possibility Gasol and Howard could become more dominant together if they’re more of a featured part of the offense together. Lakers forward Earl Clark, whose sprained right ankle won’t keep him sidelined tonight against Indiana, has averaged only 5.6 points on 33.3 percent shooting in 19.4 minutes through the past five games.

D’Antoni said he plans to talk to Clark about his pending demotion and his hope to play Gasol at the end of games.

“That would be the general plan,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll see how it goes. We have to reserve rights to play the way we have to play.”

First things first.

Gasol must improve his conditioning after sitting out for the past five weeks.

“It can’t be great,” D’Antoni said. “He’s been running now for a week. He’ll still need to get in the games. That’s why we’ll play him slow. His minutes might be limited to start with mainly because of his conditioning. We’ll play it by ear and see how he feels each day. It could take another two weeks of him playing before we ramp him back up to where he’s comfortable.”

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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