Pau Gasol to start tonight against Washington

Even with his head coach describing his conditioning as “lagging,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol will start tonight against the Washington Wizards after missing the past 20 games because of a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.

“I don’t think he’s there totally,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said in regards to Gasol’s conditioning. “But I think this is a good way to get him back into conditioning. Starting him will be better because he’ll be warmed up and ready to go.”

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will also start after missing the past two games because of a sprained left ankle, and D’Antoni doesn’t expect any lingering issues.

Gasol remains a different story.

Gasol didn’t speak to reporters following morning shootaround, but he admitted feeling out of shape after spending the past two days participating in four-on-four drills. That’s why D’Antoni plans to put limitations on Gasol’s minutes, but it will become strictly based on how he responds to game speed.

“You’lll see if he’s sucking on air, he’ll have to go out,” D’Antoni said. “Not because he’s injured, but because he’s out of shape. We’ll play it by ear. It might take two or three games to get his game legs and go from there.”

Meanwhile, D’Antoni plans to feature Earl Clark as a backup small forward behind Metta World Peace, while Antawn Jamison will backup Gasol at power forward. Gasol’s return to the starting lineup marks a changed outlook on how D’Antoni plans to use the Lakers forward.

Gasol has experienced a tough season for reasons beyond his career-low averages of 13.4 points and eight rebounds per game as well as his assorted injuries (right foot, knee tendinitis, concussion) that sidelined him for a total of 33 games. Gasol also played seven games off the bench because of D’Antoni’s belief that he and Dwight Howard would maximize their production without playing with each other.

That sentiment changed.

“Dwight is in much better physical shape to start the year,” D’Antoni said. “When they were playing together, neither one of them were in great physical shape. They were slow and were creaking up and down and not being very productive. That’s why we had to go to a more athletic and quicker lineup. Now Dwight is quicker and more athletic. Pau got up to a very high level. Then when you add Steve Nash to the mix, I think it’ll work out. That’s what it envisioned to be. In reality, you’re not going to do any damage in the playoffs unless those two guys are on the floor.”

Howard believed he and Gasol didn’t fully maximize their skill for different reasons.

“We all have to sacrifice something for the team and obviously there’s guys who feel like they can do more,” Howard said. “But for right now, we all have to do what our role is. We all have to understand our roles and we’re getting better at doing our roles. Now that we have everybody back, we can just go out there and play.”

Howard then outlined Steve Nash and Gasol as the facilitators, Bryant and himself as the finishes and Metta World Peace and himself as the defensive anchors. Both D’Antoni and Howard envisioned he and Gasol finding a balanced approach with running pick-and-rolls with Nash. When Howard sets a pick, Gasol will space the floor. When Gasol sets a pick, Howard will penetrate the baseline along the basket.

“It’s good to have him back,” Howard said. “When we were out, it was tough for guys like Earl and Antawn to really try to defend in the paint. They usually are good perimeter defenders. Having another guy back there will be good for the team. Now those ugys get to go back to their normal positions and do what they do best. It’ll be great. I’m looking forward to it. Pau is trying to get in better shape. So on the defense end, I really have to do a good job of helping him oiut and getting his legs back. We’ll go from there.”

The Lakers went 13-7 during Gasol’s absence, but hardly any of that actually had to do with his absence. Howard’s conditioning improved. Bryant led the Lakers to three come-from-behind victories in early March against Atlanta, New Orleans and Toronto. The Lakers also missed Gasol against teams with depthful frontlines, including the Clippers, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Lakers simply believe Gasol’s return will add an adrenaline boost to a team still trying to secure a playoff spot. The Lakers (38-35) have a 1 1/2 game lead over the Utah Jazz (34-34) for the eighth and final seed.

“We’ve had the problem when something news comeas on the floor, a new coach or a new player comng off of injury … we move the ball,” D’Antoni said. “Once we settle back in, we quit movig the ball. If we move the ball, we will run off stuff like that. If we get into a run and make some hey in the palyoffs, we should be able to do that. But if guys just get into the habit of holding the ball and looking for themselves, that’s when it gets all screwed up.”

Howard remains insistent that inconsistency won’t loom anymore.

“The biggest thing is our health and making sure everybody stays healthy and get healthier for this last playoff push and get ready for the big playoff run,” Howard said. “There’s not any challenges we’re going to face on the floor. With the guys we have, we can do just about anything on offense and defense. We just have to do it together.”

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

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