MINNEAPOLIS — In what will mark his first appearance in just under three months because of a back injury, Steve Nash will start tonight when the Lakers (16-31) visit the Minnesota Timberwolves (22-34) here at Target Center. In what will mark his first game in two months since nursing a hyperextended right elbow, Steve Blake will start, too.
But considering the sensitive nature of the nerve issues that plagued his back and hamstrings, Nash’s first appearance since Nov. 10 comes with several limitations. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said he plans to play Nash for the first five to eight minutes of the game before sitting out the rest of the first half. He will try the same approach to open the second half. Nash will then likely sit Wednesday against Cleveland, while Jordan Farmar receives a heavier bulk of minutes after returning from a torn left hamstring.
“I’d like Steve to warm up instead of sitting down and coming up,” D’Antoni said. “He’s always been a starter. If he can’t go, he can’t go and we’ll make adjustments.”
Nash endorsed the idea, deferring to D’Antoni and Lakers trainer Gary Vitti.
“I don’t know what the best plan is,” he said. “I’m letting Gary and Mike piece together what they think is the best opportunity. I’ll see how it goes.”
Blake won’t have the same limitations, but he still reported feeling pain in his right elbow when he shoots from long distance. He said recently, however, he won’t need surgery after the season.
“I feel I can jump in and contribute,” Blake said. “How well I shoot the ball from 3, I don’t know. But as far as rhythm and understanding the offense, I think it should be fine.”
The Lakers are making several adjustments as their wave of three new points guards coincides with Pau Gasol missing all of the Lakers’ three-game trip this week because of a strained right groin. Jodie Meeks slides over to the small forward position. Farmar will suit up, though it’s unclear if he will play considering he’s expected to take a heavier load against Cleveland without Nash in the lineup. After averaging 10.5 points and 9.6 assists since the Lakers plucked up from the Development League in late December, Kendall Marshall will return to the bench.
“He’s fine,” said D’Antoni, who said he talked to Marshall about his role. “He’s good.”
Second-year center Robert Sacre will start at center, while rookie Ryan Kelly will start at small forward. D’Antoni said seldom-used center Chris Kaman “will play a lot of minutes off the bench,” while Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill will split minutes in the frontcourt. Farmar will also dress to play, but it’s unclear if he will return tonight considering the sensitive nature of his hamstring injury.
“We’re small but we’ll try to get away with it for a while,” D’Antoni said. “We’re just kind of hunting and pecking right now.”
All of these moving parts may prove nothing more than adding musicians to the Titanic. The Lakers are 13th in the Western Conference and have lost 18 of their 21 games. But after missing the last 39 games because of his back injury, Nash sounded like a rookie ready to make his debut.
“That’s a big step that I got through some practices,” Nash said. “It is tenuous. I’m going to have to play some games to be a player and get some games under my belt to build the strength and confidence to protect the area. It’s tenuous. I’m not going to lie. If I can get through that window there where I put some games behind me, there’s a chance I can finish the season.”
“I love the game. I haven’t had a good run of it in LA and I want to be able to contribute,” Nash said. “It’s been one thing after another. Hopefully I can fight through this and get another opportunity to play well.”
Nash has only played in six games this season, averaging 6.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting and 4.8 assists where he showed noticeable rust after spending the entire offseason healing his back and hamstring.
“It’s a really tricky injury,” Nash said. “I’m not going to take anything for granted. I have a chance to play tonight. One game is the grand scheme of things I’m happy to have. If I can make it two, three or four, that’s the best outcome.”
It took a while for Nash to reach this point. He traveled to Vancouver, Canada for most of last offseason and on four separate trips this season to control the nerve damage surrounding his back and hamstrings. Did Nash ever feel pessimistic he would return?
“I thought I’d be able to play again. It was just as far high I could take it. I feel like I have a chance for sure. Its different to play a game than practice. We’ll have to see and how it goes.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org