HOUSTON -- Pau Gasol is out indefinitely because of a moderate ankle sprain, perhaps putting the Lakers' drive to stay atop the Western Conference on hold as well.
With the margin of error in the West already slimmer than slim, the Lakers will be without a true post presence today against Houston and probably the rest of their trip against other top Western teams.
Gasol was hurt Friday against New Orleans after landing on Vladimir Radmanovic's foot while cutting through the lane early in the first quarter. X-rays during the game were negative, and an MRI exam Saturday at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston revealed a moderate sprain.
After today's game against Houston (45-20), the Lakers play Dallas (43-23) on Tuesday and Utah (44-24) on Thursday before returning home to play Seattle (16-50) on Friday. The Lakers (45-20) are tied with Houston for first in the West.
"Pau's out for sure for the Houston game, most likely out for the rest of the trip, but we don't really want to say that for sure," Lakers spokesman John Black said. "He'll be reevaluated in two or three days. It's not great, but it's not horrible."
Gasol said after the game that he hoped to miss only two weeks after sitting out about that long when he suffered a sprained left ankle in training camp that produced "similar pain, a similar reaction," he said.
Gasol was unavailable for comment Saturday. He was averaging 19.9 points and 8.3 rebounds in 18 games with the Lakers before his 2 1/2 -minute appearance in Friday's game.
Ronny Turiaf, who is listed at 6 feet 10, will start at center as the Lakers temporarily convert their offense to more of a "small-ball" scheme. They have little choice, with three 7-footers now sidelined.
Andrew Bynum is out until at least early April because of a left knee injury that has kept him out since Jan. 13. Chris Mihm has not played since Dec. 23, although he has not felt any pain since having a screw removed from his surgically repaired right ankle last month. Mihm might begin practicing with the team shortly after it returns from its four-game trip.
The Lakers moved forward with a brief practice Saturday, though Coach Phil Jackson found time to needle the Rockets, who have won 21 consecutive games, the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.
Jackson was annoyed that Houston would not accommodate the Lakers' preferred practice time at the Toyota Center because the Rockets said they would still be using the practice court there.
The Lakers instead practiced at a small indoor court at a health club across the street from their hotel.
Jackson feigned surprise when he saw reporters from Los Angeles and Houston arrive at Lakers practice a little after 3 p.m. Saturday.
"I thought the Rockets were going to be working out till 4 o'clock," he said. "They told us we couldn't have their gym till 4 o'clock. Did they finish? You guys are back from their practice? They lied to us, those guys. They really lied to us."
Using a tone that was equal parts irritation and sarcasm, Jackson then found a positive, sort of, in Gasol's injury.
"At least we have a chance to practice without him, even though, as you can see, this 40-foot court wasn't quite like the normal court we could have possibly had today to work out on," he said.
Jackson was more complimentary toward the Rockets in the days leading up to today's game. The Rockets are 9-0 since losing Yao Ming to a season-ending stress fracture in his left foot. In league history, only the Lakers' 33-game streak in 1971-72 is longer than the Rockets' current run.
"I think I was one of the people that said they'll keep on winning and don't discount them just because Yao Ming is out for the season," Jackson said recently. "I'm not surprised at all. They have that capability. They have the backup players to go with it."
In addition to the top spot in the West, the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams will be at stake today. The Lakers and Rockets are tied, 1-1, and do not play again after tonight.
It won't be easy for the Lakers without Gasol.
They lost to New Orleans, 108-98, in no small part because the game strategy turned when Gasol went down.
"It changed big-time because of the fact that we don't have to think about him on that post [and] double-team him," New Orleans Coach Byron Scott said. "When [Gasol] goes out, you bring in Turiaf, who is extremely active but is nowhere near the type of player on the post that Gasol is."
Maybe it's not just Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James.
Chris Paul continues to linger on the fringes as a most-valuable-player candidate, and his 27-point, 17-assist effort against the Lakers caught at least one guy's eyes.
"If I had a vote, and I might be a little biased, but I think he is the MVP," Scott said. "I think what he brings to this team and what he means to this team is obvious in the numbers that he's putting up."
at Houston, 12:30 p.m. PDT, Ch. 7
Site -- Toyota Center.
Radio -- 570, 1330.
Records -- Lakers 45-20, Rockets 45-20.
Record vs. Rockets -- 1-1.
Update -- The Lakers lost to the Rockets in the season opener, 95-93, but beat them 15 days later, 93-90.