Steve Nash, left, hopes to start practicing next week. (Paul Buck / EPA )
NEW YORK — Now more than ever, the eyes of Lakers followers turn to Steve Nash.
He missed his 21st game Thursday but offered a ray of hope in a wildly overcast season.
He said he would "hopefully" start practicing next week.
"I'm definitely getting better," said Nash, who started running and progressively increased his shooting workouts. "If I continue to improve and there's no setbacks, then I should be able to practice next week."
Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni was optimistic enough to say there were "flickers at the end of the tunnel."
"We're getting closer," he said.
The Lakers have three games next week: Sunday at Philadelphia, Tuesday at home against Charlotte and Dec. 22 at Golden State. Nash has said all along he would need a practice or two to get a feel for the game he has missed since being kneed in the leg by Portland guard Damian Lillard on Oct. 31.
It was unclear whether the Lakers would practice Monday after flying home late Sunday from Philadelphia. After Tuesday's game, however, there are three possible days of practice before they play Golden State.
Nash has been sidelined because of a fracture in his lower left leg.
Losers of six of their last seven, the Lakers could use him sooner rather than later.
"We're treading water," Nash said, adding that the Lakers were "losing ground."
He notices the stagnant nature of the offense, not to mention the rampant turnovers, but doesn't want to take credit before even checking into a game.
"If I come back and we take off, by no means am I the savior," he said.
Nash hasn't missed this many games in a row since sitting out 22 in 1999 because of an ankle injury.
Dwight Howard has a message for anybody criticizing him.
"I wasn't even supposed to be playing until January and I'm playing now. What do you expect?" the Lakers center said Thursday.
Howard has been criticized because of his inaccurate free-throw shooting and also for some subpar games on offense, including a three-for-nine shooting effort Tuesday in the Lakers' 100-94 loss to Cleveland.
Howard reminded people who "expected me to be high-flying" that he had back surgery in April to repair a herniated disk.
"I'm not in terrific shape," he said. "I'm still working through that. I have a long way to go. Only thing I can do is continue to play as hard as I can."
He was better on offense Thursday against New York, scoring 20 points on eight-for-11 shooting. He also made four of six free throws, which would be considered progress for him, though the Lakers lost, 116-107.