Pau Gasol will come off the bench Thursday night for the Lakers after missing… (Michael Perez / Associated…)
The Lakers will get Pau Gasol back Thursday night against the Miami Heat after the forward-center missed five games with a concussion.
After losing six straight games, the Lakers have won two in a row. According to Coach Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers improved their level of play halfway through the losing streak.
"We don't want to get too excited about two wins," D'Antoni said. "Even in the three losses we had before this, it's just a better [level of] play and a little bit of rhythm to what we're doing. Hopefully we'll just continue with that."
So two wins plus three strong performances in losses -- that would make five games. Isn't that the same number of games Gasol was sidelined?
"Well, see now, I'm not very good at math," D'Antoni responded. "That's a pretty good story, right?"
D'Antoni quickly took up for Gasol.
"A lot of coincidences happen and so it's hard to pinpoint one thing," he said. "I thought we hit rock bottom. The players said, 'OK, this is it. We've got to turn it up.' They turned it up. Now you can't blame Pau for that. That's all I'm saying."
After losing Jan. 6 to the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers lost Jordan Hill (hip) for the season, Dwight Howard (shoulder) for two games and Gasol. That opened up an opportunity for Earl Clark, previously mothballed on the bench, to show that he can be a regular contributor.
"Obviously, finding Earl gave us a lot of athleticism and spread the floor," D'Antoni said. "So, yeah, there's a lot of little things that went into it but I wouldn't make the headline of one thing that I know you'd love to."
Considering how difficult the game has been for Gasol this season, averaging career-lows in points (12.2 a game), rebounds (8.4) and field goal percentage (416%), maybe there's something more to the story than D'Antoni is willing to admit.
If the Lakers had tremendous youth, athleticism and foot speed across the roster, perhaps the big-man tandem of Gasol and Howard might work.
Instead, the Lakers are starting three players well over 30 (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace). The three most experienced players off the bench are also over 30 (Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon and Steve Blake). And Blake has missed most of the season with an abdominal injury.
It's too early to say if Clark's contribution, averaging 11.2 points on 50% shooting with 10 rebounds over the last five games, is sustainable. Howard has played well since returning from injury, some of which might have to do with the right combination of players on the floor around him.
"We're getting better spacing," D'Antoni said of the team's recent play. "A lot of good things are kind of clicking and it starts on the defensive end, the intensity. You can see everybody is kind of on a string right now. When that happens it goes to the offense and everybody is a little more energized and the ball is moving a little bit better."
Perhaps Gasol can be reintegrated without the team losing its recent spark. D'Antoni will ease him into the lineup, initially coming off the bench against the Heat. Gasol is expected to return to the starting lineup once healthy.
Whether he starts or comes off the bench isn't nearly as important as who finishes games. If Clark is the better fit, then D'Antoni needs to play his best unit with games on the line.
The Lakers' record simply isn't good enough to put anyone's ego ahead of winning.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.