As the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff picture continues growing clearer, so too does the fact that one of its missing parts (center Pau Gasol) will return to a starring role before the regular season wraps up.
After defeating the Chicago Bulls on Mar. 10, the Lakers moved two games above .500 for the first time this season (via nytimes.com). They also moved a half-game clear of the sputtering Utah Jazz (3-7 in their last 10 games) for sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference.
L.A. has now won eight of its last 10 games, leaving many analysts speculating not on if the club makes the postseason, but rather which seed it will hold come playoff time.
The Lakers won't quite have a full complement of players. Even the most optimistic outlook says reserve big man Jordan Hill won't return before June, via Bleacher Report columnist Kevin Ding.
But the latest injury report sounds promising for Gasol. The Spaniard has been out with a torn plantar fascia since Feb. 5, but started running on an anti-gravity treadmill last week and could return in as soon as 1.5 weeks (according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times).
If you can't quite hear the celebratory jubilation from Lakers nation, there's no need to schedule a hearing test just yet. The big man struggled mightily before being forced to the sidelines with career lows of 14.3 points per game and a 45.3 field-goal percentage.
That doesn't mean that Gasol's return is anything but a positive for the Lakers, though. Yes, even with coach Mike D'Antoni still stalking L.A.'s sideline.
Despite the Lakers' success without him, Gasol is clearly a vital part of this team cashing in on the postseason promises brought along with general manager Mitch Kupchak's bountiful offseason.
Without Gasol or Hill in the picture, L.A. has struggled finding any rim protection when Dwight Howard needs a breather. Any offensive gains brought about by the Earl Clark-Antawn Jamison frontcourt pairing have been given back in folds on the defensive end.
Even if you see Gasol as nothing more than a big body, frankly that's a needed commodity on the Lakers at this point. (And for all of you Robert Sacre
family members supporters, D'Antoni rightfully does not see the rookie as a possible solution.) He's no Howard on the defensive end, but he's far from being a post pushover like Clark or Jamison.
Gasol may not be thrilled as being a substitute center at this point in his career, and with already four All-Star Games to his credit, he has a reasonable beef. But that's what the Lakers have lacked most in his absence. Even a forward-thinking offensive mind like D'Antoni's is limited in its ability without a true center manning the middle.
Clark dazzled in his early Lakers exposure, but the fourth-year forward has struggled to find the same success of late.
In 14 January games, the oversized small forward averaged a respectable 10.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game (via basketball-reference.com). He held strong during 13 February games with 10.9 points and 7.8 rebounds. Through five games in March, though, his numbers have fizzled to just 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds.
D'Antoni attributed Clark's return to Earth to his lack of exposure during his first three NBA seasons, which he split between the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic. D'Antoni told Bresnahan that Clark's relative demise is "just a matter of, he's never played this many games at this level with the importance of every game."
D'Antoni voiced his desire to "cut his minutes...to get him re-energized so that he can have a big finish," but he won't be afforded that luxury before Gasol returns.
The early returns of the D'Antoni-Gasol duo came with mixed results, but the pair appeared to be finding a common ground before the big man's latest injury.
Prior to his early departure against the Brooklyn Nets, Gasol had been playing his best basketball under D'Antoni. In his last nine games before suffering the foot ailment, Gasol had averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting above 55 percent from the field (via basketball-reference.com). He had sprinkled a trio of 20-point games and double-digit rebound efforts into that stretch.
He's still an intriguing match with point guard Steve Nash given his passing proficiency from the high post.
It still might not be enough to keep Gasol draped in purple and gold beyond this season (a source told Comcast SportsNet's Ric Bucher that amnestying the $19.3 million owed to the big man next season could be an option), but the Lakers can't afford to be looking beyond their next game, let alone next summer.
The Lakers have very much looked the part of a playoff participant for the past month. But their forgettable three months to open the season leave them destined for a dog fight over this final month of the season.
A dog fight that grows a little easier with a healthy Gasol added to the rotation.