Gasol has been out since February 5 after straining the plantar fascia in his right foot against the Brooklyn Nets (per ESPN). According to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Mike D’Antoni expects his forward to be back in action as early as Friday against the Washington Wizards.
Before Gasol’s injury, the Lakers were struggling to stay afloat in the Western Conference. Pre-trade-deadline rumors involving Dwight Howard’s future were still swirling and Gasol had been relegated to a bench role in hopes of creating better opportunities in the paint for Howard.
Nothing seemed to be working.
The 32-year-old forward wasn’t happy with his new role, but it didn’t last long. With Gasol on the sidelines, the Lakers found some rhythm, winning 13 of 20 games since February 6.
That stretch of quality basketball (aided in large part by Howard’s revitalized play) has moved the Lakers into eighth place in the Western Conference and the playoffs now seem like a very real possibility.
Gasol’s presence on the court wasn’t the reason the Lakers sputtered for much of the season; he was simply caught up in a situation in which no one on the team could develop any consistent chemistry.
The pressure was already mounting, and Gasol—like the rest of the team—fell victim to its crushing nature.
When the seven-footer returns, it won’t be to the same team he left. Los Angeles is playing much more inspired basketball at this point in the season, and it seems Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant have discovered the formula for success—even with the pressure of a playoff berth bearing down.
Bryant is recovering from a combination of a sprained ankle and the flu (per ESPN), but he too is expected back as early as Friday.
With Bryant recovering and Gasol once again healthy, the Lakers stand to make waves in the playoffs.
Former Lakers star and current Golden State Warriors executive Jerry West seems to agree. According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, West is on record as saying he wouldn’t want to face Los Angeles in the playoffs this year: “I definitely wouldn't want to play them, I know that. I think they'd have a chance against anyone.”
Some of that may just be professional courtesy, but there is some truth to his statement. As well as the Lakers have been playing, there aren’t many teams in the West that would match up well with them in the postseason.
Gasol’s return will give Los Angeles both added depth and another strong scoring presence in its frontcourt. He couldn’t find a good fit prior to injuring his foot, but the current Lakers aren’t the Lakers of six weeks ago. Things are different and the lessening tension will once again create an environment in which Gasol can thrive on a team capable of big things in the playoffs.
A faction of naysayers will undoubtedly refer to the Lakers’ abysmal play early in the season with Gasol in the lineup as reason to be doubtful, but six weeks and a lot of good basketball separate that team from this one.
Gasol will give Los Angeles an added boost next to a dominant center who seems to have turned the corner this season.
It remains to be seen what role Gasol will fill when he returns, but D’Antoni seems to have had a change of heart about the big man (per Pincus):
I don't know if it's the first game or the third game, but [Gasol is] going to start. He's going to finish games. We can't do anything in the playoffs without Pau being comfortable and 100 percent. It will change things up because you're playing with two big guys instead of spreading the floor. They've never really played with Dwight being 100 percent with Pau [in the lineup].
It may take some time for Gasol to acclimate to playing alongside Howard, but both are among the most talented frontcourt players in the league. The Lakers’ early-season struggles are in the past, and with Gasol back in the fold, they will be a dangerous team in the postseason.