Fortunately for D'Antoni, he doesn't need his 7'0" center to play the role of savior. The Lakers went 13-7 during Gasol's absence, and the team broke the century mark in scoring 12 times over that stretch. Earl Clark did an admirable job holding down the power forward spot (he averaged 8.5 PPG and 6.4 RPG while starting in place of Gasol) and an even more impressive job of staying out of Kobe Bryant's way.
Clark is little more than a role player, however. Dwight Howard is the star of the Lakers frontcourt, and the 27-year-old center is finally starting to resemble the player who the team traded for this past summer. Howard averaged 16.3 points and 13.8 rebounds while Gasol was on the shelf and appears to be more at home on offense than he was at the start of the season.
Much like Howard, Steve Nash is slowly getting accustomed to his niche in D'Antoni's system. Instead of initiating the Lakers' offense, Nash now allows Bryant to handle most of the ball-handling responsibilities. These days, Nash is more of a spot-up shooter than a textbook point guard—the 39-year-old playmaker has finished with 10 or more assists in a game just three times over the past two months.
To refer to Bryant as the Lakers' "point guard" would be a bit of a stretch, but most of the team's offensive plays start with the ball in his hands (many of them end the same way as well). In his last seven games (he missed two contests recently with a sprained ankle), Bryant has tallied eight or more assists on five times.
So with Howard assuming the role of the traditional big man, and with Bryant and Nash essentially switching positions, what does this all mean for Gasol? For starters, now that he's no longer burdened by being the Lakers' primary interior presence, he can focus on facilitating the offense: setting screens, making good passes and finding soft spots in opposing defenses.
In an interview with Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, Gasol said,
Once I get back into a better rhythm and get in better shape and start being more effective out there, I'll try to do the right thing, make the extra pass and create a good flow out there. But I don't want to get away from the other attributes that I do have and I think will be very helpful to our team.
Meanwhile, it's entirely up to D'Antoni and the rest of the Lakers coaching staff to figure out the best way to utilize both Gasol and Howard simultaneously. While it's clear that Gasol is most effective when he's around the paint, half of his shot attempts in his first game back were taken more than 10 feet away from the basket.
D'Antoni and Gasol haven't always seen eye-to-eye, however. Back in December, the two met for dinner one night after practice in order to iron out a few differences. They appear to be on the same page now, but if they aren't, there isn't much time left to bridge the gap.
"We can't do anything in the playoffs without Pau being comfortable," D'Antoni said in an interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated. "Pau is too talented and too good, Dwight is too talented and too good, not to figure it out."
But as we learned in Gasol's first game back, it's going to take a while before Gasol is back at 100 percent both physically and mentally.
Arash Markazi @ArashMarkazi
Kobe on Pau: "He’s got to get his legs back. He kind of had Bambi legs out there a little, which is natural. We’ll get him back into form.”3/23/2013, 5:35:52 AM
D'Antoni has less than a month to go before the postseason to figure it all out, but the smart money says that the team will be able to work Gasol back into the lineup with very little disruption. And while the Lakers aren't counting on Gasol to be a star by any means, he'll have to play at a high level for the team to have any chance of going far in the playoffs.
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