The news went from bad to worse for Pau Gasol on Wednesday. (Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)
Most NBA fans feared the worst as soon as we heard Los Angeles Lakers forward/center Pau Gasol say he "felt a pop" in the plantar fascia (the connective tissue on the sole) of his right foot during the fourth quarter of L.A.'s 92-83 road win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, and a Wednesday MRI confirmed the concerns — the 32-year-old Spaniard suffered a partial tear of his right plantar fascia and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future.
CBSSports.com's Ken Berger, who broke the news on Wednesday afternoon, reported that the Lakers expect Gasol to miss at least six weeks, and could be out for as much as three months if he undergoes surgery to repair the tear in an attempt to increase the odds of a full recovery. In a team press release confirming Gasol's injury following Berger's report, the Lakers declined to put a timetable on his absence, pending review of the results of the MRI that Gasol received in Boston by team doctors and an in-person examination of Gasol by team doctor Steve Lombardo and foot specialist Dr. Kenneth Jung. Until they get the second opinion/additional information, the Lakers have termed Gasol out indefinitely, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.
In case you missed it, here's the play on which Gasol suffered the tear while attempting to block a shot by Nets center Brook Lopez:
Gasol, ever effervescent and effusive in his social media presence, took a predictably sunny tone in telling his fans about the injury on Twitter:
The result of the MRI shows I have a torn fascia of my right foot. Tomorrow I'll fly back to LA to see our team doctors. #AlwaysPositive
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) February 6, 2013
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) February 6, 2013
We're glad to hear Gasol's looking on the bright side of life; we're not sure we'd be feeling the same if we just got handed his bill of health.
A six-week shelving would put Gasol in line for a return on or around March 20, which would mean he'd miss 20 games. That's more than 60 percent of the Lakers' remaining schedule, which is just a massive blow for a team already thin in the frontcourt after reserve center Jordan Hill's season-ending hip surgery and Dwight Howard continuing to struggle with both his surgically repaired lower back and a torn labrum in his right shoulder. As ESPN.com notes, the Lakers did pick up a disabled player's exception for Hill last week, which would "allow the Lakers to spend a little more than half of Hill's salary, about $1.78 million, in order to sign a free agent or to absorb a player's contract acquired in a trade." It remains to be seen whether the severity of Gasol's foot injury prompts L.A. to more seriously consider using that exception to add frontcourt depth in the weeks ahead.
The timing is especially awful considering Gasol's recent uptick in form. After a dreadful start to the season that saw him shoot just 42 percent from the field through L.A.'s first 17 games, look largely ineffective as a floor-spacing four alongside Howard and struggle after missing two weeks with tendinitis in both knees, he'd started to come on over the past month, averaging 15.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 31.5 minutes of run since Jan. 6. In three straight starts with Howard sitting due to shoulder pain, Gasol had averaged 20 points and 8.7 rebounds in 37 minutes per game, shooting 49 percent from the field and nearly 85 percent from the foul line.
Whether he'd continue to look better once Howard returned remained up for debate, but it's indisputable that the four-time All-Star's ability to score and facilitate out of the post will sorely be missed in the Laker lineup. The injury also almost certainly scuttles any chance of a Gasol trade before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, an outcome for which Gasol said he would not advocate this season but one that remained an option, however unlikely or unsavory, for Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.
With Gasol's fate uncertain after the Tuesday night win, Lakers star Kobe Bryant all but challenged Howard to play through his shoulder pain at a time where his Lakers — in the midst of a seven-game road trip, sitting at 23-26 and still 3 1/2 games out of the West's eighth playoff spot despite having won six of their last seven — desperately need wins. Thus far, Howard's been careful about doing so; while he has played through back and shoulder discomfort throughout the entire season, he has tapped out of the last several games after reaggravating his torn labrum in last Wednesday's loss to the Phoenix Suns, saying that "it’s [his] career" and "there’s no need for [him] to prove anything to anyone."
After a largely disastrous start to his tenure in forum blue and gold that's included much more talking than high-impact on-court performance, this would seem to be a prime opportunity for Howard to emerge as the kind of standard-bearing Superman the Lakers thought they were receiving in trade from the Orlando Magic, the All-NBA-caliber star and organizing principle around whom they've clearly been planning to build the next generation of Laker greatness. If he can grit it out, return to the lineup and come to the rescue, keeping L.A. from sliding back in Gasol's absence and continuing the push toward a playoff berth, then he might just swap goat horns for laurel for the first time since he started angling for an exit from Orlando. Then again, while that narrative would be neat and tidy, none of us really knows how much pain Howard's dealing with and whether playing through it would risk even more serious future consequences; he is, after all, a 28-year-old who's about to hit free agency this summer and (hopefully) has a long career in front of him, whether in Los Angeles or elsewhere.
At the moment, Howard's availability for Thursday night's nationally televised matchup with the Boston Celtics remains unclear; if the big man can't go, the Lakers will likely go to battle against their longtime rivals planning to play plenty of small-ball lineups featuring the likes of Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison logging heavy minutes, Metta World Peace guarding Boston's centers (including Kevin Garnett) and liberal doses of rookie Robert Sacre. Whatever frontcourt alignment the Lakers feature, much more figures to be required of Bryant, point guard Steve Nash and head coach Mike D'Antoni if the Lakers are to continue their ascent out of the massive hole they dug for themselves to start the season.
In the meantime: Get well soon, Pau. It's not just Lakers fans who are going to miss watching you play.
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