One game after both teams got their star big men back in the lineup, Los Angeles will host Dallas on Friday night with each looking to improve its standing in the Western Conference playoff race.
Gasol got hurt two minutes into the Lakers’ 108-98 loss at New Orleans on March 14, and including that game, Los Angeles (51-24) went 5-5 with its starting center on the shelf, including stunning home losses to Charlotte and Memphis.
Gasol finally returned on Wednesday, scoring only 10 points in 32 minutes, but he added six rebounds and seven assists in a 104-91 win over Portland. The victory gave the Lakers a one-game lead over Phoenix in the Pacific Division and kept them within 1 1/2 games of conference-leading New Orleans.
“I think he looked great,” said Kobe Bryant, who led the Lakers with 36 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. “He looked good yesterday in practice and he played extremely well tonight.”
With Gasol out, Bryant averaged 31.1 points, nearly three more than his average before the injury, but he also took five more shots per game.
When Bryant scores at least 39 points this season, Los Angeles is only 5-4.
Two of those performances have come against the Mavericks (47-28), who are currently sitting in the seventh spot in the West. Bryant scored 40 as the Lakers lost 112-105 in Dallas on Jan. 25, then had 52 to help Los Angeles to a 108-104 overtime win at Staples Center on March 2.
Games like those have helped put Bryant at the forefront of the debate over league MVP, the award Nowitzki won last year in leading the Mavericks to the NBA’s best record.
When Nowitzki landed awkwardly on his left leg in the third quarter of an 88-81 loss to San Antonio on March 23, many thought Dallas might fall out of the playoff picture entirely with its leading scorer potentially out for the rest of the regular season.
But Nowitzki came back Wednesday and helped the Mavericks get one of their biggest wins of 2007-08. They thoroughly outplayed Golden State - one of the teams they’re battling for a postseason berth - in a 111-86 victory, snapping an 0-9 drought against West contenders since the team acquired Jason Kidd.
“There was already a sense of urgency. … And then seeing Dirk out there, it was very inspiring,” said Jason Terry, who matched a season high with 31 points. “We were very surprised to see him (start).”
Nowitzki had 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting in his return.
“His presence is big on this team and we came out and played hard for him,” said Josh Howard, who had 28 points. “He showed a lot of energy when he was on the court and that carried over to everyone.”
Howard certainly did his best to step up with Nowitzki out. He averaged 30.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in those four games.
Howard is averaging 22.5 points in his last eight games against the Lakers. But Nowitzki has created the biggest matchup problems for Los Angeles this season, averaging 30.3 points and 11.3 rebounds.
He had 35 points in the teams’ most recent meeting, a 102-100 Lakers’ win in Dallas on March 18 when the Mavericks nearly rallied from a 25-point deficit.