EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol seemed to be reading the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers their inevitable last rites on the eve of Game 4 of their first-round series against the overpowering San Antonio Spurs.
“I’m proud of the team because we’ve been fighting so much,” the proud Gasol said following what most likely was the Lakers’ final practice of the season Saturday. “We earned the right to be in the playoffs. We competed really hard the first two games in San Antonio. We gave ourselves a chance against a a very tough team and deep team. So I’m happy and proud of how the guys have fought through what we’ve been through and what we’re going through, and that’s what I like to see, that’s what I’ll keep in my mind and in my heart.”
A subdued Howard expressed a similar sentiment the day after the most disappointing team in franchise history experienced its worst home playoff loss ever.
“Despite all the injuries, as a team we’ve stayed together,” Howard said. “When most teams fall apart and blame each other, point the finger, we stayed together. We’ve become a closer team throughout all the adversity.”
Does such a statement signal that the chronically indecisive Howard sees his future in purple and gold?
“I haven’t thought about it,” Howard said.
Gasol or Howard or both might be playing their final game as a Laker. Howard, as a free agent come July 1, controls his future. Gasol, owed $19.3 million next season as part of an $83.1 million Laker payroll before potentially re-signing Howard, does not. Gasol could be traded or set free via the amnesty clause.
“What happens next,” Gasol said, “is totally up to the team and management.”
Gasol has seen it all during this often torturous season. He was benched in the fourth quarter by coach Mike D’Antoni in just the coach’s third game at helm, and then embarrassed by D’Antoni after the loss at Memphis. D’Antoni explained his decision to sit Gasol with this infamous statement: “I was thinking ‘Oh, I’d like to win this game.'”
Gasol played in just 49 games this season, knocked out by a concussion, by plantar fasciitis and by degenerative tendinosis in both knees that he said he’ll tackle this summer. Still, Gasol, along with Howard, is the last of the Lakers starters still standing heading into Sunday’s closing act against a Spurs team determined to put L.A. out of its misery if only to assure itself an extended rest before beginning round two.
Gasol has soldiered on, averaging 13.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 6.7 apg in the Lakers’ three opening losses in this series.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster this year,” Gasol said. “It’s been a very challenging season in different ways. Injuries, ups and downs, just a lot of things that had an effect on our team. We can’t really think about all that right now. It’s something that we’ll probably go back and go, ‘Wow all those things really happened,’ and those things happened for a reason. But again, it has been a difficult, challenging season.”
D’Antoni on Saturday acknowledged that he has regrets from his early, defiant takeover of the Lakers, likely the way he humiliated Gasol and tried to force his run-and-gun system on a club better suited for slow-it-down. He wasn’t ready to talk about those with faint hope for a miraculous comeback just 24 hours away.
“There’s a lot of regrets right now,” D’Antoni said. “But let’s talk about that later. Let’s try to win.”
That’s not likely considering Howard and Gasol will be the only starters in Game 4 that the Lakers figured to have in the playoffs. Joining Kobe Bryant on the injured list Sunday will be Steve Nash and Metta World Peace from the starting five, plus backcourt reserves Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake.
RIP, 2012-13 Lakers.