Lakers enter post All-Star break hoping health isn't an issue
It was a factor that kept Lakers guard Kobe Bryant out of the last three games as well as the NBA All-Star game on Sunday. It was the main goal Lakers forward Pau Gasol wanted to ensure of the All-Star showcase. And it was the reason Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was glad most of the team had some time off during All-Star weekend. The variable that's consistent in all three cases involve the team's want for good health.
Bryant's sore left ankle has kept him out of the lineup while the Lakers put together a three-game winning streak before the break, sparking debate on whether the team can maintain its high sense of urgency upon his return, which could be as early as Tuesday against Golden State.
Gasol is 15 games removed from a left hamstring injury that sidelined him for six games in early January, not too long after missing the season's first 11 games because of a sore right hamstring. Since his return, however, Gasol recently acknowledged his legs have felt heavy, and he had hoped to regain his energy during the break, even though he played 20 minutes in the All-Star game for a 13-point performance.
And then there's Jackson, who has overseen a lineup that's also featured several other players falling to the injury bug at some point this season. Despite the Lakers Western Conference best 41-13 record, Jackson and his players acknowledge the team could be playing better. Part of the reason points to the Lakers' injuries, a factor they should have been able to absorb better given their depth of talented players. The Lakers have shown glimpses of doing that, the most recent example being their three-game winning streak despite playing without Bryant as well as missing center Andrew Bynum (sore right hip) for the second half last week against Portland and the remaining two games before the break. Bynum isn't sure when he'll return and suggested he may receive a cortisone shot sometime this week.
Though Bryant and Bynum will soon phase back into the lineup, the rest of the Lakers hope they have moved beyond their earlier injuries. In addition to Gasol's hamstring issues, Ron Artest's plantar fasciitis contributed to inconsistency on defense and his Christmas night concussion further delayed his mastery of the triangle offense. Bryant's nearly nine-week fractured right index finger led to a poor shooting month in January. Bynum's sinus asthma and knee issues contributed to a December slump (as well as his struggles in sharing the front court with Gasol). There was Lamar Odom's intestinal-flu symptoms, sprain to his right index finger and sore right foot in the last month, all setbacks he ultimately played through. And then there were injuries to reserves Sasha Vujacic (right hamstring) and Luke Walton (pinched nerve in lower back), setbacks not exactly significant but nonetheless brought more fragility to a team that lacked continuity because of moving parts in the lineup.
The 28-game stretch, no doubt, will present more challenges since the games will bear greater significance as playoff seedings become more solidified. Bryant and Bynum are still recovering from their respective injuries, but we'll find out soon enough if the All-Star break truly helped the team improve its health. The team's continuity will no doubt hinge on that factor.
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Photo: West All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol watch the start of the game Sunday. Bryant didn't play because of a sprained left ankle. Credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press.