10:46 PM PST, February 5, 2013
NEW YORK — The Lakers have won six of their last seven, but they leave here big losers.
Pau Gasol has been dealing with a sore foot for some time, tweaked it in the first half, heard a pop in the fourth quarter and left the arena on crutches.
Gasol would make no guesses, but his concern suggested he won't be back in a Lakers uniform any time soon.
Kobe Bryant told everyone he's hurting, and he almost never does that unless he's really hurting.
The last thing he did before taking the court against the Nets on Tuesday night was remove an ice bag from his elbow.
"All the shots I take, I start dishing and my elbow starts yelling at me, 'What are you doing?'" he joked.
Dwight Howard, meanwhile, sat on the bench in a suit.
There already have been questions raised by the Lakers' coaching staff about Howard's toughness, and they will surely get louder with the loss of Gasol.
But the Lakers risk hurting Howard's feelings, and if that sounds like a boo-hoo, the Lakers' future prospects for success are tied to keeping Howard happy.
Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni began the day wanting to know who was the "sniveling little rat" who told the media he had been miffed with Howard when he sat out the Detroit game.
For the record, D'Antoni said, he was not upset with Howard. He also said three days earlier, "If my lips are moving there's also a good chance I'm not telling the truth."
I suggested to D'Antoni that we have some kind of signal between us so I might know when he's really telling the truth.
"You've got to believe me," said D'Antoni, who has said repeatedly not to believe anything he has to say.
"You can go to some sniveling little rat, then, and ask them what I'm thinking and that's fine," D'Antoni said. "Somebody is going to you guys and saying things."
Advised that the sniveling little rat was on his coaching staff, D'Antoni said: "Well then, you got one, and I don't care. I really don't care."
It sounded like he did, so maybe it was a little white lie.
But what about it, I asked, as he seemed to be dodging the question. Does D'Antoni think Howard is a baby, like several others inside the Lakers' locker room have been saying the past 48 hours?
"I said no 10 times," said D'Antoni, who said it twice. He really does struggle with the truth.
D'Antoni didn't find out Howard wasn't going to play before the Detroit game until the bus ride to the arena. And according to folks inside the Lakers' locker room D'Antoni didn't hide his unhappiness with Howard.
"Oh God, no," D'Antoni said. "You should all talk to me; you shouldn't go to a rat."
But it's a better bet the rat will tell the truth than D'Antoni.
Case in point: After Tuesday morning's shoot-around, D'Antoni said Howard was "doubtful" for the game with the Nets.
Two minutes later Howard told the media he had met with D'Antoni before the shoot-around and had told him he wasn't playing.
He didn't seem doubtful about it.
When D'Antoni was asked almost six hours later in his pregame press briefing if he had talked to Howard about maybe giving it a go, he said, "I didn't talk to him.
"I knew from this morning he wasn't going to play."
So why did he tell everyone he held out some hope that Howard might play?
"I don't know," D'Antoni said.
Howard, meanwhile, sounded like he was being interrogated by the police without his attorney present.
Was he bothered by the toughness questions now being raised?
"No, I'm not," he mumbled, but he was no longer the smiling, happy-go-lucky guy who has also irritated some inside the locker room.
He said no matter what is being said, "This is my career. There's no need for me to prove anything to anybody."
Howard said, "I don't want to re-injure it. As long as I'm healthy that's the only thing that matters. Right?"
But there are some in sports, apparently including D'Antoni and coaches on the Lakers' staff, who believe an athlete is supposed to play through the pain.
I asked Bryant, who is noted for playing through pain and who was limping a little on his way to the postgame news conference, if he had any questions about Howard's toughness.
"No, I think it's an experience thing," he said. "For me when I was growing up in high school and middle school, both fortunately and unfortunately, I dealt with injuries.
"There are injuries that aren't debilitating, injuries that you have to play through and manage the pain. You learn your body and know what you can push through and what you can't push through. And Dwight has never been hurt."
Howard played with a sore back last season with Orlando and he has said he did further damage playing. He did not finish the season.
He has also repeatedly said he returned too early from back surgery to play for the Lakers, the nerves in his legs still not ready to let him play at full strength.
But might the injury to Gasol now pressure Howard into returning sooner rather than later?
"Maybe, maybe," Bryant said. "I think he's just worried about the damage in his shoulder and this is all new to him."
Might the insulting questions about his toughness and added pressure on Howard to play drive him toward the Lakers' exit and a fresh start elsewhere next season?
Do the Lakers baby the baby, as some of the Lakers' coaching staff have Howard pegged?
Or, are these same coaches asking him to jeopardize his career so that he might help them keep their jobs?
Yes sir, while things might appear to be looking up, the Lakers continue to have more problems than wins.
Copyright © 2013, The Los Angeles Times