On the eve of Game 5, as the Lakers prepared on a nearby gym floor to defend themselves against the Minnesota Timberwolves another time, Rick Fox turned a cinder-block corner at Target Center, wearing a boot up to his knee, and a smile pressed unwillingly against his face.
The injury that kept him from most of Sunday’s Game 4 was revealed by MRI exam Monday morning to be a torn tendon in his left foot. He expects to have surgery in the next 10 days, he presumed to repair the tendon that extends from the calf to beneath the foot. The recovery time, he said with a shrug, would be three months to a year, though he’s set reasonable recovery by next training camp as his first goal.
The Lakers stretched in a circle, 12 of them now, on the court that ultimately will decide if their championship era goes on or ends there. The first-round series is tied at two games apiece, and home-court advantage still belongs to the Timberwolves, who lost nine times on their floor all season, two of them to the Lakers, one in Game 1.
And they’ll go on without Fox, who, at nearly 34, had lost some quickness, but none of his standing with them. One of their captains, typically one of the composed among them, and an eager defender, Fox wobbled from their locker room, crutches in his hands, and fell back into a folding chair. He would not suggest that his injury might shorten his career beyond whatever the Lakers have left in these playoffs, but it was clear he was fighting back frustration and sorrow.
“If I’m the drunk guy in the hotel lobby crying tonight,” he said, chuckling softly, “you’ll know it finally got to me.”
The injury, apparently developing since Game 3, when Fox said he first felt pain, has left the Lakers with Devean George as their starting small forward, if Coach Phil Jackson stays with his stated plan. Kobe Bryant probably will spend more time at small forward -- he’s often said it is his preferred position -- as could Brian Shaw.
Jackson generally tightens his playing rotation in the playoffs; seven players had most of the minutes in the series’ first four games. Without Fox, Shaw and rookie Kareem Rush, a shooting guard who’ll be needed if Bryant and Shaw are going to play small forward, are expected to play more often.
The Lakers sympathized with Fox and generally seemed optimistic that George, talented physically, occasionally fragile emotionally, could become a consistent contributor. He started the first seven games of the season, the first six during Fox’s suspension for fighting Doug Christie, then injured his ankle and sat out three weeks. He’ll retake the role in the middle of a series in which the Lakers find themselves needing every advantage, and in his hometown, where he has not always played well.
“I think it’ll be good for him,” Shaw said of George. “He’ll get to see what he’s made of. It’s not the way you want to find yourself in the starting lineup, but that’s the way it is, that’s the way we’re going to have to roll. Although that might seem like it would be more pressure, it might be good for him, more of a challenge.”
The matchups with the rangy Timberwolves have been vague anyway, with the likes of Kevin Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak and Anthony Peeler milling around in an offense that only really knows Rasho Nesterovic at center and Troy Hudson at point guard. So the Lakers, who arrived by charter midafternoon and bused directly to Target Center, continued their mantra, that the series is about what they do, not what the Timberwolves do to them.
Sad as they were for Fox -- “He loves the intense nature of the playoffs; this is what he really looks forward to,” Bryant said -- they pushed ahead, taking the floor 90 minutes after the Timberwolves had walked off. Shaquille O’Neal sat 30 rows above the floor. When the coaches waved for him to join them at half court, he waved back, agreeably, and stayed put for a few seconds. They waved again, and so did he. Finally, he laughed and stood.
“Things like this happen,” he said. “Now, Devean and Kareem have to step up. This is [Devean’s] time. He just has to go out and play.”
Of course, they’re all sensing the same thing. Last time they were on this floor, they lost by 28 points, and O’Neal was grinding through his own personal affairs, among them the death of his grandfather and the birth of a son. They returned having split two games in Los Angeles, still not in control of a series driven at times by Garnett and Hudson, at others by O’Neal and Bryant.
“If I’m on the court, I’m ready to do work,” O’Neal said. “Just throw me the ball.... We can win the series, if we stick to the game plan.”
Fox, no longer in it, was asked to describe what he felt, still weeks from taking his first step back.
“It’s, you know, I can’t let myself get to that place,” he said. “Because it’s a long road right now.”