NEW ORLEANS -- Bad night for the Lakers.
They lost a game, a player and sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.
It was a domino effect they’d rather forget -- Pau Gasol left early because of a sprained left ankle, New Orleans left them behind in a 108-98 victory Friday, and Houston left them fit to be tied atop the West after the Rockets won their 21st consecutive game.
Not surprisingly, the Lakers’ locker room was quiet and somber in the wake of another center’s leaving on crutches. Gasol was hurt after landing on Vladimir Radmanovic’s foot while cutting through the lane with about 9:30 left in the first quarter. Gasol was getting ready to jump in case Kobe Bryant threw him a lob pass, he said.
Gasol missed about two weeks after sustaining a sprained ankle in training camp that produced “similar pain, a similar reaction,” he said.
X-rays were negative and an official recovery timetable will be determined today after Gasol undergoes an MRI exam either in Houston or Los Angeles.
Gasol went with the team on its charter flight to Houston, where the Lakers play Sunday, but it looked like it would be a painful evening.
Before leaving New Orleans Arena, he had his left foot propped up on a padded trainer’s table as he received “electro-stim” treatment. When it was time to go, he winced as he pulled on a black sock. Trainer Gary Vitti slowly and gingerly applied a walking boot, and Gasol walked out on a pair of metal crutches.
“We’ve got to make sure there’s no damage on the ligaments, at least not too bad,” said Gasol, who seemed determined to return soon. “I enjoy playing basketball. I don’t enjoy watching. I’m not a watcher. I want to be back as soon as I can.”
It looked like he would miss the final three games of the Lakers’ trip.
“I would be ecstatic if it was only the next three,” Coach Phil Jackson said. “Maybe not ecstatic, but, you know, happy.”
Despite losing Gasol, the Lakers (45-20) made New Orleans (44-20) work for most of the first three quarters.
Ronny Turiaf, who got the bulk of the time in place of Gasol, made a free throw that brought the Lakers to within one point, 71-70, with three minutes left in the third quarter.
But the Hornets went on a 16-6 run that extended into the fourth quarter, and the Lakers couldn’t answer.
“That’s the kind of cushion you don’t want to give to a home team,” said Bryant, who had 36 points and nine rebounds before fouling out with 14.9 seconds to play.
The “M-V-P” chant near the end was for Chris Paul, who frustrated the Lakers over and over, whether it was beating them off the dribble for a layup, finding a post player for a dunk or feeding a three-point shooter for another long-distance basket. Paul finished with 27 points and 17 assists. He also had four steals.
The Lakers still have Houston (45-20), Dallas (43-23), and Utah (44-23) before returning home. They have not encountered a four-game trip against opponents with a combined winning percentage over .600 this late in the season since February 1973, when they played at Baltimore, New York, Boston and Milwaukee.
Throw in the loss of Gasol, and it made sense why the Lakers were grim. Gasol was averaging 19.9 points and 8.3 rebounds in 18 games with the Lakers before Friday.
“That’s a big hit to the team, especially with [Andrew] Bynum already being out,” Luke Walton said.
Bynum is not expected back until at least the second week of April because of a left knee injury. Chris Mihm might begin practicing with the team after the trip ends.
Until then, Turiaf will start at center, although Lamar Odom and even Walton logged time in the middle against New Orleans. DJ Mbenga did not play Friday, but Jackson said he would get more time against Houston.
You could see this one coming
“Double T called on [Tyson] Chandler and [Ronny] Turiaf, who tangled it up after a Chandler dunk. The Lakers are starting to lose control of this one.”
-- Brian Kamenetzky