For Lakers, it will be go big or go home against San Antonio

Dwight Howard, left, and Pau Gasol have had their ups and downs this season, but they will have to be in top form for the Lakers to go anywhere in the postseason.
(Michael Nelson / EPA)

The phrase has been tossed around so much this season, four future Hall of Famers, a symbol of what the Lakers should have been accomplishing.

Now they’re down to a healthy two — one who wasn’t supposed to still be here and one who could be on the way out.

Steve Nash will give the Lakers a third, and rusty, future Hall candidate, but Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are the vital signs for their first-round playoff series that starts Sunday in San Antonio.


Howard was expected to fix whatever the Lakers missed last season, arriving last August in a trade that brought a transatlantic smile to Kobe Bryant’s face thousands of miles away at the Olympics.

But Howard had a frayed season, seemed unhappy at times while slowly recovering from off-season back surgery, and got off to an awkward start with Bryant before blossoming near the end of the regular season.

Now it’s his chance to carry the team . . . and decide if he wants to return as a free agent in July.

Gasol has been involved in more rumored trades and faced more questions about more destinations than possibly any player in Lakers history, most glaringly the infamously real Chris Paul deal vetoed by David Stern in 2011.

Now the Lakers need him more than ever, with Bryant sidelined until next season and a demanding fan base wondering exactly what a $100-million payroll buys these days.

Gasol knows the importance this brief window holds for him and Howard, saying they need to be “anchors for our team.”

“It’s important for us to step up to the challenge,” he said.

In a quirky twist of fate, if Howard re-signs with the Lakers this summer, Gasol probably goes.

The Lakers’ payroll cost them an additional $30 million in luxury taxes this season, a number that makes them queasy. If they have a $100-million payroll next season, their luxury taxes skyrocket to about $85 million, as per the new collective-bargaining agreement’s harshly punitive rules aimed at curbing free-spending teams.

Waiving Gasol via the “amnesty” provision in July could potentially save them more than $60 million in luxury taxes. They would still have to pay his $19.3-million salary, though he could be snapped up by a bidding team that would owe the Lakers millions to help with that cost.

The Lakers also could try to trade Gasol, but his hefty salary next season could be difficult to move and they would likely have to take back salaries totaling at least $15 million, which wouldn’t really help a goal to avoid ridiculous luxury taxes.

Gasol has hung in despite a rough season in which he missed 33 games for a variety of health reasons.

“It’s up and down, down and up. Just a lot going on,” he said Saturday. “But all of that is behind me and here we are, ready to play. I’m feeling pretty good.”

Good enough to take a jab from his former coach.

It started when Gasol informed his Twitter followers he was heading to Lakers practice before the team flew to San Antonio on Saturday afternoon.

“You . . . practice? . . . I must be dreaming,” came the retort from Phil Jackson via Twitter.

To which Gasol tweeted, “I’ve missed your sense of humor! Always well taken.”

Gasol had triple-doubles in two of the last three games, including a 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist effort April 12 against Golden State, the game in which Bryant sustained a torn Achilles’ tendon.

“This is the Pau that I’m always begging for a chance to play with,” said Nash, who planned to play Sunday after an eight-game absence because of hamstring and hip soreness. “We’re going to need him to be feeling his best and playing with a lot of confidence to win this series.”

Howard, meanwhile, has been better in recent weeks, helping the Lakers finish with a 7-1 burst to claim seventh in the Western Conference.

When free agency starts, though, he can sign a five-year, $118-million contract with the Lakers or a four-year, $88-million deal with another team. He has steadfastly declined to share his thoughts on the future.

Nor was he thinking about the Lakers’ unimaginably victorious past as he prepared for his first postseason with them.

“I haven’t thought about the tradition or the history that’s been here in playoff series. I haven’t had too much time to really think about it,” he said. “I just focus on what I can do to help this team this season.”

The Spurs will try to stop Howard by double-teaming him. There’s an alternative if that doesn’t work.

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich had no problem instructing his team to intentionally foul Howard during a 91-86 loss to the Lakers last Sunday. Howard made only four of 10 free-throw attempts during a third-quarter run of Hack-a-Howard, a reason the Lakers tried to figure out ways to combat it at practice this week.

“We worked on Dwight being evasive out there,” Coach Mike D’Antoni joked.

Howard tried to sound brave despite making only 49.2% of his free throws this season.

“If they foul me, they foul me. We’re going to make them pay,” he said.

He’ll be watching

Bryant did not make the trip to San Antonio. He won’t be invisible.

“I don’t check my cellphone at halftime. I might do that since I know he’s going to proactively send texts at me,” Gasol said. “I’m sure it’s difficult for him to be at home all day with his cast, with his leg up, not being able to move. I know how active and energetic he is, especially this time of year.”

Howard said he could relate after missing Orlando’s first-round series while recovering from surgery last April.

“Watching my team from another coast was the toughest thing for me. I know how it feels,” he said. “The main thing we can do is make sure we stay in contact with [Bryant].”