When Pau Gasol initially went down with a foot injury, Earl Clark gave the Lakers a burst with his athleticism and energy.
As teams became increasingly cognizant of Clark’s ability to affect the game, defenses began to plan against him.
Playing major minutes night after night -- after three years of limited opportunity -- hit Clark like a wall. With Gasol’s return, the young forward was moved back to the bench.
Over the last six games, Clark has scored just 16 points. On Tuesday night in a must-win game against the Dallas Mavericks, he exploded for 17 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high five blocks.
“He did a great job tonight,” Dwight Howard said. “I didn’t know he had five blocks, but I’m happy that he got the opportunity to play and he played big for us.”
Clark was one of the team’s primary defenders on Dirk Nowitzki -- who scored just 11 points on 4-13 shooting.
“This is a must-win and I just wanted to come out and give it my all,” Clark said. “My team needed me tonight, and I just tried to step up. I hit some shots. I started feeling good, and everything else fell into place.”
The Lakers are tied with Utah at 39-36 but are in ninth place by virtue of the Jazz’s tiebreaker -- making almost every game left vital to their playoff chances.
Clark said he hopes he’ll be able to help the Lakers make the post-season, even in a reduced role off the bench.
“I’m starting to get used to it again,” he said, noting that with shorter minutes he can play harder without having to worry about pacing himself.
Kobe Bryant said he has confidence in Clark.
“He’s played great for us 85% of the time he’s been in there,” Bryant said. “He had a little bit of a tough stretch there, but we believe that he is a fantastic player and he has nights like this more often than not.”
The Lakers next host the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.