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Lakers' implosion all on D'Antoni

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Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Lakers Center Pau Gasol is expected to miss up to eight weeks with a foot injury.
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The Lakers took a huge hit on their road trip back to respectability Thursday night in Boston, losing to their hated rivals 116-95. And head coach Mike D’Antoni threw himself directly into the Dwight Howard injury controversy, saying that Howard could have played in any of the last three games he missed with an injured shoulder.

“He’s been cleared (to play) for a while,” D’Antoni told the media after the loss in Boston. “He’s always been cleared.”

Moments later D’Antoni must have realized the potential impact of his statement, because he tried to clarify — or tone down — his comments.

“Yeah, he’s always been cleared,” the coach said, “because he’s got a tear that’s always going to be there. But he’s had pain, and obviously he’s not going to play with the pain. He felt better today and that’s why he played.”

Howard scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds in 28 minutes before fouling out. However, it was D12’s off-the-court actions — or inactions — that dominated the headlines before and after the game, starting with some pointed remarks from Kobe Bryant.

During a Wednesday night interview with ESPN.com, Bryant lobbed the first salvo.

"We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal. We need some urgency," he said, intimating that Howard should play through the pain. The big man wasn’t pleased with Bryant’s jab, saying he’d be back when he felt ready, and wasn’t going to be pressured into returning by Bryant or the specter of Pau Gasol being out for close to two months with a foot injury.

"He's not a doctor. I'm not a doctor. So that's [Bryant’s] opinion," Howard said at Thursday morning’s shootaround. "I mean, I want to play. But at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can't leave that up to anybody else because nobody else is going to take care of me.

"If people are [ticked] off that I don't play, that I do play, whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody's life is going to go on. I don't want to have to have another summer where I'm rehabbing and, you know, trying to get healthy again. I want to come back and have another great year."

Bryant claimed that he wasn’t taking shots at Howard’s toughness “not even a little bit.”

He also tweeted out: On our way to the Garden. Ready to do that work. If D12 is healthy he will play if he's not he won't. Simple math #countonmediahype.

Howard played, but it made very little difference.

The Celtics (26-23) won their sixth in a row after losing their best player, Rajon Rondo, to a torn ACL. He’ll be gone for the rest of this season and likely part of the next, but with Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee replacing Rondo in the backcourt, Boston is playing its best basketball of the season. Head coach Doc Rivers has the team believing it can win no matter the circumstances. And they are doing just that.

The Lakers (23-27) only wish they could say the same.

After winning six of their previous seven, they inexplicably didn’t show up for a game that is usually among their biggest in any regular season. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry is every bit as meaningful and intense as the Yankees-Red Sox, yet the fellows in the purple and gold uniforms once again got caught up in their own drama and lost focus of what was important — beating Boston.

The Lakers have run out of excuses and are left to confront the reasons why they are having such a horrible season through the first 50 games.

At all times this season, they’ve have had at least two eventual Hall of Famers in the lineup, and they’ve even developed a couple of impact players who were buried on the bench — Earl Clark and Jordan Hill. Hill is gone for the year after hip surgery, but Clark has been a true revelation, and when D’Antoni shows confidence in his reserves and lets them play a regular role — like Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks — they’ve done well. So why does success continue to elude a team that was picked by many to go to the NBA Finals?

The blame fits squarely on the shoulders of D’Antoni.

He obviously doesn’t have control of his locker room, resulting in more daily controversies than any time in Lakers’ history.

He humiliated Gasol by benching the four-time All Star in the fourth quarter of close games, then finally removing him from the starting lineup. He’s tried to first bury Hill, then Jamison at the end of the bench, only to be forced to return them to the rotation and see each play better than the players they replaced.  And he revealed after the loss in Boston that Howard could play through his injury, but chose not to because of the pain. That came less than 12 hours after the whole Bryant-Howard dust-up, making you wonder about the overall coaching expertise of someone who is allegedly trying to keep his team intact.

At the NBA level, there are very few coaching innovators. Most of them know the same X’s and O’s. What separates the great leaders from the rest is the everyday ability to keep their players excited, motivated and ready to give 100 percent every game.

D’Antoni’s inability to do this seems to be a fatal flaw in his ability to coach this team at this time.

Simply, he and his staff just can’t reach this team on an emotional or motivational level that should keep the effort consistent every game.

Asked by a writer about his job security, D’Antoni told him that he had a multi-year contract and if it didn’t work out, he could be playing golf.

If he doesn’t quickly figure out a way to gain trust and respect from his players, and get them to play hard at all times, he might be working on lowering his handicap next fall.

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