- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- Dwight Howard has already missed six games and counting this season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Pau Gasol has missed 13 because of various injuries and could miss a great deal more once he gets the results of his MRI on the plantar fasciitis on his right foot on Thursday. Jordan Hill went down with season-ending hip surgery two weeks ago.
Where would the Lakers be without their throw-in small forward from the Howard trade turned starting power forward turned sometimes center Earl Clark?
"We'd be in deep crap," said Kobe Bryant on Tuesday after Clark had another stellar night in the Lakers' 92-83 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Playing against the same franchise he used to watch while growing up in Plainfield, N.J., with his father, mother and sister in the stands, Clark scored 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and guarded everyone from shooting guard Joe Johnson (who finished just 4-for-15 from the field) to center Brook Lopez late in the game when Gasol went down.
"He's earned a lot of trust and he can guard everybody," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. "He can guard from the point guard to the center. It's invaluable to have somebody like that."
Clark has earned so much trust that not only was he on the floor late in the game, but he was the one being asked to make plays -- inbounding a late pass to Steve Nash, knocking down two free throws to tie the game with 3:27 left and nailing an 18-foot jump shot off a Nash pass with 1:11 to go to put L.A. up by five.
Since D'Antoni called Clark's number against San Antonio 15 games ago, Clark has seven double-doubles, has scored 10 or more 11 times and has scored 17 or more three times. Know how many double-doubles Howard has in his past 15 games? Seven.
Clark is seemingly getting better by the day, missing two free throws in the final minute in the Lakers' prior game against Detroit and making them a game later with L.A. down by two late.
"I just wanted to knock down the free throws and forget about the Detroit game," Clark said. "I just took my time and put myself [mentally] in practice and I just knocked them down. And the jumper I made, it's a jumper that I shoot every day, so I just pulled up and had confidence and let it go."
That practice he mentions comes in the form of 200 made jump shots before every practice -- 10 from midrange and 10 from 3, at 10 different spots each -- and another 200 when he comes back at night long after practice has ended.
It's the same routine he does now, after playing 41 minutes against Brooklyn, that he went through when he played just 37 minutes combined in the first two months of the season.
"When you have a guy that's still working hard, even when he's not playing, and then he finally gets his chance and he makes the best of it, that's how you earn respect, and I think he's earned it from all of us on the team," said Steve Blake, a gym rat if there ever was one. "So, we couldn't be happier for him. I see him getting on the shooting machine before practice and, as someone that's in the gym a lot myself, when I see him in there before me, it's just like, he really wants it. It's impressive."
To Bryant, it shouldn't be a surprise anymore.
"He's been consistent since we put him in the lineup against San Antonio," Bryant said. "He's just been consistently playing well. When that happens, you just have to say the player is good. He's good. He does it on a nightly basis with rebounds and knocking down jumpers and handling the ball and defending. He's just a really good player."
A really good player for whom his teammates are rooting really hard.
"A lot of guys on this team are veterans, they've made their money, they've had their careers already, so it's cool to see a young guy get a shot and doing well," Clark said.
Earl Clark has earned a lot of trust from his coach and teammates after becoming a regular in the lineup.