LOS ANGELES - The ailing Los Angeles Lakers faced an even tougher task against the San Antonio Spurs in Friday's Game Three when veteran guard Steve Nash was ruled out shortly before the tipoff because of back and hip problems.
With Nash on the sidelines, the Lakers will field the relatively inexperienced Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock as starting guards as they bid to claw their way back from a 2-0 deficit in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.
The struggling Lakers were already missing the inspirational Kobe Bryant, sidelined for the rest of the season following Achilles tendon surgery, and backup guard Steve Blake, ruled out indefinitely with a strained right hamstring.
"We gotta go through (forward) Pau (Gasol), he'll be the playmaker," Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters when asked how his injury-hit team would channel their offense against the second-seeded Spurs.
"That's a good guy to go through."
The two big men, Spaniard Gasol and six-time All-Star Dwight Howard, will spearhead the depleted Lakers offense but they will both have to be at their very best for the home team to have any chance of upsetting the rejuvenated Spurs.
San Antonio have limited Los Angeles to an average of just 85 points in the first two games of the series while totally outplaying them from the bench.
"They know that if they win this next third game, it's going to be very difficult for us to come back," Gasol said before Nash was ruled out. "It's a must-win for us."
The 39-year-old Nash missed the last eight games of the regular season because of back and hip problems and on Thursday he was described as "doubtful" for Game Three despite receiving two epidural injections in his ailing back.
Nash scored just nine points during the Lakers' 102-91 loss to the Spurs in Wednesday's Game Two in San Antonio after his hip and back injuries flared up in the first half.
"It got worse as the game went on," two-time NBA MVP Nash told reporters. "This has been far and away the worst season for injuries I have ever been a part of personally and collectively."
With the 22-year-old Morris and Goudelock, 24, brought in to start on Friday, the Lakers are pinning their hopes on two second-round picks from the 2011 NBA Draft.
"They'll be full of energy and make some mistakes but they're NBA players and they'll be ready," D'Antoni said of the duo. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Ian Ransom)