Have Lakers seen the last of World Peace?

LOS ANGELES — A win over their personal punching bags doesn’t provide clarity to the Metta World Peace injury situation and its overall impact on the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, after holding on for a 120-117 win over Minnesota on Wednesday night — the Lakers’ 22nd in a row over the Timberwolves — a few things stand out with 10 games remaining in the regular season.

Losing MWP, who underwent successful surgery on his left knee on Thursday, and his defensive intensity for the at least the next six weeks will be difficult to overcome and could be the determining factor in the Lakers making the playoffs. And with coach Mike D’Antoni continuing his bizarre roster maneuvering, Lakers fans may have seen the former Ron Artest play his last game in purple and gold.

The T-Wolves had eight players score in double figures during the loss to L.A., including 101 points from their front-court players. With a healthy World Peace, the outcome may have been very different. Instead, MWP awaits Thursday’s surgery for torn cartilage in his left knee, and the Lakers were mauled down low by a team with a 25-45 record that is missing its best player. Power forward Kevin Love is still recovering from hand surgery.
“He’s a ferocious player,” Kobe Bryant said of World Peace after the game. “Extremely physical. He gives us that emotional boost. There’s a lot of games where we lack energy, and he provides that for us. We need to make up for that.”

D’Antoni tried to make up for it by starting Jodie Meeks in place of MWP and Meeks responded with a miserable outing, going 2-for-7 from the field with five points in 35 minutes. Why the coach didn’t start Earl Clark — a true forward who can defend, score and rebound — is a question D’Antoni answered by saying that Clark would be an important piece of the puzzle as the season winds down.

When Pau Gasol missed 20 games with a plantar fascia tear, Clark stepped in from near oblivion to help fuel the Lakers’ resurgence from 11th place in the Western Conference to a one-game hold on the final playoff spot. Now, with Clark’s abilities desperately needed to counteract MWP’s absence, Clark was on the floor for only 13 minutes.

Strange doesn’t begin to describe this scenario, but in D’Antoni’s world, it seems to be the norm.

Earlier in the season, he sat Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill even though both had been playing well as reserves, then reinstated them seemingly on a whim. Prior to Hill needing season-ending hip surgery, he and Jamison were the Lakers’ top bench players after they got back into the rotation.

Finally, in a worst-case scenario, the Lakers implode without Metta — as they nearly did against Minnesota — and miss the playoffs. If that happens, there’s a better-than-even chance of the team using its yearly amnesty provision to release MWP and not have his salary count against the cap for 2013-14. They would still have to pay his full salary of over $7.5 million, but for a team with a $100 million payroll, any relief would be beneficial.

Especially if Dwight Howard re-signs.

Howard, Bryant and Gasol will make somewhere around $74-77 million next season — with 11 or 12 other roster spots to be filled. And MWP has an opt-out clause for next year, so he might just up and leave on his own if the Lakers don’t offer him an extension.

So, remember MWP’s defensive toughness throughout his tenure at Staples Center and remember the 20 points, five rebounds and five steals he had to lead the Lakers to a Game 7 win over the hated Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals, which secured the team’s 16th championship.
It might be all you have left of MWP — even if he doesn’t think so.
“I can’t wait to get back. But our team is so good. We will win and get into the playoffs,” World Peace said in a tweet.

The Lakers, though, will have to do it without their defensive stopper.