FOX Sports Exclusive
Gasol a different player this time around
Part of this has to do with basketball’s now-ancient prejudices against white boys and Europeans. Gasol, the son of a doctor and a hospital administrator, hails from a well-to-do neighborhood in suburban Barcelona. According to Lee Jenkins’ profile in Sports Illustrated, the former medical student is fluent in Tchaikovsky and partial to fat historical novels. No doubt Gasol is a man of many virtues, but street cred is definitely not among them.
The other part is rooted in his own making. Gasol’s performance in the 2008 Finals came to symbolize, and quite justifiably, the Lakers’ failure. Actually, his numbers weren’t bad — averages of 15 points and 10 rebounds through that series. But they don’t tell the story, which was Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett pushing him around.
“He knows what he has to do,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said the other day. “He has to be efficient, and not get knocked off the ball. He has to hold his ground in the post and not get run off.”
As far as Gasol is concerned, it’s basically that simple. And I’d bet he does it, too, or at least does it well enough for the Lakers to win in seven games.
Of course, Gasol refers to “what we went through in 2008” as a “motivating factor.” But I’m not sure motivation is the key. Two years later, his advantage is more physical than psychological. Yes, he’s actually spent some time in the weight room. That’s not to say the nature of his game has changed — just refined.
Gasol was a point guard until a late adolescent growth spurt. But that training has made him the most highly skilled big man in basketball — and that includes Tim Duncan. Any doubt of his ball-handling aptitude should’ve been dispelled in Game 2 against Phoenix, when he chased down a loose ball and dodged a defender by going behind his back, never breaking stride as he dribbled upcourt. Ricky Rubio couldn’t have done it better.
That night, Gasol tallied 29 points — the fourth time in these playoffs he has led the Lakers in scoring — nine rebounds and five assists. (It’s enough to make you wonder why no one mentioned that he punked Amar’e Stoudemire). Still, none of it has been lost on Kobe Bryant. “He’s just making all the right reads and all the right plays,” Bryant said. “He’s really figured it out at the right time ...
“We have a lot of bigs, but Pau eats first. ... No question about that.”
This wasn’t the case when Gasol went up against the Celtics two years ago. That player, skilled as he was, had started only 27 regular-season games with the Lakers. Now he knows the offense — not to mention his teammates — better than anyone not named Bryant or Derek Fisher. He has won playoff series going against Duncan and Dwight Howard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. This year’s postseason numbers don’t lie: averages of 20 points on 56.5-percent shooting, 11 boards and more assists than Fisher.
He’s a wonderful passer out of the high post and plays a great two-man game with Bryant. But the guy who benefits most from Gasol — and vice versa — is Andrew Bynum.
Yes, I’m aware Bynum – who’s good for a double-double when healthy – has a torn meniscus. Just the same, if he can stay on the court, say, 20 to 25 minutes a game, the Lakers should be fine.
“I expect that he’s going to come out and give us some really good minutes,” Jackson said. “It may not be heavy minutes, but good minutes. But he’s done some effective things against the Celtics.”
Translation: Bynum is big and he is strong and he knows how to foul — hard. That alone makes him a vast improvement over what the Lakers could put up against Boston’s front line in 2008.
Now Garnett is diminished with age (which, for all I know, is why he’s been getting all those stupid technicals trying to prove how hard he is). Meanwhile, Gasol has Bynum and Ron Artest, with Odom coming off the bench. Ask any tough guy, that’s all you really need: somebody who has your back.