When Kobe Bryant stepped to the free-throw line on Sunday night, fans at Staples Center commenced with their Pavlovian ritual — a rhythmic chant of M-V-P.
But at what point will Lakers fans begin to acknowledge that, nearly 20 percent of the way through the season, their team’s leading candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award has been Pau Gasol?
The Lakers center-forward put another stamp on his candidacy with a performance that was not just perfect, but historic in a 117-89 thumping of Golden State.
Gasol made every shot he took — 10 of 10 from the field and all eight free throws — and finished with 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots. For those looking for warts, he committed a turnover.
“I was aware that I didn’t miss, but I wasn’t thinking about it during the game,” Gasol said after finishing a night that only four other Lakers have matched.
Others who have posted a perfect shooting night with at least 10 shot attempts were Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice), Mitch Kupchak and Byron Scott. The last one to do it was Kupchak, the current general manager, who made all 11 shots he attempted in 1986.
Bryant, of course, still is viewed as the Lakers best player — and perhaps the NBA’s — but Gasol has quietly become the fulcrum of the league’s highest-scoring offense. When the ball goes to Gasol in the post, his exquisite passing skills have made it unpleasant for opposing defenses.
“It’s their own team saying let’s go inside and get the ball to that guy,” Golden State coach Keith Smart said. “That softens the defense up when he’s playing. When it’s 1-on-1 coverage down there, it’s going to be difficult because he’s not in a hurry.”
As exceptional as Gasol was, the numbers he posted were not extraordinary for him this season. He is averaging 22.8 points (on 56.4 percent shooting), 12.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 blocks. He also has had to carry a heavy work load, playing a team-high 38 minutes per game while starting center Andrew Bynum remains sidelined after knee surgery.
If Gasol is to become an earnest MVP candidate, it probably will require some perceptions to change.
Gasol already has had to overcome a multitude of sins in the eyes of some — he is skilled, European and as polite and intelligent a player as there is in the league. He took a break from playing for the Spanish national team this summer and used it to travel to Ethiopia on behalf of UNICEF and to India to promote healthy living initiatives.
But those qualities are not always appreciated in a league where LeBron James — because he would pass to wide-open teammates — has drawn flak for not having the courage to take last-second shots.
Gasol’s Game 7 performance against Boston last season, when he had 19 points and 18 rebounds, was enough to garner some NBA Finals MVP votes, and seemed to put to rest any questions about his toughness. But Lakers coach Phil Jackson wouldn’t mind seeing him develop a more consistent mean streak — especially as Gasol begins to see more double teams and more physical defenses.
When the Lakers were beaten by Phoenix, though the Suns made 22 3-pointers — one shy of equaling an NBA record — Jackson felt it was a game in which Gasol should have asserted himself more. The Suns doubled him more frequently, and Channing Frye and Hakim Warrick were more physical with him. So, too, was Detroit’s Jason Maxiell and Minnesota’s Darko Milicic.
“He’s such a nice guy, such a well-meaning person, that he doesn’t take it into his own hands,” Jackson said recently. “I told him, `There’s a way to do that where the person you’re going against will understand that you have to take care of your own territorial rights. It might involve some pain, but you might have to inflict some pain sometimes.’
“That’s just the warrior mentality that you have to have. It’s not anything that’s wrong. It’s not anything that makes you a bad person to do it. It’s a code of behavior that we have in this game. That’s where he has to make the next step.”
It was not necessary against the Warriors.
Gasol was fed a pair of alley-oop passes from Derek Fisher, and he niftily shot the ball over the smaller Andris Biedrins and Dan Gadzuric, setting a good example for the Warriors big men by keeping the ball up high. At the end of the third quarter, he was fouled and went to the free-throw line by himself since the quarter had ended. He made both shots then retired to the bench for the fourth quarter.
It was there that Gasol, in his sweat suit with a towel wrapped around his neck, began to contemplate his evening. On Friday night at Minnesota, Fisher, who was 5 for 5, and Matt Barnes, who was 8 for 8, were perfect, as well.
There was some talk on the bench of who’s game was better, but that’s how it is for the Lakers these days, where the debates center around varying degrees of perfection.