MINNEAPOLIS — He had heard the question before. Too many times.
It’s one thing to struggle, said question began, and Pau Gasol opened his mouth as if to answer. He knew what was coming.
But it went on. It’s one thing to struggle, but it’s another thing when . . .
Again, Gasol moved to answer, but all he got out was a word of agreement — “Totally.” — before the thing kept going.
It’s one thing to struggle, but it’s another thing when you’re the Lakers, right?
And that came after a 111-100 win on Friday night.
But hasn’t that been the theme of this season in Los Angeles? The Lakers are the Lakers, and as such, this can’t continue. As such, this is 400 times more difficult than it would be for any other team, any team that’s not riding on the backs of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and even Gasol.
“It makes it more difficult,” Gasol said. It was as if he was reading from a script. “We are a team probably with the highest payroll in history. I don’t know. Just guessing, but probably up there. We are in a big market with a franchise that is used to winning, and there’s a lot of expectations. This team is put together to win, so when things don’t happen that way, there’s pressure. There’s disappointment. There’s frustration.”
“When it goes great, it’s wonderful, and when it doesn’t go as well, it’s difficult, as it should be, because of the expectations.”
Friday night —– Friday night wasn’t quite wonderful. Friday night was an 11-point win over the Timberwolves in Minnesota, which snapped the Lakers’ eight-game road losing streak and extended their winning streak over the Timberwolves to 20 (the longest active streak of one team over another in the league). Friday night was a sigh of relief after the Lakers recouped a game they nearly blew, but it was a win, and that’s all it had to be.
That’s the thing about these Lakers, and about Gasol, too. Things can’t just be mediocre or average, can’t even really be good. They have to be great, and if not, then the whole thing devolves into a traveling circus of terrible. But the Lakers are not terrible, though — well, not really. They’re 21-26, which puts them 10th in the Western Conference, 18th among all NBA teams. That’s decidedly mediocre, and maybe that’s what this team is . . . for now. Maybe we should stop shoving it into these polarized boxes — great, no, awful, no, great . . . you get the picture. When coach Mike D’Antoni makes a comment to the effect of “the season starts again today,” he reinforces that. That mini-season was wonderful, five straight wins. A later one, four losses, was an insult to the Lakers’ name, to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and to all who came before. The process could repeat, over and over, driving the team insane.
Or the whole thing could pause and the team simply let it be, payroll or no payroll, Kobe or no Kobe. Gasol could maybe forget his yo-yoing status — one day, trade bait, the next day, benched, the next day starting again — and think about basketball, and the Lakers could for a moment have the expectations of a 21-win team on Feb. 1.
It’s been three months of this, people. Three months, and the narrative has barely changed. It’s Pau doesn’t fit, and the team doesn’t work, and D’Antoni was the wrong choice, and what if Dwight leaves? Those are all legitimate concerns, but even the Lakers can’t wave some magical purple and gold want and make it all pretty. Yes, even the Lakers cannot.
After Friday’s game, one in which the Lakers let the hapless Timberwolves cut a 29-point deficit to four, D’Antoni was asked whether the whole thing wasn’t just a bit embarrassing. These are the Lakers after all, and those are the Timberwolves, and isn’t such a thing just downright inexcusable?
The coach burst into laughter. He wasn’t taking that bait.
“It’s called, you know, they do win games here,” D’Antoni said. “They are a professional team. . . . But at the same time, we win by 10 or 12, we’re fine.”
The Lakers won the game largely on the back of Gasol, the same player who on a near-daily basis undergoes a public psychoanalysis of his being benched, his starting, his not fitting, his name being floated in trade talks (some even to Minnesota). And yet Pau Gasol, that very Pau Gasol, was reinserted into the starting five in Howard’s absence, and his 22 points led the Lakers on Friday. Is 12 rebounds tied for the team lead. As went Pau, so went the team, in fact; he was 5 of 7 from the field in the first quarter, when the Lakers took their commanding 37-24 lead; silent for the second and third; and then exploded back in the fourth with nine more points, shooting 3 of 5 from the field and 3 of 3 from the free-throw line. Conversely, when Gasol was silent, the Lakers wavered; the Timberwolves outscored them 52-48 in the second and third quarters, which included a 38-20 Timberwolves run.
“He looked good,” D’Antoni said postgame of the big man. “He moves the ball. It’s a different look for us. I thought he has played well the whole time. . . . I think he is in a rhythm.”
If he is, then it’s a wonder. If any of these Lakers are in a rhythm, in fact, it’s a testament to some greater mental forbearance. Rhythm in a season of streaks is a tricky thing, and D’Antoni’s crew can at times sound like a cadre of shrinks, talking themselves into some kind of game shape. But these aren’t the thinkers of the modern age. They’re basketball players, and the faster their heads spin, the worse things will get.
There are two approaches to a problem like the one the Lakers own this season —one of stars not fitting and wins not coming. One, which seems to have been the strategy thus far, is to jam the past and expectations and failures down the team’s throat, hoping it will ignite some competitive spirit that’s lying latent. That hasn’t seemed to work.
The other is to just roll with it, to let the Lakers be what they are regardless of what they should be. That sounds like the antithesis of what would work for a team led by Kobe Bryant, but in the strange, strange world in which Mamba is tweeting and passing and generally philosophizing, it just might work.
On Friday, it seemed to work. The game came to them, with Gasol in the starting lineup being the biggest change. The game went away for a bit there, but they ultimately harnessed it, and an 11-point win means as much as a 29-point blowout.
Gasol starting isn’t the change that’ll revolutionize his team, just like Bryant primarily dishing assists is hardly a guiding philosophy. It might be taken as such, though, in this world of extremes in which the Lakers currently hurdle back and forth and latch onto anything good. Everyone wants consistency, but for a team in as much flux as this one, it’s adaptation and even unconscious adjustment that should guide it.
After the game, Gasol reclined against the partition between his locker and the next. He leaned back and gave the world eight more minutes of his thoughts. It was as if he were a different man than the one at shootaround not 12 hours before. Instead of talking about all the things that are out of his control, he gave specifics, of why he did this and why he didn’t do that, and how his knees feel, and how he led the team in scoring. There was no need for grand ideas or too-big theories. No one forced him to box it all up into a neat little package or to make some sense of what it all meant.
“It’s been a rough season so far,” Gasol said. “There’s no way around it. But you just stay with it, keep playing, and you never know when things can change direction.”
Gasol may be a starter. Or he may not be. Most likely, he’s something in between. The Lakers may be contenders. Or they may miss the playoffs. Most likely, they’re something in between. If not, if Gasol is the answer and the Lakers are the improbable anointed ones — well, let’s leave them in limbo and wait for them to prove it.