Pau Gasol stays professional about benching, questions how he’s used

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For a long and painful 12 minutes, Pau Gasol just sat there.

He had plenty of time to watch the Lakers lose their second consecutive game with a 106-98 defeat Friday to the Memphis Grizzlies here at FedEx Forum. Gasol could think about his frustrations stemmed from a six-point performance on three of eight shooting, subpar defense and his belief he’s not being featured properly. Gasol could understand Mike D’Antoni’s decision to bench him for the entire fourth quarter in favor of Antawn Jamison, who scored a season-high 16 points on a seven of 11 clip. As D’Antoni mused afterwards about Gasol’s questionable conditioning, “he’ll be rested for tomorrow” when the Lakers (6-7) visit the Dallas Mavericks (7-6).

“I was thinking,” D’Antoni said, “I’d like to win this game.”

That didn’t happen. Regardless, the time sitting on the bench gave Gasol plenty of time to fully process and articulate what he made of his demotion.

Gasol handled the reduced playing time respectfully.

“That’s not my decision,” he said. “I’m a professional. When my number is called, I’m out there. But it’s something that hasn’t happened to me.”

Gasol wondered aloud if his string of two single-digit efforts reflected more on how the Lakers are using him than simply a by product of poor shooting.

“All my looks are jump shots,” he said. “I would like to see something closer to the basket and not just something rolling when Dwight [Howard] is there. But we’ll see. We’ll figure it out. We’re just starting.”

Gasol passively conceded he needs to improve his endurance level. Gasol then aggressively challenged how D’Antoni handles his minutes, which included playing the entire first quarter.

“We all need to improve our conditioning if that’s how we’re going to continue to play and speed the game up a little more,” he said. “Maybe the rotations should be a little shorter. That will help, too. Instead of playing 12 minutes straight, I’ll play eight come out and rest four. Get another eight. Stuff like that. But again, that’s not totally up to me.”

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant revealed D’Antoni has made it clear he’s open to modifying his system. In Bryant’s case, he defended Gasol in all aspects. Bryant downplayed Gasol’s six of 18 clip the past two games (“He just missed the shots that he normally makes”). Bryant also noted multiple times the Lakers will make a concerted effort moving forward to feature Gasol more inside (“If he feels like he needs to get some more touches, then we will get him some more”).

Still, this latest episode brought vivid reminders of last season where Gasol felt underutilized. It sparked a never-ending debate on whether Gasol. Was he playing aggressively enough? Was Gasol overly concerned with the persistent trade rumors? Was Bryant not passing him the ball? Or was Mike Brown’s former offense that featured more of Bryant and Andrew Bynum a bad mix considering Gasol’s versatile skillset?

Gasol’s picture frame outside the Grizzlies’ media work room where he won 2001 Rookie of the Year honors provides a vivid reminder of how much has changed. One, Gasol has a full length beard. Two, once Memphis traded him Feb. 2008 to the Lakers, Gasol became the link to the team’s two championships and three NBA Finals appearances by maximizing his inside presence.

“I’m not a pure jump shooter,” Gasol said. “I can stretch the defense out and take a couple jumpers. But I get going by getting into the paint and creating off the post. That’s historically how I’ve been successful and made a good name for myself and earn my contracts. Hopefully I’ll find a way and get some opportunities there too and be more effective.”

In his case against Memphis, Gasol personified all the negative stereotypes that often cloud his efficiency, basketball intelligence and versatility. Those qualities also fuel an impatient Lakers fan base on wanting the team to trade him.

Gasol rarely attacked the basket. So much that his first field goal – a sweeping 10-foot hook shot over Zach Randolph — reflected the only attempt in the paint. Gasol settled for open jumpers. Then he hesitated on taking them.

Gasol showed frustration. He shook his head in disgust when a pass toward Darius Morris went out of bounds. Gasol stared at the ground when Howard subbed in for him at one part of the game. Gasol looked up at the scoreboard after nearly every time Memphis’ frontline carved up his flimsy defense.

Gasol showed a lack of hustle. He paced himself after missed shots and turnovers. Even when he tried, Gasol lacked enough stamina.

“We have to get in better shape,” D’Antoni said. “We’re going to start running more. Guys have to get used to this pace. We’re going to run up and down. If they can’t run up and down and play quickly, then we’re going to have to find guys who can do it.”

D’Antoni refused to directly question Gasol’s conditioning. He also refused to directly address the poor play between both Gasol and Howard (seven points on two of seven shooting). But it’s fair to say D’Antoni’s above quote refers to both frontline players. Howard has admitted to feeling 75-80 percent after having back surgery seven months ago. Meanwhile, Gasol just looks tired period.

Howard outlined a practical solution.

“Me and Pau have to be active. We might not get it as much as we want, but we have to find ways to help our team win. We just have to find a way,” Howard said. “We have to talk. We have to be big. There’s other ways we can impact the game than just scoring. We have to continue to find ways to do that. Once we get going in the post, we’re going to be good.”

That hasn’t happened yet. But Gasol has a quick chance on rectifying that problem beginning tonight against Dallas.

“I’ll try to play better next game,” Gasol said, “so I can stay on the floor a little longer.”

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