MINNEAPOLIS – It seemed like such an eternity since Pau Gasol started for the Lakers that he couldn’t help himself.
Dwight Howard’s absence from a sore right shoulder that required a platelet-rich plasma procedure in Los Angeles Friday suddenly thrust Gasol into the starting lineup. After posting a team-leading 22 points on 8 of 15 shooting, 12 rebounds and three blocks in the Lakers’ 111-100 victory Friday over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gasol pretended to sound like a seldom-used reserve taking advantage of his first opportunity.
“I felt it,” Gasol said with a grin. “It was a good feeling out there.”
In fact, Gasol has experienced this plenty of times already. That is, until Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni took his starting position away for the past six games in favor of Earl Clark. D’Antoni believes Clark’s floor spacing and hustle proves too valuable and that Gasol’s post presence and facilitating does more harm than good with Howard on the floor.
“Sometimes those two can’t coexist,” D’Antoni argued. “That’s just numbers just because of the way the other two are playing. It has nothing to do with him. He’s good. But you have to make a decision at that point. Some days it will be that way.”
It wasn’t that way against the Timberwolves, allowing Gasol to thrive into what he naturally does best.
Gasol worked wonders in the post, using his efficient footwork to throw the Timberwolves’ 6’11”, 290-pound Nikola Pekovic off balance. Even with the physical disparity, Gasol timed out defensive rotations against Pekovic with more success than failure because of his strong court vision and finesse play. In what should’ve been a staple with the Lakers’ offense all season, Gasol and Steve Nash ran countless pick-and-roll plays that resulted in Gasol rolling to the rim, finding an open jumper or a making a well-placed pass to a teammate.
“It was like the good old days,” Gasol said.
In other words, it was like what Gasol instantly provided when the Lakers acquired him from the Memphis Grizzlies in what many considered a lopsided trade exactly five years ago. Not that any of the Lakers sounded surprised.
“It’s not like it’s a big deal,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “When he’s featured, this is what he does. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s nothing that’s unexpected. This is the Pau that helped us get back-to-back championships.”
That euphoria Gasol experienced as a Laker seems like a distant memory.
The Lakers involved Gasol in the infamous Chris Paul trade that the NBA nixed. Although the Lakers have indicated they don’t plan to trade Gasol before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, that hasn’t stopped numerous reports to link him in trade talks.
Then there’s the on-court play.
Gasol has handled numerous injuries, including knee tendinitis that sidelined him for eight games, a concussion that kept him out for five and plantar fasciitis in his right foot that still hurts him. In fact, he described his knees as a “6 or 7” and his right foot as a “7 or 8” with 10 representing the highest level of pain. D’Antoni first featured Gasol as a stretch power forward where he shoots perimeter jumpers to ensure floor spacing for Howard. In the past six games, Gasol has assumed a reserve role for the first time since coming off the bench for three games in the 2004-05 season with Memphis.
What’s been the most challenging?
“Injuries are always tougher,” said Gasol, who’s averaged a career-low 12.8 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 7.9 rebounds per game. “Even when you’re not playing as much or not playing at a certain position, you probably will be the best if you’re healthy. You can still do a lot of things and push through it.”
Gasol has pushed through that even as a reserve. He’s averaged 13.1 points on 53 percent shooting off the bench partly because he’s featured more inside at the center position.
“I thought Pau has played well the whole time,” D’Antoni said. “I haven’t remembered him playing badly the last six games. He’s in a rhythm. I think he’s good.”
But apparently not good enough to start.
Yet, Gasol’s start against Minnesota coincided with logging his third game season where he scored more than 20 points. Depending on Howard’s return, though, Gasol’s return to the starting lineup could prove to be shortlived.
“It’s been a rough season so far,” Gasol said. “There’s no way around it. You stay with it and keep playing. You never know when things can change direction. You just have to play your game when you’re out there. Tonight I was able to start, play more minutes and get a good flow. It was a good game.”
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