For far too long, Pau Gasol willingly played his role even if he didn’t like the circumstances. Even if he didn’t like the fact that the Lakers didn’t feature him in the post. Even if Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni asked him to become more of a facilitator and outside shooter. Even if Gasol reluctantly — albeit briefly — accepted a bench role.
But with the Lakers trying to salvage what so far has become a disastrous season, Gasol has resorted to what helped secure the team back-to-back championships. In the Lakers’ 104-96 victory Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center, Gasol posted 22 points on 9 of 15 shooting, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, marking his seventh consecutive double-digit effort at a time when a certain ally named Kobe Bryant has encouraged him to force his will.
“He tells me to run to the post, take it and screw everything else,” Gasol said. “That’s not my personality. I like my team and my coaching staff to want me to be there instead of positioning myself there. It helps that Kobe has a lot of control with what happens out there. He wants me to be there and sees that it works and is supportive.”
It’s easy to conclude that Bryant has just taken the de facto coaching role in place of D’Antoni after the Lakers’ coach often chafed at Gasol being featured inside. But Bryant made it clear that his encouragement has complemented D’Antoni’s message instead of contradicting it.
“Mike just realized what he has in Pau,” Bryant said. “During that stretch in the second quarter when I was out of the game, during a timeout he said, ‘Guys, we just got to pound the ball inside to Pau. We just got to go to him. Stop trying to do things on the pick and roll, just go inside, let him muscle us.’”
Gasol sure did. He penetrated inside. Gasol even threw a nifty pass to Antawn Jamison as he fell down on the floor. Gasol had no problem asserting his third-quarter dominance (eight points on 4 of 6 shooting) while deferring to Bryant in the fourth quarter where he scored 23 of his 30 points. All signs that suggest Gasol remains a valuable piece the Lakers may want to think twice about trading away this offseason. Instead, it’s necessary to think twice about how Gasol can still thrive with the Lakers when put in a position to succeed.
“Just getting myself in the post and running the floor well,” Gasol said. “The teammates looked for me. I was able to finish and make plays. That’s what worked. I haven’t gotten to the post as much today as I have all year long. It felt good. Let’s see if we can have a little consistency in that aspect.”
It remains to be seen if that will happen.
Part of Gasol’s dominance against New Orleans correlated with Dwight Howard playing 33 minutes because of foul trouble. Although the Lakers would largely welcome Steve Nash after missing the past four games due to soreness in his hip and hamstrings, his presence could take away from Bryant directly looking for Gasol inside. D’Antoni also said he hopes to trim Gasol’s playing time for the sake of staying fresh after logging 39 minutes against the Hornets.
But there’s also trends suggesting Gasol will replicate his recent emergence, which has entailed averaging 15.8 points on 54.7 percent shooting and nine rebounds in the past five games. Gasol’s long recovered from the torn plantar fascia in his right foot that sidelined him for 20 games. More importantly, Gasol has the backing of a certain teammate to ensure he’ll play a large part in carrying the Lakers.
“That’s my dude, man,” Bryant said. “I know what he brings to the table. He’s 2010 Pau. We just started going to him more. He got a chance to get his rhythm and now he’s in a good rhythm.”
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