It was a sight for sore eyes, one the Los Angeles Lakers had originally anticipated they'd see many times before Christmas Day.
Steve Nash passing to Pau Gasol. The slender Spaniard putting the ball on the floor and finishing at the rim with authority. The crowd going wild. The Lakers giving cause to cover the Staples Center in celebratory confetti.
At long last, it all came together, on the biggest of regular-season stages, to seal a win against the resurgent New York Knicks.
Gasol's line on the day—13 points on 5-of-13 shooting, eight rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block in 34:17—wasn't anything to write home about. But the overall effort was illustrative of what a tremendous asset Pau can be for these Lakers, particularly with an all-encompassing assist from Steve Nash.
That last, emphatic basket was one of four on which Gasol and Nash combined on Christmas Day. The first two were jumpers for Pau in the first quarter—a wide-open look off pick-and-pop action and a three-ball after a bit of give-and-go. Gasol returned the favor in the third quarter, when he dished to Nash for an easy layup.
But the budding partnership between these two passing savants went well beyond just a quadrant of plays. They played off each other all afternoon, setting screens and sharing the ball between themselves and the rest of their teammates. Steve found Pau in his favorite spots and inspired the displaced center to contribute in ways both within and beyond the box score.
Of course, Pau wasn't and hasn't been the only (or even the biggest) benefactor amidst Steve's return. Dwight Howard's been plenty active as Nash's primary pick-and-roll partner. Metta World Peace's looks, be they from beyond the arc or going to the basket, have been markedly better with Nash at the wheel. Even Kobe Bryant's seen success in the two-man game alongside the two-time MVP.
By the same token, Nash's impact on Gasol in particular and the Lakers as a whole has come at the "expense" of Bryant's usual ball dominance. At no point was this more evident than over the final five-plus minutes against the Knicks. Kobe barely touched the ball, much less got up a shot, with the gap between the two teams never exceeding two scores.
It was prototypical "Kobe Takeover" time, and yet it was Nash instead who was orchestrating the entire operation. There were no wild contested shots, no dribble drives that resulted in either spectacular finishes or frustrating miscues, no one-on-five basketball with four guys standing around.
In their place was Nash running high pick-and-roll after high pick-and-roll (as ESPN's Beckley Mason so astutely noted), making decision after decision to shelter a slim advantage against one of the top teams in the NBA. Likewise, there was hope for every player on the floor, that each might have an important part to play in the final act of another Hollywood drama.
That included Gasol, who tallied his 12th and 13th points on an emphatic, Nash-assisted driving dunk off an out-of-bounds play. It was also the last basket the Lakers would score from the field.
This was a noteworthy departure from Pau's previous performances under Mike D'Antoni. The Lakers head coach had held his big man out of crunch time on no fewer than three occasions earlier this season, with an eight-game knee-related layoff in between. D'Antoni claimed at those times that he needed to save space for Dwight Howard, that he sat Gasol because doing so gave his team the best chance to win.
A slap in the face for any player, but especially for one with a pedigree (four All-Star appearances, three All-NBA selections, two titles) as pristine as Gasol's. A recent discussion over dinner, at which Pau insisted that he play with the game on the line, appeared to make a difference on December 25th.
Or was that Nash doing all the heavy lifting there? Whatever the case may be, the Lakers are clearly better off when Gasol is going well, and in turn, when Nash is healthy enough to run D'Antoni's offense.
How long this lasts remains to be seen. D'Antoni has been none too shy to push Nash from the get-go, even though his point guard is 38 years old and is still in considerable pain from the persistent nerve irritation in his left leg. That didn't stop Mike D. from playing Steve a combined 78:40 against the Knicks and the Golden State Warriors.
There's also no telling how Pau's knees will hold up over the long haul, either. He's looked a bit rusty and out-of-shape since returning to the lineup against the Charlotte Bobcats on December 18th, and at 32, he remains vulnerable to more flare-ups of his troublesome tendinitis.
For now, though, all seems right with Nash, Gasol and the Lakers. The team has escaped a losing record for the first time since Bernie Bickerstaff guided them back to 5-5, thanks to a five-game winning streak that Steve and Pau have helped to prolong.
And that, if they continue to feed off one another as they have thus far, may well carry on into the New Year and beyond.
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