Pau Gasol Looking More and More Like L.A. Lakers' Best Postseason Playmaker

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 19, 2013

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 19:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers passes the ball around Marcin Gortat #4 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on February 19, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 102-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It's a good thing that Pau Gasol rediscovered his elite facilitating form at the end of the Los Angeles Lakers' regular season because the team is going to need its best playmaker to shoulder an even heavier load in the playoffs.

When Kobe Bryant's ruptured Achilles forever rearranged L.A.'s offensive scheme, Gasol ably stepped into the role of its primary distributor. He totaled 13 assists in the Lakers' two games following No. 24's injury.

Gasol's ability to step up with Bryant out was critical, but it's also important to note that the Spaniard had already been absorbing a greater share of the playmaking duties before Bryant went down.

Since returning from a torn plantar fascia at the end of March, Gasol has played 13 games. In those contests, the power forward's possessions have ended in assists over 25 percent of the time. For a little context, that rate puts him firmly in point guard territory, alongside guys with similar numbers like Damian Lillard, Brandon Jennings and George Hill.

Broken down another way, the Lakers posted an offensive efficiency rating of 108.1 in the five games Gasol played in March and 109.4 in the eight he played in April. Both of those figures blow away the team's season mark of 105.6.

There's no question that Gasol—especially when he's passing—makes the Lakers a vastly better offensive team.

It shouldn't be surprising that Gasol has proven to be such a capable facilitator; his offensive game has always been predicated on a mixture of passing skill and innate unselfishness. Even amidst an otherwise disappointing campaign, shows that Gasol's season assist rate trumped that of every other elite power forward.

His talents as a passer seem inborn and his creativity leads to a unique focus on finding the best shot available—regardless of who ends up taking it. Some of his dimes could even have qualified as artistic achievements.

Contrast the organic ease of Gasol's passing with Bryant's more deliberate approach to facilitation and it's obvious that Gasol is a passer by nature, while his teammate became one for stretches because he felt he had to.

And even though Bryant piled up career-best assist numbers during the Lakers' season, Gasol's assist ratio of 20.8 percent on the year was still markedly higher than Bryant's 17.9.

More specifically, Gasol's skills make him a key in the Lakers' pick-and-roll attack. His ability to receive the pass from the ball-handler, get to a dangerous area in the lane and then survey the floor for a secondary defender makes him vital to L.A.'s most important offensive set.

When he catches the rock in the paint, he has been particularly good at drawing Dwight Howard's defender up toward the foul line, which has allowed Gasol to fire a quick lob to D12 at the rim.

Scoring is a second option for the unselfish Gasol in these situations, but when Plan B is a 10-foot jumper for a mid-range shooter as good as he is, that's not a bad backup to have.

In addition to his skills in the pick-and-roll, Gasol makes an emphasis to find Howard as much as possible. Often, the results are spectacular.

His eye for his largest teammate is another critically important piece of the Lakers' postseason offense. In order to keep Howard engaged on both ends, the big man needs to enjoy a healthy dose of offensive opportunities. Gasol understands this and frequently feeds Howard with lobs and interior passes.

With Steve Nash likely to be hobbled or out entirely, Gasol is going to be in charge of running the Lakers offense against a vulnerable San Antonio Spurs team. Because Howard can't get his own shot and no other Laker has the ability to consistently create for himself, that's going to be a tall order.

The Lakers have no choice but to run everything through Gasol. Fortunately, it turns out that they've been at their best lately when they do just that.