How Pau Gasol Is Transforming into LA Lakers' Most Critical Player

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IApril 20, 2013

It was all high fives and fist bumps for Pau Gasol as the Lakers clinched the No. 7 seed.
It was all high fives and fist bumps for Pau Gasol as the Lakers clinched the No. 7 seed.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Come on, admit it. You were ready to toss Pau Gasol onto the scrap heap of worn-out, used-up NBA has-beens, weren't you?

But now, if you count yourself among the Los Angeles Lakers faithful, there simply isn't any room on all the bandwagons driving around Southern California proclaiming "Te queremos, Pau Gasol" and "Pau Gasol For Mayor."

While Kobe Bryant props his leg up on the living room ottoman at his Newport Beach home, iPhone at the ready, Pau Gasol goes to work at Staples Center with one intense directive from his brother-in-arms: take control, you're in charge now.

We won't see Bryant back on the court before November at the earliest, but we know that Gasol will be pounding away for points, passes and rebounds for at least another week or two, thanks to his All-Star-caliber play of late.

Gasol's 2012-13 season reads like an American sports version of a very famous Charles Dickens novel. 

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us..."

You get the picture. The Pau Gasol who enters the playoffs with his teammates has looked more like the All-Star who helped Bryant and the Lakers win back-to-back NBA championships in 2009 and 2010. 

His right foot may still be hurting from a torn plantar fascia that sidelined him for 20 games, but Gasol is playing as if he's auditioning with the Lakers for a return performance next fall. At the same time, his $19 million salary for next season suddenly seems palatable to teams like the Knicks or Celtics.

While virtually every pundit, including Vegas oddsmakers, gives the Lakers little chance of defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, you would have hard time shaking the confidence of Gasol and his teammates. Now that they've rattled off three straight wins without the injured Bryant in the lineup, Mike D'antoni's team feels it can play with anyone.

Post-plantar Pau has been on fire this month, averaging 17.5 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in his last eight games. He's had two triple-doubles in his last three contests and averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in the team's final five games of the regular season.

Those numbers jump off the page when one considers that for the season Gasol was at 13.7 points on 47 percent shooting, well below his career averages of 18.4 and 52 percent.

Ever since Bryant told Gasol to play more in the post when he wasn't in the game, the seven-footer with the deft touch has resembled the Pau that Lakers fans love.   

"I basically told him, dude, especially when I'm not in the game, you just gotta go to the block and not move," Bryant said to L.A. Times reporter Melissa Rohlin on April 10.  "When I'm out there, I can slow the game down, call plays off, and just give it to him -- but if I'm not, then listen, you just gotta go to the block and not move.  Just stand there."

It happened in a late-season game with the Hornets, and Gasol ended up scoring 22 points and bringing down 11 boards as the Lakers won, 104-96. He was so impressive that even D'antoni, who earlier in the year benched the big man and couldn't figure out how to utilize him properly in his system, did a complete turnaround and now considers Gasol a critical component.

Gasol spoke with reporters after the pivotal win against the Hornets (via USA Today):

"(Bryant) just tells me to run to the post and take it and screw everything else basically," 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.

"(But) it helps that Kobe, who has a lot of control of what happens out there — just a little — wants me to be there and sees that it works and is supportive."

If the Lakers are to have any chance of beating San Antonio, they'll need to run the offense through Gasol. Even if Steve Nash plays, Gasol still needs a lot of touches in the post, where he can find Dwight Howard cutting to the basket or dish it out to an open perimeter shooter.

When Gasol first went down with the foot injury, many people thought he was done for the regular season and possibly the playoffs. But, as their overtime win Wednesday against Houston was winding down, Kobe Bryant couldn't resist sending a tweet to his followers (via L.A. Times) that read: “Can the talk of trading Pau Gasol come to a cease now?”

Gasol finished that game with 20 rebounds, 17 points and 11 assists. In a season filled with more twists and turns than a good hour of "Dancing With The Stars," the Lakers may have found their much-needed heart and passion of a champion in the most unlikely of places: on the back of one very determined Pau Gasol.