HOUSTON – The spotlight didn’t shine on Steve Nash and Pau Gasol on Thursday night.
Hard work and victorious glory are the perfect couple, even if they aren’t often seen together at the same time. So Nash and Gasol only did the dirty work on the last basket of the game, setting the combined screen that freed Steve Blake to run free and make the hero shot before Dwight Howard could get out to block it.
An elated Blake spoke into the microphone afterward and said: “I’ve never quite made a shot like that.”
Sitting with a collared shirt on for postgame interviews but otherwise in his underwear with a green towel on his lap and those old feet sitting in a bucket of ice water, Nash gripped a celebratory Miller Lite in front of his locker.
Gasol, not yet over an infection that had him stopping practice the day before to spit phlegm into a trash can at the edge of the court, lingered in a hot shower long after most teammates were dressed and out the door.
And there was poetry in their sacrifice with that last dual screen set to benefit Blake, because it was just the sort of dirty work that Howard wouldn’t do last season for a Lakers team that Nash and Gasol tried in vain to sacrifice for and help win.
Holding a two-point lead, Howard was left confused for precious seconds by what Nash and Gasol did, even though Kevin McHale had just said in the huddle that the “one thing” the Rockets were supposed do was “to switch everything out.”
“We were switching 1 through 5 at that point,” McHale told reporters later.
Nash was supposed to take the last shot; it was his prerogative based on what Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni drew up. And given how many people have been writing him off at age 39, Nash’s ego sure could’ve used a refreshing splash of individual glory.
But Nash read the Rockets defense and knew Blake was more likely to be set free for that three-pointer, so he changed it up. Nash and Gasol hunkered down, and before Howard even took his first step out toward Blake, he had the ball.
It was not a pretty game for Gasol (1-of-10 shooting from the field) but the critics should know the truth: Gasol made his first priority to defend Howard, who was very eager to flash some post moves against his old team after starting the season shooting 36 percent on post-ups compared to 81 percent on other finishes, according to Synergy Sports.
Yet Gasol’s physicality, never his strong suit, kept Howard uncomfortable—only one post-up basket all game, by Gasol’s personal count—and left Howard out of sync during his 5-of-16 free-throw shooting, too.
Behind Gasol’s 12 rebounds, the Lakers could also take pride in being the first team to outrebound Howard’s Rockets this season. And perhaps most importantly, Gasol heeded D’Antoni’s words Wednesday about how important it is for the Lakers’ big men to roll off picks, draw in the defense and open up three-point shots for teammates.
This was another little thing Howard wouldn’t do last season—it drove D’Antoni crazy—but Gasol trudged through the middle over and over to no visible reward Thursday night. As a result, the Lakers wound up one short of the all-time regular-season record for three-pointers by a Rockets opponent (16-of-35, 46 percent).
Blake hit four threes, and Jodie Meeks hit five, including the Lakers’ last basket before Blake’s game-winner. Meeks had also nearly thrown the ball away on a botched inbound pass with 10.9 seconds left in the game—Wesley Johnson hustled to save it on the strained tendon in his left foot that has been hurting for more than a month and required postgame treatment.
But D’Antoni went right back to Meeks, trusting him to throw the inbound pass on Blake’s winner. D’Antoni had similarly trusted Nick Young earlier in the game. D’Antoni called a timeout to bark at Young right after halftime for his lame defensive effort—and then drew up a play for Young to nail an open three-pointer for redemption.
All the three-pointers gave this game an NCAA tournament first-round-upset feel—the upstart Lakers having the hot hand against a cocky and unfocused Houston team—and to that end, the Lakers’ postgame celebration was almost collegiate it was so real.
Right before the final horn sounded, Lakers coaching assistant Mark Madsen was thanking and congratulating Lakers fans behind him for their support. It was that kind of group effort, one that could be summed up in one locker-room snapshot afterward:
Shawne Williams, demoted from starting power forward to not playing a single minute, was all smiles as he talked like an excited younger brother to Blake, who played more minutes than any Laker, in the next locker.
In the other locker room, long after his personal dunk show in the pregame layup line, Howard was hiding behind his group.
About the botched defensive switch at the end, Howard said: “Guys just kind of messed up on the play.” About the Rockets’ free-throw shooting that added up to a solid 28-of-36 (78 percent) by the guys not named Dwight, he said: “Our free throws were terrible. We just have to keep working.”
And Howard’s new partnership with James Harden most certainly took an early hit with D’Antoni’s Hack-a-Dwight tactic working so well. Harden had 35 points but did not score late, missing his final three shots once Howard began parading to the line.
“I was in a rhythm. I was in a rhythm,” Harden said. “When he started fouling Dwight, that slows us down.”
As sweet as it was to humble Howard for Gasol and Nash—separately as animated as they’d been all season in expressing their fourth-quarter frustration as the Lakers’ lead dwindled—neither dwelled on that angle afterward.
They are two of the greatest team guys the NBA has ever seen, and they prefer to focus on this validating that the Dwight-less chemistry and unity they’ve been espousing is real.“We just stuck together till the very end,” Gasol said.
Gasol and Nash literally did that on Blake’s last shot. They banded together, sacrificed for the team and got a meaningful result.
Go back a year ago, amid all the massive expectations of them playing and dominating with Howard, and who could’ve imagined that two future Hall of Famers winning an early November regular-season game could feel so good?
But in the context of what happened last season, and all that went unearned, it was downright wonderful to have this feeling of an honest day’s work.