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Pau Gasol Keeps LA Lakers Within Striking Distance of Western Conference Pack

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Pau Gasol Keeps LA Lakers Within Striking Distance of Western Conference Pack
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Pau Gasol's long been one to lend a hand to those in need.

For years, the sinewy Spaniard has served as an ambassador for UNICEF, doing his best to lift up strife-stricken communities in the farthest corners of planet Earth. On Wednesday, Gasol announced that he'd be reaching out to those in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan:

Naturally, then, Gasol put together his best game of the 2013-14 campaign on Friday. He tallied a season-high 24 points (on 11-of-19 shooting) with 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 39 minutes to carry the Los Angeles Lakers to a 102-95 win over the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center.

As a result, Gasol will be reaching into his (deep) pockets to donate $24,000 to the typhoon recovery, in addition to the thousands more that've thus far been contributed to his fundraiser. Even Stephen Curry's concussion-related absence and Andre Iguodala's midgame exit with a hamstring injury couldn't take away from the Lakers' big home win, much less Gasol's superb and supportive effort.

Not entirely, anyway. The Warriors offense struggled to find any sort of rhythm without Curry knocking down threes and dropping dimes, and fell into even greater disarray once Iguodala, Golden State's de facto point guard with Curry and Toney Douglas both sidelined, left for the locker room.

But the Warriors' front court of Andrew Bogut and David Lee was still intact, and it was against them that Gasol made his hay. The three-time All-Star (and impending free agent) was firing from all over the floor. Three of his makes came within four feet of the basket, though the majority of his points were scored on jump shots launched either directly out of the pick-and-pop or as an outlet on Jordan Hill-centric pick-and-rolls.

That pattern of usage may not be the most satisfying for those (including Pau) who've pined for him to return to the low post in recent years. But in Mike D'Antoni's offense, which thrives on spacing the floor for the pick-and-roll, Gasol's ability to knock down mid-range jumpers makes the three-point-happy Lakers that much more prolific.

With role players like Nick Young, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar and Shawne Williams firing away from deep, Gasol will have open 16-footers whenever he wants.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Which wouldn't likely be very often, if he had his way. As Gasol told Joseph Wilson of The Associated Press this past July (via Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer):

Now with Dwight gone I am the reference inside and I am more like I was a couple of years back when we made the finals three straight times and won two straight championships.

I have a great motivation. It's the last year of my contract, so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league.

And wouldn't you know it? Gasol voiced his concerns at a UNICEF event. Basketball and charity have a way of intersecting in his life, don't they?

In some ways, the sacrifices Gasol has made (and continues to make) in his game could be viewed as charity to his teammates and to the Lakers organization. He wants to play down low. He wants to be a real center. He wants to exploit all the advantages that his rare size affords him.

But as much as the Lakers might otherwise want to employ him that way too, they don't really need him that way. D'Antoni's ideal offense would be devoid of post-ups. The moment he arrived in LA to coach the Lakers—crutches and all—D'Antoni was talking about how inefficient such possessions are, particularly amidst today's NBA rules, from which his wide-open style was built to benefit. Here's what he said in November of 2012 about feeding the ball to Dwight Howard in the post, via Lakers.com's Trevor Wong:

One of the least efficient plays in basketball is a straight post up. It’s just not efficient. What we want to do is create a pick and roll situation where they switch, we go in and now the percentage goes up.

He's probably thinking the same about giving it to Gasol on the block, even though his back-to-the-basket game was (and still is) leaps and bounds better than Dwight's is or (at this rate) will ever be.

Gasol may want to live down there, but he knows D'Antoni won't let him. He's not the sort to incite a revolt against his coach. He's a team player. He's a giver.

To his team and, much more importantly, to humanity. He's the one who keeps on keepin' on, even if things around him are crumbling.

Especially when things around him are crumbling.

Not that the Lakers are exactly falling apart. They're 6-7 against what Lakers reporter Mike Trudell pointed out has been the third-toughest schedule in the NBA:

Without Kobe Bryant, as Trudell noted. Without Steve Nash, who spent infinitely more time talking to Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy during the broadcast than he did dribbling a basketball on a court. The content of that interview, during which Van Gundy quizzed Nash on the best moments of his basketball life, sounded more like prologue to his Hall of Fame career than it did a conversation about a great player coming back.

Somehow, this team is holding its own—somehow meaning, on the strength of the three-point shooting of their scrappy, streaky supporting cast. They're not anyone's idea of a title contender, but they're a competitive club nonetheless, one that, by virtue of its playing style and collective spirit, should be decidedly more entertaining than last year's depressing team ever was.

More importantly, this squad isn't even two games out of the playoffs. Last year's team started 6-7, but struggled with injuries and inner turmoil the entire team. This year's team is also 6-7, but with a more positive outlook—with a bunch of nobodies come up big collectively, with Kobe and Chris Kaman due back relatively soon.

And with Gasol finally, maybe, hopefully learning to thrive in his new role.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To be both fun and playoff-potent over the long haul, they'll need Gasol to play like he did on Friday. They need him not to shuffle into his niche begrudgingly, but rather to seize his opportunity to be "the man" with great gusto, regardless of where and how that opportunity comes.

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That's exactly what he did against the Warriors. He battled with Bogut and Lee (who combined for 33 points, 26 rebounds and nine assists) on the block, but he also floated to the perimeter, clearing the way for the Lakers' younger, more athletic attackers to dive down the lane and racking up buckets for himself.

And guess what? It worked—against the fourth-stingiest defense in the league, no less!

(Yes, without Curry and Iggy, but still...give a Lakers fan a break, will ya?!)

The Lakers got their win; Gasol got his numbers.

And—above all else and dwarfing anything that's ever occurred on a court—the communities in the Philippines that've been fractured by one of the most horrific natural disasters our world has ever seen will get a much-needed bit of relief.

 

You KNOW I'll be giddy about Gasol on Twitter, right?

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