EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Now that the sunny post-Dwight Howard team harmony has been established and Kobe Bryant has made his much-anticipated return landing, what would be the next step in a Cinderella season for these L.A. Lakers?
Pau Gasol shining again like a Spanish prince before the clock strikes midnight on his Lakers career?
Bryant staggered to the finish of the loss to the Toronto Raptors, but at least he got to play at the end of his comeback game Sunday night. Whereas Mike D’Antoni felt obligated to give Bryant a chance despite what his gut told him, there was not even such faith in Gasol, who stayed on the bench the entire fourth quarter.
Gasol sat with his chin in his hands and stared straight ahead in deep thought as the final minutes of the game sank in.
The man whose trade arrival in 2008 triggered three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals for the Lakers had earlier been booed by the home fans for his struggles.
“Yeah,” Gasol said Monday about the boos. “Everybody heard.”
Nick Young, new to the team and about as different a guy as you could find from Gasol, wore a pained expression on his usually joyful face as he sat on the bench and heard.
In an interesting testament to the Lakers’ connectivity and Gasol’s role as sole team captain while Bryant was out, Young looked up and around Staples Center for a moment as if to make sure he was hearing it right. Then Young, still looking around at the fans, raised his own hands high to applaud—trying to change the harsh tune.
For all the talk about Bryant and Steve Nash as aging players staying too long or not being worth their wage, Gasol has been an even more compelling case because he has gotten the opportunities on the court to do his thing and simply hasn’t.
The relevant question is whether he still can. If he wasn’t able to carry the team while Bryant was out, the next-best development would be Gasol helping carry the team while Bryant works his way back to form.
Maybe sitting out that fourth quarter wound up doing some good, saving Gasol extra burden on his sprained right ankle and inflicting some meaningful pain on his ego.
Gasol on Monday was brash with the kind of bold talk that Bryant loves to hear from him.
“The ones who were booing will be clapping next time,” Gasol said.
He had taken it to fellow Lakers big men Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre in a one-on-one post drill to wrap up practice. Gasol’s excessively guttural noises while attacking and scoring time after time could be heard all the way across the gym. And when Gasol scored to win the workout, he punted the ball off the gym wall in an added show of aggression.
Asked later how many consecutive times he scored on Hill and Sacre, Gasol said flatly: “Every time I wanted to.”
A grinning Sacre later pointed out that he won a game earlier, to be fair. But when Gasol had been really rolling in that last drill, Hill also couldn’t stop smiling because of how fun it was to see Gasol going nasty.
Although it makes little sense, Gasol said his ankle felt better Monday morning despite playing on it Sunday night. He said about his plan for the sprain: “Push through it and be more aggressive.”
What he means by that, we shall see, because D’Antoni’s solution for Gasol’s weak interior offense has been the same as for Howard last season:
Set a pick and dive into the paint, which will get you where you want to go and make something happen for the team. It is not the preferred method of touches for Gasol, same as it wasn’t for Howard, but if you really want to make the best of it, you go for it.
Even though Bryant told D’Antoni he felt “great” physically the day after his return from the Achilles tear, the Lakers still need Gasol to do it inside.
Hill’s Earl Clark-like run of production has ended, with D’Antoni concluding Hill can’t sustain his effort for long stretches. Chris Kaman has a sore back and defensive limitations anyway. Sacre is much improved but might be replaced by the outside-shooting Shawne Williams in the starting lineup Tuesday night against Phoenix, paving the way for Gasol to be the one main inside player in D’Antoni’s four-out system.
Maybe you give Gasol a pass for his feeble play so far because he was off his feet for about three months of the offseason from tendon-regenerating procedures to both knees. If so, his time to work his way back is now over. He said Monday his knees—which he allowed are his “biggest concern”—are “pretty good” and feeling better than they did at any point last season.
Lakers fans had chanted for Kobe in that fourth quarter, not Pau. Realistically, though, this should be Bryant’s time to work his way back, not Gasol’s.
Gasol missed an uncontested shot in front of the rim off a perfect Bryant pass early Sunday night, and that took a lot out of the Lakers’ emotional lift from Bryant’s return.
Then Bryant spent much of the rest of the game trying to set Gasol up for more chances, talking to him at length about how they should adjust to pick-and-roll coverages and alter passing angles to feed Gasol—all the things Bryant is used to doing to make Gasol look good.
Gasol didn’t look good Sunday night—and the real shame of it is that no one even considered the logical flip side that Gasol could be the one making Bryant look good.
Gasol didn’t do that either, in more ways than one—and Gasol knew Bryant would need help. Gasol was the one who said before Bryant’s debut that from practices, he could tell that Bryant “didn’t quite have the explosiveness he did. It’s part of the process.”
For all he has been doubted in his comeback, Bryant is viewing the Lakers as the ultimate underdog crew now, saying: “A team full of guys who’ve been second-guessed…that binds us as a group.”
Yet when it comes to Gasol, the reason he rested on his laurels with such deference to Andrew Bynum and Howard and absolutely disappeared in the 2011 and ’12 playoffs is because he has never been that dog.
For all his perceived glitter, Bryant gritted through and persevered as the Italian kid on the American blacktop, the guy who went 4-20 as a Lower Merion freshman, the skinny preps-to-pro wannabe and the air-ball shooter in Utah.
Gasol is an ambitious, intelligent humanitarian who has proved a worthy competitor on the court.
But the Lakers don’t need a prince now.
They need a present-day pauper who won’t accept anything short of rising up to be basketball royalty again.