Yes, Pau Gasol, like Dwight Howard is, was once considered a superhero, albeit at the local, small-market (even smaller than Orlando) level.
When he first arrived in Memphis, the Spaniard's exciting style of play, passion and aggression—for which he is often given no credit—catapulted the Grizzlies from a perennial league laughing stock to a perennial playoff team, despite the lack of a strong second option on those Grizz teams.
In 2007, the Lakers made the playoffs, while a Grizz team that had an injured Pau Gasol on its inactive roster, was unable to break in. However, Kobe's team still lost, during that run, to the Phoenix suns, four games to one, in the first round.
Those Grizz teams were tough, fundamentally sound, etc., but they lacked an additional piece, one that would have given those teams the tandem needed to get to the next level. Mike Miller wasn't it, and neither was Shane Battier.
Enter Kobe Bryant. An improbable trade, and two guys that needed one another, equally, were brought together. Two players that were in the same boat, unable to carry their teams with the insufficient help surrounding them, had been brought together.
Since Gasol's arrival, and the founding of the Gasol-Bryant duo, the Lakers' win percentage has skyrocketed, from barely over .500 to nearly .800. However, Gasol's role in this progress is often ignored, not comprehended or forgotten.
Unfortunately, most fans do not know any of these stats, because the media generally reports on the Lakers in such a way that it seems like Bryant does it all by himself. In addition, many fans, rather than truly studying the sport, get their information from a sports media that is generally focused on everything that's superficial about the game: cool nicknames, appearance, popularity, etc.
The truth is that, like Howard, Pau Gasol has been a basketball savior, resurrecting a franchise (the Griz) that had never been graced with success. However, unlike Howard, Gasol never got real help during his time with the Grizz. Certainly not all-star caliber help, like the sort of help that's been given to Howard.
Howard, during his team's second-round Boston series, like Gasol in the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets, went to the press with his grievances. Both big men wanted their respective teams to take advantage of what they could do inside.
Both (Howard more so than Gasol), were criticized for going to the press. In each case, however, their initiative made their teams much more effective and saved them from elimination.
There's no question about it, this series will be won and lost in the middle.
The Magic believe in Howard, who will be acting upon the guidance of Magic assistant coach and NBA great Patrick Ewing. The Lakers, especially their point guards, don't seem to believe in Gasol as much, which should be of concern to Laker fans.
If the Lakers revert to last year's finals performance and decide not to look for their inside players (the true cause of last year's Lakers collapse), opting for one-on-one basketball, wild shots and three pointers, they will do assuredly lose.
In this case, Phil Jackson's stoic, passive nature, in the face of Derek Fisher's or Sasha Vujacic's recklessness, would simply enable a repeat of last year's finals.
Heroes are defined by their willingness to stand up for what they believe in, as much as for what they can do physically. This series will be as much about a battle of wills, as about a battle for position in the low post.
Who will be more vocal about receiving touches and making plays, for himself and others? Who will believe most in teamwork and sacrifice? The answers to these questions will determine who wins this series.
In the middle, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are closely matched: both average within three points of one another, both average two blocks and high field goal percentages, and both average a double digit rebounds.
More so than play, however, winning it all might just come down to who, between Howard and Gasol, most embodies heroism, in the form of passion, vocalization of what they feel they need from their coaches and teammates and will power.
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