A 30-point game from Kobe Bryant was expected. Ron Artest's 15 points and two steals were no surprise.
It was Pau Gasol—the same player who received much criticism from his "soft" 2008 NBA Finals performance—that provided the unexpected in Game One of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
Gasol’s 23 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks set the tone for the Lakers inside in their 102-89 win over the Boston Celtics, a far cry from the power forward/center who was called “soft” after the Celtics manhandled him two seasons ago.
“I thought the Lakers were clearly the more physical team today,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in the postgame press conference. “I thought they were more aggressive. I thought they attacked us the entire night. I didn’t think we handled it very well. They killed us on the glass.”
Physical is a word that has eluded Gasol since that fateful ’08 Finals meeting, when the Celtics overpowered him, pushing him out of their way on route to a 17th title.
Gasol was barely into his fifth month with the Lakers after being acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies earlier that season. Two years later, Gasol, 29, is well-versed in the Lakers’ triangle offense. Bryant and Gasol are now 1A and 1B in terms of importance to Los Angeles’ success.
But just how important is Gasol?
The facts tell the whole story: After Shaquille O’Neal, who helped win three championships in Los Angeles, was traded to the Miami Heat following the 2003 season, the Lakers slumped to a 149-141 regular season record over the next three-and-a-half seasons. They missed the playoffs once and were ousted in the first round in two consecutive seasons before Gasol’s arrival.
Since trading for Gasol, the Lakers are 130-37 in the regular season with him in the lineup, and Thursday night marked their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
On Thursday night, Gasol, with help from gimpy center Andrew Bynum (who missed the ’08 Finals with a knee injury), proved his worth against the supposedly more-physical Celtics.
The Lakers outscored Boston on second chance points 16-0. They also outscored Boston in the paint 48-30, and held a 42-31 edge in rebounds. Gasol alone matched the Celtics’ top-four big men in rebounds, 14-14.
If the Lakers’ big men are “soft,” they certainly didn’t show it in the series opener.
If Gasol continues to post 23 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks per game during his third Finals run, the Lakers will be in good position to win their second consecutive title, and critics may eventually have to think about relabeling Gasol.
That “soft” moniker appears to be wearing thin these days.