When someone questions your talent, you strive to play better, the motivation is easy to find. When someone questions your toughness, the motivation is difficult to find, and you must dedicate yourself to becoming stronger not just physically, but perhaps most importantly, mentally.
Changing your identity as a basketball player is no easy task, and only the ones with the most sincere determination will truly transform themselves, and change their game for the better.
The Los Angeles Lakers transformation from a talented, but soft team in the 2008 NBA Finals, to a team now back to back champions in 2009 and 2010, is centered around one player, Pau Gasol.
June 17th, 2008, Pau Gasol's nightmare is finally over. Six games of being outplayed, and out hustled are finally done. In the aftermath of the series, the critics of Pau Gasol were harmonious in their analysis, "He needs to be tougher, stronger, more physical."
After watching Celtics big men Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins toss him around, culminating in a 39 point blowout in the decisive game 6, Pau realized if he wanted to become an elite player, he needed to work on more than his basketball skills in the summer.
During the 2008 season, the Lakers traded for Pau from the Memphis Grizzlies, for a deal involving several players and draft picks, including Kwame Brown, and the rights to Pau's brother Marc. The Lakers gave little talent to Memphis, and Kobe Bryant had his first talented big man partner since Shaquille O'Neal's departure in 2004.
In the 2009 season, you could see Pau was a different player right away. He was stronger, adding extra muscle in the weight room, and playing with a purpose, like a man deeply determined to show everyone he could do better than his performance in the '08 Finals.
The 2009 season ended the way the Lakers had hoped it would have the previous year, holding the Larry O'Brien trophy as the NBA champions. The Lakers took apart the Orlando Magic in 5 games, and Gasol was finally able to call himself a champion.
Gasol's transformation had truly changed by the end of 2010. When the NBA Finals were to be decided by the Lakers and the Boston Celtics, Pau finally had the chance to erase the painful memories of 2008.
Gasol was simply the difference in the series. His offense was solid, averaging just over 18 point per game. But the defense, and physical play he displayed changed the opinions of fans, and media alike.
Gasol averaged 11.6 rebounds in the 7 game series vs. Boston, but the more impressive stat was the 2.57 blocks per game. Gasol became a defensive force, a player you did not want to have guarding you. No longer could you back him down deep to the basket, or cast him aside when jumping for a rebound.
Pau rose his intensity, and Kevin Garnett could not match it. Garnett, either not knowing how much Gasol had changed, or not respecting it, was outplayed the entire series.
Pau was the most consistent player in the entire series, and when teammate Andrew Bynum missed minutes due to injury and foul trouble, Pau did an excellent job as the primary player for defense and offense in the paint.
One stat many do not look at after a series, but definitely notice while watching the games, is the amount of fouls called. Pau only averaged 3 fouls per game, while teammate Kobe Bryant averaged almost 4 fouls during the Finals. Even a difference of 1 is very significant because Gasol was always able to be on the floor.
With the ability to be a deadly all around scorer, and a very capable low-post defender, Gasol has become one of the 5 best players in the NBA. He can beat you off the dribble from the elbow, post you up, and shoot the mid range jumper with ease. Furthermore, he is not longer a player guys think they can bully on the block and score at will.
If Gasol were to get injured for significant time, the Lakers would be in massive trouble. He allows his teammates to play to their strengths. Ron Artest and Lamar Odom are far better players playing their roles and feeding off Kobe and Gasol, than being the main guys.
Pau Gasol is the most valuable player on the Los Angeles Lakers. His success is so vital to their success. When he plays well, they are extremely tough to beat. Gasol is no longer a "soft" player, he is a dominant player, one that can beat you in so many ways.
Gasol's dedication to become a better player in every aspect of the game is a true testament to his game, and even die hard Celtics fans like myself, must respect his renaissance.