He's a four-time All-Star and a two-time champion in the prime of his career, considered one of the most creative, skilled big men in the NBA, earning nearly $18 million dollars this season. He even has an ever-growing IMDb page.
Most days, it's good to be Pau Gasol.
Not Sunday. The Lakers went down in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarter Finals to New Orleans, and central to the result was a horrible afternoon for Gasol, who mustered only one field goal through the first 47 minutes, finished with seven misses in nine tries, and only eight points. He managed six defensive rebounds, but none on the other end, Gasol's first bagel in the ORB category since February 22nd against Atlanta, and only his fourth this season. Add his share of responsibility for the team's problems defensively against Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack, and the Hornets' pick and roll- "Our bigs have to play better help defense for our guards," Phil Jackson said of Gasol and Andrew Bynum- and at best the Spaniard's performance Sunday can be described as ineffectual.
At worst? Well, read a few chat boards.
To his credit, a subdued Gasol didn't attempt to justify or deflect in the locker room after the game on Sunday. "I was just not very sharp. I couldn't get into a good rhythm in the first quarter. I didn't get myself going at all. So it's up to me to get some energy out there and be a little more aggressive and find ways to find that rhythm."
Nor did Gasol bite when the assembled media asked in multiple ways if his anemic stats were due to a lack of touches. "Maybe I let that effect me a little bit early on in the game, but I can't afford that," he said. "I've got to be more aggressive. I've got to make myself available, whether the ball is coming or not. I've got to be there, and get myself active and don't get discouraged whatsoever if the ball is not coming. You've got to pursue it sometimes, and in different ways. I had zero offensive rebounds, that's something I don't like at all."
Gasol's admission that the lack of touches early on sucked the life from his game is disappointing, but clearly he understands he didn't hold up his end of the bargain. (I doubt his evaluation is lip service. When Gasol feels he does the requisite heavy lifting and still the ball doesn't make its way to the post, in his own polite way Gasol has shown no reluctance to say so.) It's true the Lakers absolutely failed as a team to find entry points into the low block, but as Gasol notes, it's no excuse.
Sports talk radio Monday will have a field day Monday, but Gasol found a great deal of support from Kobe Bryant on Sunday.
"He'll play better the next game," he said.
It wasn't the last time Pau's name came up during Bryant's postgame press conference. Asked whether the Lakers could have gotten more out of Lamar Odom, whose game Sunday was similarly awful, Bryant again took the opportunity to pump up Gasol. "We could have gotten a little bit more out of everybody. But Pau is our guy. He's our guy. He's the next in line. Responsibility and the pressure comes along with that," he said, "and he'll be ready to go next game."
Kudos to Kobe for busting out a modified Uncle Ben, as well for constructively reminding Gasol of the expectations surrounding him and how much the Lakers need him to come through in Wednesday's Game 2.
"Rightfully so. I put pressure on myself. It's one and two, it's me and him. We've got to deal with it. When you get all the praise when things go your way, [you also] get all the blame when things don't. It's part of the seats we sit in," Kobe said of the pressure he's putting on Gasol. "It's just [a matter of] him being aggressive. He's one of the best in the world."
Bryant has, since Gasol arrived, freely heaped praise on his frontcourt wingman, fully understanding the recent additions made to his jewelry collection don't happen if Gasol isn't around. Still, periodically (Sunday included), he'll also poke Gasol's natural inclination towards the communal, his often slavish devotion to making the right play even when it's at the expense of his own game, and the natural differences in their on-court attitudes.
The White Swan/Black Swan moment earlier this season wasn't Kobe delving into film criticism.
"He wants to do the right thing all the time, which is fine," Bryant said Sunday, "but sometimes you've just got to be more aggressive. Say the hell with it."
Sunday also was the first time I remember Kobe putting Gasol on this sort of pedestal. He repeatedly stated his belief Gasol would rebound in Game 2, but more importantly made it clear that Gasol's ability and accomplishments mean he's earned the right to be judged harshly when he falters in big moments.
When Gasol has a bad game -- if not for Game 6 of the '08 Finals, this could qualify as the worst of his postseason career -- his detractors circle above like vultures, throwing out the "soft" tag. The narrative likely will hover around him forever, even if the Lakers win a third consecutive ring this June. After his first bad game of the '11-'12 season, Charmin references will abound. Similarly, Kobe is often called a narcissistic, overbearing dictator who doesn't trust his teammates one iota when he shoots a lot and the Lakers lose. These "default" criticisms do little to advance the truth about each player's game, but both are credible enough to get folks talking.
But rather than question Gasol's fortitude, Sunday afternoon Bryant mostly went the other direction. Gasol's game Sunday, Kobe said, was beneath him, unbecoming of the elite player he is. Gasol, Bryant announced, is too good a player to let such a thing happen in consecutive playoff games. For a guy whose qualities as a leader and teammate are frequently questioned, sometimes fairly, sometimes not, on Sunday Bryant played it perfectly.
Now, Kobe said to Pau, go prove me right.
Kobe, on Game 1, Gasol, and what needs to change going forward:
Bryant on the team's sluggishness in Game 1, and more:
Gasol, on his poor afternoon, and what the Lakers did wrong as a collective: