I don't suspect Pau Gasol would trade his championship rings for anything, but having won them is likely only going to make the the assault on his basketball reputation, almost surely forthcoming, perhaps as early as Sunday, that much worse.
As a team, the Lakers are very clearly reaching the end of an era. Of titles, of Phil Jackson. A summer of "Window for Kobe Bryant?" questions awaits. Except after the dust settles, the back-to-back title teams will be appropriately revered in Los Angeles. After winning 11 titles, losing a chance for a 12th doesn't exactly stain Jackson's legacy. Nor will an early exit from this playoffs stick to Bryant.
Gasol, though, is in for a world of hurt.
He arrived from Memphis with a rep of Cadillac skills and teddy bear toughness, but almost instantly elevated the Lakers into the league's elite. Despite numbers likely better than most people remember, no Laker absorbed more criticism for the loss to Boston in the 2008 Finals- and particularly the disaster that was Game 6- than Gasol. For the next two seasons Gasol fought against his image, playing incredibly high level basketball through a pair of title runs, outplaying Dwight Howard in '09 and coming up with key play after key play in last season's run. He was arguably the team's most consistent performer over that time, clawing his way to a genuine place of belonging among the league's elite.
This season, however, has been easily his most unreliable in purple and gold. After an MVP-caliber start, Gasol's play has deteriorated. Game to game, he became judged by the Black Swan/White Swan construct, essentially a daily referendum on his basketball manhood. With Gasol's struggles came problems for the Lakers. Now, following another bad playoff performance in Friday's Game 3 loss to the Mavericks, another in a string of substandard games dating back to Game 1 of the Hornets series, does all the good work he did to for his reputation go out the window?
“You tell me. Can it?," Gasol asked in the locker room. "Should it? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
He's right. He also may not get a vote.
Watching Gasol through the postseason has gone well past frustrating and into uncomfortable. To see someone so skilled play so poorly for such a sustained period is hard. Gasol is a thoughtful man, with a great deal of pride in his craft who has lost trust in his own game at a critical moment, and, just like everyone else, can't explain why.
"Obviously there’s some tension inside of me. I guess it’s—you can see it. It’s tangible," he said. “Obviously when you’re not playing as well as you can, it’s frustrating. So you get frustrated at certain times, and you’ve just got to try to be more decisive out there, and when you finish a couple plays, and when you’re successful in a few plays, then you keep getting that confidence and that tension goes away. But if you don’t, then it seems like it keeps building up a little bit.”
Jackson on Friday was a dynamo, turning back the clock in a must win game, hauling his man-made hips out of his giant chair and up and down the sidelines. It was as animated as he's ever been in his second go round as Lakers coach. Much of his energy was directed at Gasol, to the point Jackson actually smacked him in the chest during a first half timeout following a careless turnover leading to points for Jason Terry.
Gasol, who has periodically chafed at Jackson's digs since arriving in L.A., didn't seem upset at the physical nature of the moment. At this point, given how he's been beaten down this postseason first by the Hornets, now by the Mavs, he's used to it.
“Obviously he wants me to be more aggressive and be more assertive out there," Gasol said. "You’ve just got to be able to do that better. I haven’t been able to really get going at all. You’ve just got to do it.”
By now, it may not matter. Barring a historic turnaround, the Lakers season is over. It may take another game, maybe two, but every sign says it's coming. Nothing short of hoisting the team on his back for a miracle run can fix this postseason performance or undo the damage to Gasol's always fragile reputation.
As a Laker, his timing has always been impeccable. Now, it has failed him at an incredibly inopportune moment.
"It's been tough," Gasol said. "It's been tough."
Wait until he sees what's coming.
Click below for more video from Gasol, on his sense of responsibility for L.A.'s predicament, Game 3 issues, looking forward to Game 4, and more...