The playoffs have been incredibly unkind to Pau Gasol, and the offseason is unlikely to be any different. But while he hasn't been able to formulate any sort of explanation for his decline, Saturday afternoon on the floor of the practice court at American Airlines Center, Gasol took the opportunity to address one supposition currently sweeping the web.
Referencing rumors published on internet gossip sites suggesting relationship problems are responsible for his poor play, some inferring Kobe Bryant's wife helped facilitate a breakup of Gasol's relationship with his girlfriend -- good lord, this is so high school -- Gasol said his relationship with Bryant is just fine. "Chemistry is great, actually. There has been a lot of talk, even rumors and stories made up that I don’t know where they come from, but it’s unfortunate. Apparently it comes with the situation that we’re in. People try to find reasons, throw stones at us at this time, and it’s part of the deal.”
Gasol said the impact of the rumors isn't so much on him, but those around him.
"I stay away from them but people close to me read them," Gasol. "At some level it's affecting some people that are close to me, very close to me. To me, it's sad, because if there was any truth to it, you deal with it. But, when there are lies or they make up stories, it's not pleasant. I don't think they help at any level. But, it's part of the business. We're surrounded by a lot of media and the media try to do their job the best way they can and some try to do that."
For his part, Kobe dismissed the chatter, as well.
Honestly, I have no real insight into Pau's personal life, nor am I really gunning for it. Could issues off the court impact his play on it? Sure. The same is true of all of us at our respective jobs.
I also think it's a little too simplistic to boil Gasol's struggles down to a single issue (particularly until said issue is vetted a little better). Bottom line, he seems fried, mentally and physically. He has lacked consistent pop in his step since about the sixth week of the season, still playing well enough to be an All-Star, but without the death-and-taxes reliability to which the Lakers had grown accustomed. Could be too much basketball (yes, Gasol took the summer off, but I suspect whatever benefit he gained was nullified as his minutes skyrocketed in Andrew Bynum's absence early in the season). Could be nagging physical issues, could be frustration with, as Phil Jackson put it, a pair of series where defenders put a "knee up the a--."
Illegally, Jackson added. (Perhaps, in a nod to nostalgia, he's aiming for one last fine.)
Could be a lot of things. Maybe he's just playing poorly, fully out of rhythm in a basketball sense, and for the first time in his career can't correct it. Gasol is an intellectual player, unaccustomed to slumping. He's not the sort of guy who turns off the brain and hits the floor. To the contrary, among his strengths is an ability to think his way through a game, reading the floor and staying ahead of the action. Once a thinker is inside his own head, it can get ugly.
What really matters for the Lakers, assuming rumors of player-to-player strife are unfounded, is that Gasol has underperformed so drastically relative to expectations. His teammates can talk about taking things game to game, in trusting each other and their talent, and of belief a miracle waits for them in the end, but if Gasol doesn't believe in himself none of it matters.
In other news...
Bryant assumed responsibility for the team's lack of production down the stretch, as the Lakers scored only seven points in the final five minutes, only two coming from Kobe. He made an 18-footer with 4:33 to play, but after was unable to create any offense. There was a turnover and a missed shot -- another jumper -- but mostly he was unable to get the ball in the spots from which he likes to create.
"It's nothing they're doing, I'm just not getting it where I should be," he said, in a minor leap of logic. "We'll work on different things."
Asked how Bynum, so dominant throughout much of the game, was taken away in the last five minutes, Bryant discounted the premise of the question. "The last five minutes are when I go to work. And I didn't the last game," he said. "I've got to make those plays. I've got to get the ball and make those plays."
One problem for the Lakers, of course, is that right now, it seems Bryant can't, or at least not at the level to which he/we expect. He played a very strong, controlled Game 3 Friday night, but -- I'm chalking it up to the bad left foot and ankle -- currently can't get himself into the paint off the dribble with regularity, making him an easier cover. Bryant's shot chart for the series is littered with jumpers.
Kudos to Kobe for taking the blame, owning that aspect of the team's failure, fair or not. He's playing through the pain, and playing well, but there does appear to be a ceiling to Bryant's game right now, and it may not be high enough to allow an unprecedented series comeback.