- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers on Friday retired the jersey of Jamaal Wilkes, a.k.a. “the other guy” on those early 1980s championship teams that starred Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but never would have won all those titles without “Silk” in the mix.
Before the Lakers went out and beat the Portland Trail Blazers 104-87 at Staples Center, Wilkes was asked what message he’d like to impart to the current crop of Lakers who have the same championship expectation as his teams three decades ago, but haven’t been showing the promise.
“My message would be five to 10 years from now, whatever you feel now, five to 10 years from now you’re going to look back and feel differently,” Wilkes said. “They have a great opportunity and I would just encourage them to do whatever it takes. If you got to learn how to play differently or whatever, do whatever it takes to help this team be as successful as they can be. Ultimately, that will be their legacy.”
Learn how to play differently.
Gasol has had plenty of reason to be frustrated with how this season has gone. From being left twisting in the trade winds a season ago to becoming a spare part in coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense this year, there’s been little solid ground for the four-time All-Star to feel comfortable digging in.
Slowly but surely, he’s learned to move with the changing landscape.
“I’m figuring out where I’m going to get my opportunities and where I’m going to get my looks, whether they’re 3s or anywhere else,” said Gasol after putting up 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting to go with nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
“I just have to keep working on positions where I’m going to be mostly during the games and try to be effective from whichever place.”
Gasol went 2-for-3 from 3-point land, marking the first time in his 12-year, 818-game career that he has hit a 3-pointer in three consecutive games. It also was the first time that he has hit multiple 3s in consecutive games (he was 2-for-3 in the loss to Denver).
When Gasol was putting the finishing touches on his night in the fourth quarter with a dead-on 3-pointer followed by a pump-fake, turnaround drop shot on a subsequent possession, there wasn’t anybody in the house as happy as Bryant and Howard, who were watching from the bench.
“He went from Pau Nowitzki to Pau Olajuwon, so that’s pretty good in one day,” said Howard.
“He has the talent to be able to add to his game and that’s what he’s doing,” Bryant added. “We’ll get him down low, we’ll put him on the elbow as well, but he has the talent to knock down 3-point shots. That’s something he’s accepted. That’s something that he’s worked on and it’s given us an added threat.”
While Nash has received a lot of the credit for the Lakers’ 3-1 record in the four games since he returned from his left leg injury, don’t forget the Lakers are actually 4-1 in the five games since Gasol returned from missing eight games because of knee tendinitis. Gasol has five assists or more in each of those five games, while shooting 5-for-10 from the 3-point line.
“That’s a good stat,” Gasol said of his assists. “I like that a lot. I like that more so than the 3s. I like getting my teammates easy looks and just moving the ball.”
Nash, the master of moving the ball, approves as well.
“It feels good,” Nash said of watching Gasol’s growth. “Obviously he hasn’t been himself this season, and tonight you saw a pretty dynamic display. He did a bit of everything and it was just fun to watch. He had a lot of energy and passion, and that’s key.”
Just how much does the Spaniard mean to the Canadian? Nash confirmed a report by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s Ric Bucher that he expressed the importance of the Lakers keeping Gasol before agreeing to join the purple and gold.
“I didn’t want to come here if they were going to trade away the frontcourt,” Nash told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “I definitely wanted Pau to stay.”
Gasol is increasing his staying power with every game alongside Nash, growing into an invaluable piece to the puzzle -- even while dealing with painful plantar fasciitis in his right foot that left him celebrating his breakout game against the Blazers hunched in a chair in front of his locker with his leg in a bucket of ice at night’s end.
It was the same stance reporters have gotten used to seeing Bryant in after games this season, as ice has become a best friend to the 34-year-old star in his 17th season.
And Wilkes’ words rang true for Bryant, just as they did for Gasol.
“That’s great advice, and it’s extremely true,” Bryant said. “You don’t want to look back at your career and think, ‘Well, maybe if I sacrificed a little bit of this, sacrificed a little bit of that we would have been much better off. We would have had much better careers.’”
Gasol may have sacrificed being the player he once was in the past, but he’s working to become the player the Lakers need him to be in the future.