- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Over the past three seasons it has happened so many times, the latest iteration of Pau Gasol's tortured artistry doesn't feel all that different from any of the others.
The script almost writes itself by now. It begins with a couple of games of listless play, some choice words from whomever is coaching the Los Angeles Lakers at the moment, some choice words in response from Gasol, a few days of back-and-forth passive-aggressive barbs, a passionate defense of Gasol's value and brilliance as a basketball player from his basketball hermano Kobe Bryant, and then hugs all around a few days later.
It has gone this way so many times over the past three seasons, it's easy to grow numb to the latest version of the narrative.
"That's every year. They're like an old couple," Bryant said dismissively Friday night, when tensions between Gasol and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni boiled over once again. "That's every year. It's not really anything new. It's not a big deal."
That may end up being so. The Lakers would still prefer that Gasol work through his issues and put pressure on them to re-sign him when his contract expires at the end of this season. And even if they decide to shop him around the league this winter or listen to other offers, it's likely no team will come up with a package that entices them to act. The Lakers' stance of not taking back salary obligations beyond this season makes any substantive deal hard to execute.
But while everyone is in this unsteady but strangely familiar moment, two things generally happen: Bryant finds a way to push the right buttons in Gasol, and Gasol ultimately stops pouting and does something about it.
It's how they work and, generally speaking, it does work in the end.
Saturday night, after the Lakers' ugly 88-85 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Bryant got on Gasol for his six turnovers, joking after the game that "I gave him a hard time in the locker room. I can't throw him the ball if he ain't got no thumbs."
He also praised Gasol's defense on Al Jefferson down the stretch, saying, "They were great defensive plays," but then noticeably adding, "We've got to do a much better job of hanging our hats on that."
In other words, it's still button-pushing time.
Black swan, white swan, "put your big-boy pants on" time.
Bryant will build Gasol back up later, after he gets mad enough to respond to the challenge.
It's their dynamic, and by now we all know it well.
The thing is, at some point the script will flip. The narrative may be well-worn, but it doesn't have to end the same way each time.
There may come a season, perhaps even this season, when everybody simply moves on.
Bryant knows it. So does Gasol. Neither loves it. But it's foolish to deny that each time around, the chances go down that history will repeat itself.
Which is why Bryant didn't just joke about breaking Gasol's thumbs after Saturday's game, he gave him some marching orders.
"We've got to go," Bryant said. "We've got to kick it into gear, he and I, and everybody else will follow suit."
When asked if it felt as if he and Gasol had to prove themselves as a duo again, Bryant kept the pressure on.
"Every year should be like that," he said. "Every year you should feel like you have to prove yourself. You have to try to find that edge and that motivation. We certainly have it right there in front of us."
This time, it's entirely on Bryant and Gasol to make it work. D'Antoni may have been trading shots with Gasol through the media this week, but he has made it clear to the team that Bryant and Gasol will get to do their "special little thing" offensively, no matter how it affects the system.
"The second group [the bench], we're trying to get them to play with rhythm," D'Antoni said. "The first group [the starters], the flow's not going to be great. But Kobe and Pau will figure things out. They'll get some good combos and the other guys gotta be ready to catch and shoot. We have a tale of two cities, a little bit. We'll try to work it better."
He doesn't exactly sound happy about the situation, but he learned enough from last year's nightmare to know that's a useless battle to fight.
For as long as Gasol and Bryant are on the team, this is how it must be.
"He's been a great player. I'm not going to mess with him," D'Antoni said of Gasol. "His mind's already a little warped. It's tough. I've been there. You've got to stick with him, and I will stick with him."
Bryant isn't going anywhere, now that he has signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension. He wasn't going anywhere, anyway.
Gasol is in an unsteady but familiar place. Historically, he has found his way out of it. Bryant is all too happy to nudge him along.
You wonder how many times they can dance this same dance.
8hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
10hESPN Stats & Information
1dJason McCallum, ESPN Stats & Info
2dMatt Walks, ESPN.com