Has classy Gasol played final act in L.A.?

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
11:33
PM PT
Shelburne By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- As Pau Gasol walked into Staples Center on Sunday night, the thought crossed his mind that it might be the final time he does so as a Los Angeles Laker.

"Yeah, it could’ve," Gasol admitted after the Lakers' 137-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets. "Any game could be your last game. It’s not something you think about very often. It could be due [to] an injury or a trade, anything like that, but I’m happy with the way that I’m playing. In the last few games I’m giving it everything I have, and that’s all I can do."

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesPerhaps emboldened by swirling trade rumors, Gasol has averaged 24.3 points and 11.0 rebounds in the past three games.
He’s right. It is all he can do. Just play hard, give effort and deal with whatever is out of his control when it comes.

The problem is, he’s just about the only Laker who has been able to do that lately.

The rest of the team seems discouraged and overwhelmed by the run of injuries, bad luck and incessant losing that has hit the Lakers the past few weeks.

Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets was L.A.’s seventh in eight games, and it’s not just the Lakers' 14-20 record that’s getting discouraging, it’s the lack of fight the team has shown in some of these losses.

"It’s tough," Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. "There’s not sugarcoating it. We’re in a hole, and we put ourselves in this hole. … What’s that Winston Churchill saying? 'If you’re going through hell, just keep on going.' That’s what we have to do."

For a guy who has been derided as soft over the years, Gasol has been especially good at focusing in when things are at their bleakest. Sunday night was his second straight resurgent game in the face of looming trade discussions. If this was his final game as a Laker, he went out on a positive note with 25 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks.

"It’s just the love for the game and a sense of pride and loyalty to my teammates and myself," Gasol said when asked what he drew on to focus him during times like these. "When I put that together, I just sort of put everything else aside and play my best, play hard and give everything I have."

It sounds so simple.

Really, it’s the least a player being paid $19.3 million to play basketball this season should be doing. Heck, it’s the least a player being paid the league minimum should be doing.

Who cares how many games you’ve lost in the past two weeks? Who cares how many injuries your team has suffered? It’s a professional basketball game, someone’s paying you to play in it and fans are paying good money to come watch it.

Sunday night, though, the Lakers just couldn’t find it.

The heart, the energy, the belief, the fight. Whatever you want to call it, they laid down.

At the end of it, Denver’s Nate Robinson added a few kicks to the ribs for good measure when he showboated by hanging on the rim three times in the final few minutes, to the great amusement of Denver’s bench.

"I was just being aggressive tonight and taking advantage of opportunities," Robinson said. "I like to entertain the other team’s crowd."

D’Antoni, who coached Robinson in New York with the New York Knicks, was not pleased with the display, but also not surprised.

"I coached Nate. That’s Nate," D’Antoni said. "You just shrug your shoulders. Now, if I’m a player, I would’ve had some thoughts, but since I’m sitting over there, it’s hard to do anything. That’s him."

No Laker got in Robinson’s face to protest after any of those dunks. The referees assessed him a technical foul after the first one, but that was the extent of the resistance. Mostly, the Lakers just took the punishment.

D’Antoni noticed it and immediately called it out publicly. Whatever happens the rest of this season, it is not acceptable to simply lay down to another team.

"We’re beat up a little bit, but there’s nobody feeling sorry for us," D’Antoni said. "They’re going to come in and try to kick us. At a certain point, you’re going to fight. It’s like being on the playground.

"We’ve got to be able to find that spirit and knock some people around. … You can’t just let the air go out. You can’t just not have enthusiasm or run back or get there on the boards. Or when Nate does his thing, [not] get mad. You’ve got to have some kind of reaction, and they will because they’re good guys. They’re learning their way."

Every player outside of Kobe Bryant is auditioning for his Lakers future this season. Every game needs to matter, even if their hopes of making any kind of a run into playoff contention are fading. There is going to be trade chatter until the deadline, and after that, whomever is left will be tempted to focus on their next job.

It’s how life in the NBA goes. Gasol has dealt remarkably well with distractions like that over the years. He did so again Sunday, even as he walked into the building wondering if this would be his last game as a Laker.

If that’s his final act here, it was a classy one.

"It’s not easy, but I try not to let it affect me at all," Gasol said. "I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it so far. Let’s see how long it continues, or if something actually happens."

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0