Thursday, January 26, 2012
Pau Gasol: the aggressor
By Dave McMenamin
LOS ANGELES -- Given the way the Lakers and Clippers have shown each other in recent meetings the same level of civility as a couple in divorce court, it was no surprise Wednesday's game featured another mini skirmish.
However, what was surprising, if not shocking, was that the jostling occurred because Pau Gasol was the one pushing Reggie Evans to the floor.
That's right. Gasol -- who has been called "Ga-soft" -- versus Evans, a guy who has stuck around the league for 10 seasons based purely on his physicality and who is sporting the craziest beard since Joaquin Phoenix appeared on Letterman.
"Do something," Metta World Peace repeatedly said to Evans when the Los Angeles Clippers forward danced around, threatening to escalate the fracas. "Do something."
It was the same message Gasol seemed to have told himself after several disappointing outputs by the Spaniard coincided with the Los Angeles Lakers' three-game losing streak.
Pau Gasol had 23 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the Lakers' win over the Clippers.
There was an edge to Gasol in the Battle of L.A. turf war that the Lakers won 96-91 over the Clippers, outlasting the "Lob City" residents for the first time in four tries (two coming in the preseason) since Chris Paul & Co. came together.
Gasol was a squeaky wheel coming into the game. He spouted off to reporters about his role in the offense after the Lakers' loss to Indiana over the weekend. He brought it up again before Tuesday's practice, when he went as far as saying, basically: If Dwight Howard's coach sets him up to shoot in the post, my coach should set me up to shoot in the post, too!
But Gasol's talking didn't grease the wheels of coach Mike Brown's offense to put him on the block. Gasol's play did.
"He was aggressive the whole night, whether he got the ball on the post or he got the ball on the high post," Brown said. "We like to move him around. He's a versatile guy. ... His aggressiveness was phenomenal."
Gasol said he never took his complaints to the coaching staff, and Brown said he never read or heard Gasol's comments in the press. Call it coach's intuition, I guess, that on Tuesday Brown just happened to drop everything to praise Gasol.
"We didn't call a play for him [in our scrimmage]; he ran down to the block, sat down, and we threw him the ball and he scored on a jump hook," Brown said. "I stopped practice and went over and gave him a hug."
The affection paid off.
Gasol finished with 23 points against the Clippers -- his second-highest scoring night of the season -- and 10 rebounds on 9-for-13 shooting, flushing his 10.5 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting in the last two Lakers losses (to Orlando and Indiana) out of his system.
He proved to himself that just because the new Lakers offense calls for him to operate out of the high post more than the triangle did, it doesn't mean he always has to settle for a pass or a jump shot when he's in that position. He's skilled enough to put it on the floor, blow by his man and finish at the rim if he does it with conviction.
By doing so, he proved to the Lakers coaching staff that he deserves the ball more often in the offense.
"[Lakers assistant coach John Kuester] said, 'Hey, let's iso Pau at the top,'" Brown recalled. "[Gasol] kind of did it on his own the first time and he scored again [the second time when it was called for him]. So then we called it again later on."
Gasol established himself early and was 4-of-5 on attempts inside of 5 feet in the first half; he came into the night averaging only 3.8 attempts per game on such shots, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He finished the game making 5-of-7 from that distance, his most inside attempts in a single game this season.
"Hopefully we'll get some more continuity and I'll continue to be as aggressive and effective as I was," Gasol said. "Maybe I won't shoot 9-of-13 every night, but at least I will try to get in the lane and force things."
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If Brown has his way, Gasol won't get the ball on the block every time he wants it like Howard does. "We're not going to just give Pau touches on the block because he's so versatile," Brown said. "It wouldn't make sense to do that." Just as the coaching staff trusted Gasol to let him freelance off isolation plays, the coaching staff wants Gasol to trust that their offense is only structured to help him, not hurt him.
While the coaching staff's backing is vital to Gasol's success, when it comes to the Lakers, Kobe Bryant's approval is just as important.
"I think the difference tonight was him," Bryant said. "His energy ... the mentality that he played with yielded some good things for us, which in turn I rewarded him and we rewarded him by getting him the ball more."
Brown might not have heard Gasol's complaints, but Bryant did and said he "called BS" on them.
"If you're aggressive by nature, you're going to get touches," Bryant said. "You're going to get scoring opportunities. That's just how it is. But if you're not aggressive and just kind of floating around out there. ... You got to go. You got to go. And tonight he went."
Added Bryant: "Tonight he was extremely aggressive and it looked familiar. You guys can tell the difference between a Pau [against] Indiana and a Pau tonight. That's two championships right there."
To put it in the most complimentary way, Gasol played the type of vengeful, prove-you-wrong game against the Clippers that we're used to seeing from Kobe after he feels like he's been slighted in some way.
"I think we kind of found ourselves," Bryant said. "What I mean by that, Pau found the chip on his shoulder that brought us the two championships. He played with that sense of urgency and that passion."
The passion of Pau. It's better to be seen than heard.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLA.com.