- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The flight home from Denver was short but miserable. The day in between Game 6 and Game 7 was a blur. Nothing needed to be said to any of the Lakers players.
A loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs was unacceptable for a team this talented. Changes would be made, and not just cosmetic ones this time.
Outlandish as his comments were, Magic Johnson only vocalized what they all knew.
"If we would've lost tonight, then probably some changes were going to be made," Pau Gasol said solemnly after the Lakers closed out a rugged 96-87 win Saturday night.
"This team with the players that we have and this franchise is always expected to win and give their best. So I understand where it's coming from."
Gasol has wrestled with this kind of stark reality all season.
The blame for last season's playoff meltdown against the Dallas Mavericks landed squarely on his shoulders. So squarely he very nearly never set foot in the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility again after the failed trade for Chris Paul before the season.
Ever since, he's been on notice. If there was a trade rumor connected with the Lakers this season, chances are Gasol was in it. And while the Lakers ultimately decided to keep him at the trade deadline, it felt more like a stay of execution rather than a cheery endorsement.
He'd been given one more chance to prove his value, to win, to stay. And after his awful three-point, three-rebound performance in the Lakers' Game 6 loss to the Nuggets, he was falling short and he knew it.
"Just the way I played, the lack of contribution I made," Gasol said. "I know things didn't go my way, but I can't finish with three points and three rebounds, the kind of player I am. It just can't happen."
As he spoke, he was shaking his head like it just happened. Like what he did to help the Lakers win Game 7 was just a footnote.
His phone had been ringing off the hook for 48 hours with friends trying to offer advice and support. He's too polite to simply turn it off.
But he didn't need advice and he didn't need support. He needed to go out and play like he did in Game 7.
Gasol wasn't just good on Saturday night, he was ferocious. His stat line is ridiculous -- 23 points, 17 rebounds (11 of them offensive rebounds), six assists and four blocked shots -- and it doesn't even capture how good a night he had and how much energy he brought to the game.
He growled after his big plays, bear-hugged teammates after theirs, flung his body around the court and pushed back every time the Nuggets tried to push him. When it was all over, when he and the Lakers had survived, Gasol looked up to the sky, held out his arms plaintively and exhaled deeply as if offering thanks to a higher power for another day.
"Everybody was wanting to talk to me yesterday and tell me how I had to play and how much they wanted me to play well. I appreciated that, but at the same time I just wanted to focus on the game and give my best effort," Gasol said.
"Just leave it all out there, lay it all out on the table. So no matter what, regardless of the score at the end of the game, I just wanted to feel that I left everything I had out there. That's how I could sleep at night. that's how I could be satisfied with my job and with myself."
Had the Lakers lost , most likely he would be the guy on his way out. The piece the organization would use to land the piece that would fix what had gone wrong for the second year in a row.
He's always known that. It wasn't until Saturday night that he revealed how deeply he'd come to accept that fate.
If this was the end of his time with the Lakers, if the road ended Saturday night against the Nuggets, he was going out on his sword.
"I just couldn't continue to play the same way," Gasol said. "I just couldn't be happy, I couldn't be satisfied having those kind of games when I know what I'm capable of and the kind of player that I am."
As good as Gasol was on Saturday night, this won't be the last time he has to prove himself. It could be next week even, depending on how the team does against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
If things go badly, fair or unfair, Gasol's the guy in the crosshairs. His contract is still the most tradable, his value is still the Lakers' best chance of returning a top-flight point guard.
Magic Johnson included Mike Brown and Andrew Bynum in the discussion, as well, but Brown can only coach and Bynum is still too important to the organization's future.
No, this is Gasol's burden to bear for as long as he still plays here.
It is heavy and clunky and uncomfortable. Sometimes it gets the best of him. But the only way to sleep at night, the only way it will sit well, even if it does not end well, is if he plays with the pride and passion he did Saturday night.
"Just leave it all out there," he said. "Just lay it all out on the table. So no matter what, I could feel like I'd left everything I had out there."