Pau Gasol passes up his chance
LOS ANGELES -- The criticism was familiar. Too passive, too unselfish, too focused on making the correct "basketball play" and not on imposing his will on the game when it matters most.
LeBron James deferring on another critical late-game shot? Try the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol passing up an open 14-foot jumper at the end of the Lakers' 103-100 meltdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night.
Kobe Bryant said it loud and clear.
"Pau's got to be more assertive," Bryant said. "He's the guy that they're leaving. When he catches the ball, he's looking to pass. He's got to be aggressive. He's got to shoot the ball, drive the ball to the basket. He will be the next game."
The comments were jarring only for those who don't spend much time in Lakerland. Say what you want about the political implications of Bryant's statements about a man he's won two NBA championships with, but at least he says them out loud so that Gasol doesn't have to wonder where the criticism is coming from.
And really, it's just the latest variation of a theme about Gasol started by Phil Jackson after the Boston Celtics picked on him in the 2008 NBA Finals, a theme picked up by Bryant, who described himself as a "black swan" and the more unselfish Gasol as the "white swan."
This kind of criticism is as old for Gasol as it is for James.
What's different this time around, what makes it a bit harder for Gasol to swallow, is that he's being asked to play a vastly different role in Mike Brown's offense than he was in Jackson's Triangle offense.
Gasol is the perfect frontcourt player for the Triangle. If Tex Winter drew up the type of forward he'd want to use to teach his creation down through the ages, it would be Gasol. His unselfishness, passing ability, intelligence and shooting touch from the top of the key were exactly what the Lakers needed to make the Triangle sing the way it was intended to back when they acquired him from Memphis in 2008. In that form, Gasol was the perfect complementary player for Bryant, too.
But Brown's system is very different. Andrew Bynum is the featured big man now. Gasol is the distributor. At times, he's essentially the Lakers' point guard. A 7-footer running the Lakers' offense from the high post.
He looks for his teammates first now and his own shot second. The Lakers don't run plays for him anymore. If there are touches to be had on the low block, either Bynum or Bryant is getting them.
It's a role he's accepted because he had to. But it doesn't always sit well.
"I'd love to be the guy, I'd love to be aggressive as far as scoring," Gasol said as he left Staples Center late Saturday night.
"That's what I've done all my career and I've helped this team win two championships doing that. But obviously it's a different scenario right now. I try to get more involved, but it seems like all my involvement is through offensive rebounding and a couple jumper opportunities."
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Before we go any further, it should be noted that Gasol and I walked out of the arena before Bryant took to the podium.
But he didn't need to hear any criticism to know the implications of that play.
No sooner had Gasol passed up the shot and thrown that ill-fated pass to Metta World Peace -- a pass Kevin Durant stepped in front of and ended up converting into a backbreaking 3-pointer -- did Lakers fans and pundits start reigniting the trade rumors Gasol has lived with since he was nearly shipped out to Houston as part of the failed Chris Paul trade in December.
Gasol knew it. Heck, he's been playing like he's got to prove his value to the organization all season. After the Lakers' Game 7 win over the Denver Nuggets, a game in which he was monstrous with 23 points and 17 rebounds, he even acknowledged that if the Lakers would've lost, "probably some changes were going to be made."
After this one, there was no need to repeat the sentiment, though it was no less real.
"I think I'm a valuable piece to any team that tries to accomplish the biggest goal, which is winning championships," Gasol said as he walked to his car. "I always do what it takes, I always try to do what they ask me."
He's a proud man, so it's hard for him to even make such a statement. To defend himself or his value. He's won two championships here, remember. But he also knows that he's still the Lakers' most tradable asset if management decides it needs a different type of player to complement Bryant and Bynum in Brown's system.
"I just try to play as hard as I can," he said. "I always try to show my value regardless. I want to help my team win, regardless. It's not so much as proving anything, but competing and doing what I can with the system that we play with."
After Saturday's loss, that really is the question. Like James, Gasol's unselfish by nature. He will always look to pass first. It's also what he's asked to do in the Lakers' offense. So yes, he should've taken the shot. But it's not hard to see why he hesitated when the ball came to him in that position. The Lakers hadn't run a play for him virtually all night, he hadn't taken a shot in the fourth quarter and World Peace was open.
The Thunder knew all that, that he was looking to pass first. It's why they left him to double-team Bynum. They knew a moment of clearing would surprise him. That he might hesitate for a half-second before dribbling or shooting or passing. That's all they needed. Durant pounced. Gasol winced. The game was essentially over.
Somewhere across the country, you wonder if James was watching. If there is one player who knows what it feels like to have your greatest asset also be your biggest failing, it is James.
"I am unselfish," Gasol said in the Lakers' locker room after the game. "Sometimes that kind of plays against me."
As Gasol finished up an uncomfortable media session, World Peace waited for him. Gasol stood up straight, but seemed like the sickest man in the room.
World Peace hugged him, pulled his head in close and told him to hang in there.
"I support him," World Peace said. "I'll take the blame for that. Maybe I should've cut. He saw me open, I should've cut. It's my fault."
It was a gallant gesture. It will also fall mostly on deaf ears. This one will fall on Gasol. It was one play, one mistake in a game in which the Lakers made a lot of them.
But it was the kind of play that reminded everyone of what's at stake for Gasol and the rest of these Lakers.
It's why Bryant seemed so confident in saying that Gasol will be more aggressive in the next game. His future with the Lakers just might depend on it.