Kobe Bryant is a phenomenal player, and his career is full of team and individual accomplishments. However, after Shaquille O’Neal left town, the Lakers missed the playoffs and then struggled every subsequent year in the postseason. The team just kept getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. By 2008, Kobe had had enough; he wanted out in the worst way. But then as the season unfolded, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in a trade (seriously, Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol?) that was the equivalent of swapping 50 Cent’s I Run New York with Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. The team then took off and has been to two straight NBA Finals since acquiring the Spaniard. And yet, when discussing the best big men in the NBA, we hear about Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard. Pau Gasol rarely ever gets a shout from anybody. What is it that the world is missing out on? Let me make this perfectly clear: I am not by any stretch a Lakers fan; however it seems that only Lakers fans realize just how good Gasol is. Isn’t it about time someone spoke up for him? Well today’s the day….
Gasol never ever gets his just due. After getting punked by KG and Kendrick Perkins in the 2008 Finals, people labeled Gasol as soft and weak minded. And they were right. Garnett took Gasol to school in the Finals two years ago. Garnett was in his face throughout the Finals and kept pushing and screaming but Gasol never retaliated. However, there are two things about those Finals that were never mentioned:
1. Experience: Up to that point in his career, Gasol had never been out of the first round of the playoffs; so he wasn’t accustomed to the intensity of the following rounds. Nevertheless, he adjusted in the second round and the Conference Finals. The Finals were a different story altogether, or were they?
2. Joker magic trick (from the Dark Knight): Joker places a pencil on the table standing up and utters this line “Let me show you a magic trick, I’ll make this disappear.” As one of the goons approaches, Joker grabs him by the back of the head and slaps his head against the table and the pencil goes straight into his head. “Ta-dah!!” People were quick to point fingers at Gasol, and say that he disappeared in the Finals. Fans and media members were all of the opinion that Pau had pulled a disappearing act. Have a quick look at his numbers for the 2007-08 playoffs excluding the Finals:
17.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 4.2 AG, 52.9 FG%
Pretty good production by the Spaniard. Let’s have a look at his production in the 2008 Finals against the Celtics:
14.7 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 53.2 FG%, 33/62 FGs
The numbers don’t completely capture the story. As you can see, Gasol’s scoring went down, but he took two shots less on average in the playoffs compared to the rest of the 2008 postseason run. The production was about the same but what the stats don’t show is that his Lakers got pushed around. Gasol’s never been the biggest bully on the block and he never will be; but truth is he was blamed for the failures of his team simply because he is a finesse player. Gasol failed to set tone physically for his team. He was never physical and never committed a hard foul to send a message to the Celtics; and in turn he let the Celtics push him around a bit. You have to admit, Gasol was an easy target just like Screech Powers (Saved by the Bell reference) was; and ultimately it was easier to put the blame on him. I will say though, Lakers fans might not want to admit it, but another guy that deserved an equal share of the blame was none other than Kobe Bryant. Look at the numbers
Kobe 2008 playoffs (excluding games vs. Boston): 31.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.8 APG, 50.1 FG%
Kobe in 2008 Finals: 25.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 5.0 APG, 40.5 FG%, 53/131 FGs.
And yet, Pau Gasol faced tons of criticism during the offseason and had to answer several media members that openly questioned his toughness. Gasol used the negative comments to fuel his fire and came back during the 2008-2009 season with a mean streak. Gasol wasn’t Scarface, but he would use the regular season to make his opponents back down. By the time the 2009 Western Conference Finals started, Gasol was ready to take on a tough and physical Denver Nuggets squad. He took both Kenyon Martin and Nene to the Pau Post Moves shop (if such a shop really existed, the website would be YouGotPaued.com) and helped propel the Lakers back to the Finals. Look at Gasol’s numbers against the Nuggets in the 2009 Western Conference Finals:
17.5 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.3 BPG, 63.3 FG%, 38/60 FGs.
By the time the Lakers made it to the Finals, Gasol’s cojones were swollen to the point that there was no deterring him or even shaking his confidence. The signature play of the Finals for me was when Gasol went in for a dunk at the end of Game 4 and Pietrus came in from behind and pushed him hard in the back as he completed the dunk. Gasol immediately turned around and gave Pietrus the stare of death as he chest bumped him to make him back off. If Gasol was a sniper, that look alone might have taken down Pietrus. The only thing missing was for Gasol to say : “Don’t mess with me, I’m Tony Montana motherf*cker!!!” Damn, Stern might suspend me for that line. Well let’s go all out: Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Thanks for tolerating my immaturity; now back to business. Look at the Spaniard’s numbers from the 2009 Finals:
18.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.8 BPG, 60.0 FG%, 36/60 FGs.
Pretty good numbers from the Finals and his performance has carried on into this season. Gasol is averaging about the same numbers this season as he averaged in the Finals (field goal percentage is a bit lower) but there is one substantial difference this year: Kobe’s trust. Make no mistake about it, Kobe Bryant is not a closer, he is The Closer. And yet, Black Mamba is now completely comfortable with the idea of deferring to Gasol late in games. Indeed, Gasol has earned his trust with his play. He is arguably the best back to the basket big man in the NBA, he almost always makes the right play, catches tough passes in traffic and scores with great touch around the basket. The Lakers are a great team, so they are able to distribute the ball amongst themselves and ride the hot hand; however when they need an automatic deuce, they go their seven footer from Spain. So I ask the question once again: is Pau Gasol underrated? Considering that some people are upset that he made the All-Star roster despite being an unstoppable back to the basket player (we have very few of them left), I would have to say that yes Pau Gasol is underrated. Not convinced? Draw your own list of the NBA’s best big men and tell me who makes the cut; you’ll realize the Spaniard’s in there.
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