Gasol forgets ... and that's good
This time, Pau Gasol remembered to forget.
The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers were trailing the decidedly mediocre New York Knicks by a point early in the fourth quarter Friday and Gasol had just missed the front end of two free throws with the chance to tie the score.
The miss dipped his free-throw tally to a dreadful two for seven, a night after he went only three for six from the line, including consecutive misses that could have tied the score with the Lakers down by two in the final minutes.
After the Cleveland loss, Gasol admitted that he was thinking about all the bunnies inside that he couldn't convert down the stretch when he went to the line. And he missed them both.
That's about as counterproductive as somebody who is afraid of flying watching "Cast Away" as their in-flight movie. Fast forward to Friday. Gasol's at the line again. He's just run his hands through the mop atop his head and leaned back in frustration. Not only was he unable to make a free throw, but he was being outscored by fellow foreign forward Danilo Gallinari and his piddling rebound total at the time was being matched by 5-foot-9 Knicks guard Nate Robinson. If he came up empty again on the second one, who knows what might have happened. The Knicks were playing great basketball, controlling the boards and the tempo, thanks to David Lee and Wilson Chandler playing one of their best games of the season simultaneously. The crowd was amped and eager to start the weekend in the place to be, in New York City, and the unexpected euphoria of the New York Jets' improbable NFL playoff run probably had the fans believing that the Lakers could be beat. But Gasol did make it. Then he snagged a defensive rebound a couple of possessions later. Then he blocked a shot by Lee a couple of possessions after that. Then he got a hook shot to go from nine feet. Then he slipped in a put-back layup after a Lamar Odom miss.
And the damage was done. Gasol's free throw sparked a 15-6 run over 4:45 and L.A. had an eight-point cushion to protect over the last seven minutes.
"I couldn't find much going on during the first three quarters, especially in that third quarter I just couldn't find anything, but I got it going in the fourth and finished off the game well so I can build on this and move on from the mess that happened yesterday," Gasol said.
He finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks thanks to 10 points (including going four for four from the line after the early miss), five boards and three blocks in the fourth quarter.
Kobe Bryant, who came up 34 points shy of the 61 he scored the last time he played at MSG, made a deep three-pointer with 4:31 left to put the Lakers up by 11 and essentially put the game away. He had made only six of 18 shots at the time (on his way to an eight-for-24 night) but he wasn't thinking about any of those 12 misses when he let it fly. It's something he's trying to get Gasol to grasp.
"He's so intelligent that I think he thinks too much instead of just going out there and playing and letting things develop," Bryant said. "Just go out there and let it hang out."
"In the fourth quarter Pau got to it. ... He just put his head down and went to work."
Gasol put on the blinders and so did his team. "I think there's some element that is distracting," coach Phil Jackson said about the circus atmosphere of playing at the epicenter of the Big Apple with an array of characters making cameo appearances. Former Lakers guard Ron Harper was in the locker room before the game. So too was former New York prep sensation Felipe Lopez, who competed on the same AAU scene as Odom and Ron Artest. The biggest cameo of them all, of course, was President Clinton who delivered a public service announcement to the crowd at halftime to encourage support of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to benefit victims in the earthquake-torn nation.
Gasol pledged $1,000 per point scored (totaling out to a cool $20K) before the game, but while most of the Knicks roster sat on the court to listen to Clinton's message, Jackson kept his team in the locker room.
"It's about the game for us," Jackson said of his decision. "We're pushing for the top of the league. We're right at the limits of where we have to be so we have to get all the wins that we can on the road. So it's a serious time for us."
Jackson's an intelligent guy himself. If he read his quote about the "serious" time his team was having preparing in the locker room while Clinton championed a far more serious cause out on the court, I'm sure he would want to retract his words. Twenty years from now his players will talk about the time they were in President Clinton's presence, not the 115-105 final score.
But Jackson wasn't thinking about the future that way, just like Gasol stopped thinking about the past.
The Lakers are ready to just play hard. And we all remember where that got them last June.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.