- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- When Derek Fisher's potential game-winning 3-pointer was blocked at the buzzer in Thursday's loss to the Nuggets, Phil Jackson opened his postgame news conference by sarcastically saying that he liked how the play was executed.
After Pau Gasol's 3-pointer hit long off the back rim at the end of the game to wrap up a disheartening 91-88 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, Jackson said, "It's exactly what I wanted," about the attempt, and he really meant it this time.
Before you start criticizing Jackson for overcoaching for not just giving the ball to Kobe Bryant and telling everybody else to get out of the way, there's a reason why Gasol had the ball in his hands with the game on the line even though he had been only 0-for-4 from beyond the arc all season.
And the reason is Gasol is the Lakers' best player right now.
For all the questions that surround the Lakers about their true chances of repeating as champions this season because of how inconsistent play and a rash of injuries have led to a 5-6 record in their last 11 games, there is no question Gasol has hit his stride and is ready for the postseason.
The final miss notwithstanding, Gasol had another masterful game -- 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks -- after coming into the game against the Blazers averaging 29.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.3 blocks over his last three games.
It was Gasol's offensive rebound, arms outstretched high and strong in the middle of a sea of bodies, after Bryant's inexplicable second free throw miss, which gave the Lakers the chance to tie the game a possession before the 3-point miss in the first place. Gasol found Fisher with the pass leading to the foul preceding Fisher's own perplexing 1-for-2 foul shot performance.
This coming from the guy who Jackson described as playing "weak and sickly" in Charlotte and later ripped him for "exposing the ball" down the stretch in the Denver game.
He has stepped up his game when everything else has been going downhill for the Lakers. He is doing his part to perform consistently in the midst of the Lakers' wildly inconsistent play, as if to remind his teammates, "Hey, it can be done. Follow me."
Gasol surely could have taken off a couple of games down the stretch to rest his hamstrings that caused him to miss 17 games this season the way that Bryant stayed off his legs against the Nuggets and Timberwolves, but by playing he was showing the sense of urgency the rest of his team has been slow to develop.
"It's not going to be about rest now, it's all about being strong minded and having the will and the desire of winning," Gasol said after the game. "I think we have it, otherwise we're going to suffer."
Jackson will put the ball in somebody else's hands than his star at the end of the game if he has confidence in his ability. Who can forget Toni Kukoc getting the final shot against the Knicks in the '94 playoffs and Scottie Pippen sulking on the bench, refusing to enter the game because the play wasn't drawn up for him?
Bryant, who shot just 8-for-23 for the game to bring his current three-game shooting slump to an alarming 21-for-70 (30 percent) total, didn't sulk, but he did have a reaction when all the squiggly lines on Jackson's clipboard indicated to the team that the ball was going to the guy with all the straggly hair.
"He just drew it up and I just cracked up," Bryant said.
There's nothing funny about where the Lakers find themselves with two games remaining in the regular season, however. All of their potential first-round opponents -- Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City -- have beaten them, and the Blazers and Spurs have done it both home and away.
Los Angeles is going to need Gasol active and playing up to his potential if they meet Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby or San Antonio's Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair in the first round. And Gasol is proving that he can handle the load as the foundation of the Lakers even if it seems like the walls of the house are falling down around him.
"I'm a little bit concerned but I think we're going to get it right soon enough so we can get it going here and be really confident and build up a swagger, so we can have swagger going into the playoffs," Gasol said.
He has been cultivating that confidence all season, from the thrill of his third All-Star Game appearance played in front of a record crowd of 108,000 people, to the relief of finally getting his braces off, to the all-eyes-on-me paparazzi whirlwind of dating a Spanish reality TV star to the responsibility of taking more liberty when speaking for the team, instead of just about the team, to reporters.
He is playing his best basketball of the season and has built for this moment all season long.
"It's not a shot that I take on a regular basis, it's not a shot that I practice on a regular basis, but from now on I'll try to put some work in it and hopefully make the next one," Gasol said about his final attempt.
He should be hoping for his teammates to play more like him so they can put teams away early and not have to worry about a final shot to bail them out.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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