Pau Gasol locked down by Hornets
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol had to smile when he was asked to explain his performance so far in the playoffs.
What else could he do?
He had spent the better part of two days listening to teammates, coaches and talking heads criticize his abysmal performance in Game 1 against the New Orleans Hornets, when he scored just eight points, two above his season low, on 2-for-9 shooting with six rebounds.
There was simply no way one of the most skilled big men in basketball was going to have that kind of game again, right?
Not quite. Gasol again finished with eight points, this time on 2-for-10 shooting with five rebounds and three turnovers.
It was a statistically worse night for the mild-mannered Los Angeles Lakers forward, although he did play more physically and didn't back down from contact as he did at times in Game 1. Gasol, however, was able to smile after Game 2 because, this time, the Lakers won 87-78 to tie their first-round playoff series with the Hornets at one game apiece.
He also had to laugh because he didn't know how else to respond to his last games. But he doesn't expect the worst two-game stretch he can recall in his career stretching to three games.
"Four out of 19 is not great," Gasol said. "It's not usual for me. But, it's hopeful. I don't think I can shoot any worse than what I'm shooting now."
Gasol's performance against the undersized Hornets, who don't start a player over 6-foot-10 and mostly defend Gasol with 6-9 Carl Landry, is all the more surprising when you consider the success Gasol had against the Hornets this season.
In the Lakers' four wins over New Orleans this season, Gasol shot a combined 31-for-44 for 82 points and had 51 rebounds. His better than 70 percent shooting percentage against the Hornets was the focal point of New Orleans' defensive discussions before Games 1 and 2, as they anticipated the more aggressive Gasol they had seen earlier.
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"Oh my goodness, he was the key emphasis," Hornets center Aaron Gray said. "He was shooting like 71 percent from the floor against us, and it's not like he's going 3-for-4. He's taking anywhere between 10 to 15 shots a game.
"It was something we really wanted to key in on. Carl is doing a great job when he's on him, and our guards are doing a great job of sagging in. We just have to continue that."
The biggest reason the Hornets' defense on Gasol has improved is the defensive presence of Landry, who was traded to New Orleans from the Sacramento Kings in late February. Landry is a master at positioning, leveraging and, when needed, elbowing bigger players away from the basket.
Landry will be the first to admit he doesn't have much of a chance at stopping Gasol if Gasol gets the ball near the basket. His plan is to use his legs and lower-body strength to push Gasol away from the basket and force him to settle for outside shots. It's a strategy that has worked well so far.
"We're trying to be aggressive and making it hard for him to catch it on the block and go to work," Landry said. "He can score on anybody, but if you get into him and be physical with him and get him off his sweet spot, it makes it a little bit tougher."
Landry had some success against Gasol in 2009 when Landry was with the Houston Rockets who, despite playing without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, took the Lakers to seven games. He also has been picking the brain of Hornets center D.J. Mbenga, Gasol's former Lakers teammate.
"I'm not the tallest guy in the world, so when bigger guys catch it in their sweet spot, 2 to 3 feet from the hoop, it's pretty much automatic," Landry said. "So my job is to force those guys away from the hoop and make it kind of tough on them."
Still, Gasol doesn't think his opponent's technique always follows the letter of the law.
"[Landry and Gray] did a good job, but [the officials] let them get away with a lot of shoving," Gasol said. "We have to force the issue a little more and make it a little more noticeable. But they are doing a good job of digging in and not allowing the post entry passes to come comfortably so we have to work it. We have to figure it out, but it's still a work in progress."
Although New Orleans' strategy is to be physical with Gasol and rough him up as much as possible, the Hornets' big men stop short of calling him "soft," as Kendrick Perkins and Amare Stoudemire did recently.
"It's funny people give him this label of being soft," Gray said. "I don't think anyone who really knows basketball thinks that. He obviously tried to amp up his energy [Wednesday], but he's still not finishing well. He took 10 shots and got good looks, but our mindset is to make him as uncomfortable as possible."
Although the Hornets certainly have made Gasol uncomfortable in the first two games of their playoff series, he says won't be uncomfortable with the physicality it will take to regain his form as the series shifts to New Orleans.
"It's a fight," Gasol said. "It's a fight now, and that's what makes it fun."Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.