Pau Gasol finds his missing game
The Lakers All-Star broke out of his slump just in time to put Game 3 out of reach
He played so poorly in Games 1 and 2, you had to go all the way back to box scores from March 2005 to find the last time Gasol failed to top 10 points in consecutive games.
In Game 1, he had eight points and six rebounds (zero offensive). In Game 2, he had eight points and five rebounds (zero defensive). And he shot just 4-for-19 from the field combined to really punctuate his putrid play.
In Friday's Game 3, a 100-86 Lakers victory that sent them up 2-1 in the series, Gasol shed light on a much more positive part of his past when the 7-footer hit a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter in his 17-point, 10-rebound game.
It was just the second long ball of his postseason career and the first since May 2005 in a first-round series between Memphis and Phoenix.
"It's funny how a shot can kind of turn the momentum around for him," said Kobe Bryant, who had a nice turnaround himself, going from 11 points in Game 2 to a game-high 30 on Friday. "He had a hard time making shots around the basket and in the paint, but he knocks down a 3 and that kind of got him going a little bit."
Gasol had 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting and six rebounds through the first three quarters, and L.A. led by seven. It was an improvement, sure, but hardly a breakout performance to that point.
The 3 was a part of a seven-point, four-rebound final frame for Gasol that doubled the Lakers' lead to 14 by the time Lamar Odom checked in for him midway through the quarter.
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Things started out slowly for Gasol, who went just 1-for-3 with a turnover in the first quarter as it looked like he could succumb to the cold that had been bothering him the past couple of days.
"I've been fighting through a tough cold," Gasol said following the game after deflecting questions about his cough at Friday's shootaround. "Chest congestion and sinuses."
But the Lakers stuck with their four-time All-Star, starting with co-captain Derek Fisher making one of his patented well-timed speeches in the first half.
"We ride with him, all the way. We let him know that as a team today, as matter of fact. Derek [Fisher] came to the bench and was like, 'All say, "Aye," to when Pau gets the ball, he can do what he wants to do -- miss or make,'" Odom said. "We all say, 'Aye,' to let him know, we're going to ride with you."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson stuck with Gasol at the start of the fourth quarter. Jackson normally rests both Gasol and Bryant to start the fourth so he has his two best players fresh for the final push, but he wanted Gasol to establish himself as the go-to guy without having Bryant to lean on.
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"When Kobe's off the floor, Pau becomes the primary scorer," Jackson said. "So, there's a focus for him out there on the floor, and the players understand that."
The players also understand that the guy who had 13 double-doubles in 23 postseason games last year wasn't going to suddenly disappear.
"Everybody's talking about Pau, a man with two rings," Ron Artest said incredulously after the game, someone no stranger to being looked at as the goat of this Lakers group. "No matter what happens, you can't win a championship in two games."
Speaking of games, Friday was the 82nd playoff game of Gasol's 10-year career, in essence adding a full season of meaningful games to his résumé. In those impact games, historically he's risen to the occasion, as his playoff career rebounding average is up to 9.7 per game from 9.1 in the regular season and his shooting is up to 53.2 percent from 52.2 percent, while his scoring is about the same (18.3 down from 18.8).
An exhausted Gasol spoke in soft tones after the game as the lingering effects of his cold dulled his voice.
His sharp wit was still intact, however.
"Where did that 3-pointer come from?" a reporter asked.
"The corner," Gasol said, dryly.
While the cold might have beat him up a bit, Gasol insisted he didn't pay any mind over the past several days to the national narrative about the Lakers' series that was dissecting Gasol's disappointing performances.
"It's not like I had a lot of pressure coming into today's game to perform well; my idea was to help the team win," Gasol said. "It's about winning."
Across the visitors locker room at about eye level from where Gasol stood slouched against the wall was the white board with a message scribbled on it by Jackson after the game.
"14 mo'" it said, signifying the remaining number of wins the Lakers need in the postseason to clinch the championship.
Gasol is back on board, and the countdown to three-peat continues.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.