- Chris Broussard, NBA analyst
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LOS ANGELES -- It was their fault. They had been pushed around, thrown off their game, intimidated by the Boston Celtics. One was too soft; the other too sometimey. Their flaws, there for the whole world to see on the NBA's grandest stage, had cost Kobe Bryant a ring sans Shaq, had turned the Lakers into losers in the most anticipated Finals since the close of Jordan's reign.
At least that's what the critics said.
One of the sexy storylines entering this season's playoffs was this: Could Pau Gasol be tough enough and Lamar Odom consistent enough to help Kobe? Could the Lakers' not-so-dynamic duo be better this time around?
After the first two games of the NBA Finals, the answer is a resounding "yes."
Even as Bryant puts up mega-numbers against the Orlando Magic, averaging 34.5 points in the first two games, Gasol and Odom are showing they're more than mere helpers. They're main cogs.
And that's why the Lakers, 101-96 overtime winners Sunday night, are taking a 2-0 lead to Orlando for Games 3, 4 and (maybe) 5.
Gasol scored seven of his 24 points in overtime, falling just a point shy of the entire Orlando team's point production in the extra session. And Odom, such a weak foul shooter that he's nearly in the Dwight Howard/Shaquille O'Neal class, sealed the victory with two clutch free throws.
"Me and Pau have a lot of experience," Odom said after recording 19 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots in nearly 46 minutes off the bench. "Experience is the best teacher of them all. We played in [last year's] Finals, went to the Finals after, I guess, only a half-a-season of basketball with each other. We have a strong connection."
"Connection" is a great way to describe the link between the 7-foot Gasol and the 6-10 Odom, because to the Magic's Dwight Howard they must seem as connected as one giant 14-foot defender.
With some help from Andrew Bynum, who was limited to just 16 minutes Sunday because of foul trouble, Gasol and Odom turned the game's most dominant big man into a butter-fingered turnover machine whose go-to move seemed to be flailing his arms (and the ball) skyward and hoping for a foul call.
When Howard got by Bynum, Gasol and Odom were there to bring traffic. When Bynum went to the bench, the supposedly soft Gasol battled the big man admirably, helping to hold him to just five field goals in 47 minutes. Howard, who committed seven turnovers while spinning into the Laker bigs, finished with just 17 points.
It's safe to say that Gasol, who also blocked a shot and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, probably would not have been so successful against Howard a year ago.
"I think I've improved," said the 250-pound Gasol, who gives up 15 pounds to the muscle-bound Howard. "I think I've improved physically to be able to hold my ground a little better. I worked hard for it all year long and continued working to show I can be effective against bigger guys. So far, so good."
But Gasol's and Odom's effectiveness has not been limited to the defensive end. In Game 2, both were offensive forces.
Odom was smoking in the fourth quarter, scoring eight of the Lakers' first 10 points of the period to turn a 65-63 deficit into a 73-70 lead. Showing why he's one of the game's most versatile players, he sank a fadeaway, a running jumper, a 23-footer and a driving layup over Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat in which he switched the ball from his right hand to his left to get it off cleanly.
"Lamar just had a great, great game," Bryant said, "particularly in the fourth quarter."
He wasn't too bad in overtime, either. With 22 seconds left and the Lakers clinging to a 99-96 lead, the Magic sent him to the line, hoping the 62 percent foul shooter would throw up a couple of bricks.
Instead, Odom, who's made just 59 percent of his free throws during these playoffs, calmly sank both shots to put the game away.
What was he thinking on the line? Was he nervous, scared, worried?
"Actually, nothing," Odom said. "As an athlete, sometimes that's the best thing that you can do is not think. It's a muscle memory thing. Let that take over."
Gasol hooked up with Bryant for the play of the game with 1:14 left in overtime. Bryant drove down the right side of the lane, drawing multiple defenders, and then slipped a pass to Gasol, who laid the ball in between Howard and Rafer Alston, who fouled him on the play.
As the ball fell through the hoop, Gasol stood beneath the rim, staring menacingly into the crowd and screaming at the top of his lungs.
With his beard and the extra strength he's added by hitting the weights harder than ever this season -- in order to hush the haters -- he looked anything but soft on that play. When he sank the ensuing free throw, he put the Lakers up 97-91.
"I never really got upset about it," Gasol said, referring to the media's criticism of him. "I'm the hardest on myself than anybody else. I really criticize myself when I don't perform well, when I fall short. And last year, I felt like I fell short at the end. I ran out of strength. I ran out of energy and couldn't deliver the way I wanted to.
"This year, bottom line, we're playing tougher. We understand what it takes to go get the championship, and so far we've been doing pretty well."
So far, Gasol and Odom have been pretty tough and pretty consistent.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.