Just eleven days ago, everyone in the basketball world was ready to anoint Pau Gasol as a different player than in 2008, the undisputed best big man in the game.
In Game 1 of these NBA Finals, the Spaniard embarrassed the Celtics’ frontline, especially Kevin Garnett, devouring them with 23 points and 14 rebounds. That Mufasa-like performance has slowly weakened with each passing game. In Game 5 on Sunday night, Gasol was no king of the jungle. He was more Nenad Krstic.
Now, it feels like déjà vu all over again. It’s been a long time since the summer of 2008, but at this moment for Gasol, nothing has really changed. And if he doesn’t turn it around within the next couple of days, it won’t be a title repeat, rather a repeat summer of questions. Let’s find out where Gasol’s aggression went.
It’s been one of the more surprising turn of events in this series. Analysts thought Boston’s versatility, bench and togetherness might be enough to win another banner for the Celtics. But, no one expected Gasol to come out with his weapons blazing only to fall asleep as the series progressed.
Coming into the Finals, Gasol was averaging 20 points and just fewer than 11 rebounds a game in the playoffs. He was a key presence against Oklahoma City, ate up the Jazz frontcourt and generally had his way against the Suns.
In the Finals, his averages are 18.8 points and 10 rebounds a game. Amazingly, those numbers aren’t bad at all. But, his impact on the games, especially in Boston, was nonexistent.
L.A. should be hopeful with the series returning to the Staples Center. Gasol was dominant during the first two games of the series, roaming the paint and taking it right into the Celtics’ chests. The big man has been consistent in L.A. throughout this playoff run: in 10 home playoff games, Gasol scored at least 21 in every single game but one. That one was a 19-point performance in the first game of the playoffs.
So while his shaky games in Boston are causing serious concern for the Lakers, Gasol’s heart rehabilitation tour isn’t over yet.
During the playoffs, L.A. leans heavily on it’s old guards – Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher – to right the ship during tough visiting games. But in the Staples Center, the Laker offense is virtually unstoppable because of it’s versatility. The bench usually contributes more energy at home and everyone normally hits a higher percentage of their threes. But, the core of the triangle doesn’t revolve around the perimeter. At the head of that attack are Andrew Bynum and Gasol.
In the first two games in L.A, Gasol anchored himself in the lane. He was often sprinting down court on offense to secure position right at the block. It was working. He went after every board and had a number of offensive rebounds and put backs. The main thing was that he was active, the best way to beat Boston’s defense. Garnett no longer has the foot speed to chase Gasol around, either in transition or during face-up situations. Kendrick Perkins never had it.
The same activity level that yielded him nine blocks and 23 free throw attempts in the two games in Staples Center disappeared once the bus pulled into New England. In three games in the Garden, Gasol had just four blocks and 19 free throw attempts. In Game 5, he bottomed out: no blocks and just three free throw attempts.
In the first 10 minutes of the third quarter in Game 5, Gasol registered nary a mark, outside of two fouls, in the scorebook. And while his rebounding numbers for the game were solid (12), the guy who was supposed to be the second-best player in the series took four shots in the first half and disappeared for long stretches in the second. Meanwhile, Garnett was going for 18 points and 10 rebounds, controlling the matchup surprisingly easily.
Gasol’s problems in Boston are all a result of being timid. Whether it was allowing himself to be pushed off the block in all three games or letting Garnett slip around him to get deflections on entry passes in Game 5, Gasol played with no force. L.A. knows that he will get high-percentage shots whenever they go in to him, but Gasol is allowing the defense to dictate what he does offensively, instead of the other way around.
The one guy who actually defends Gasol very well is Rasheed Wallace. But against Garnett and Perkins, Gasol has proven he can get great shots whenever he wants.
Gasol is generally considered one of the best, if not the best, passing bigs in the game. He and Bynum work the high-low options in the triangle wonderfully, and his kick-outs from double teams in the post often get the best looks the Laker guards get. Gasol was averaging 3.3 assists in the Finals. But in Game 5, he had zero.
Without Gasol demanding the ball in the post and working to get position on the block, Boston continues to push the L.A. offense out of the lane. Even Bryant, as well as he played, didn’t have a single layup or dunk amongst his onslaught of jumpers and fallaways.
Think of a coastal storm. Without a barrier to hold it back from the mainland, that storm will push and push until it completely covers the shore and whatever is behind it. Well, Gasol is that barrier. If he isn’t holding his ground, the Boston storm is going to splash down on everyone else and force everyone to back up.
In Game 5, the Lakers had 17 shots inside of five feet, which was a dozen fewer than they averaged through the first four games of the series.
While most of his poor play is self-inflicted, Gasol could also stand to benefit from Bryant looking to dish more often. When running their wing pick-n-rolls, the Boston big men are hedging high on Bryant every time, leaving Gasol much of the baseline. While Bryant was very aggressive the last few games, Gasol needs to involve himself again and take advantage of the space the pick-n-roll provides. When he catches the ball on the wing with a big man rushing to recover, Gasol has to go right at him.
If the Lakers want to finish this season with a championship, they have to get back the version of Gasol that treated Garnett like his son during the opening of the series. Bryant will do everything he can to avoid another Finals loss. But Gasol holds the keys. He was a beast, one of the top five players in the playoffs, up until his recent play. Suddenly, the same questions about heart and desire are back again. Will he be commanding or will he shrink in the moment?
What do you think?