Thursday May 20th, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- After the Lakers fell to the Celtics in the NBA Finals two years ago, and Pau Gasol finished his exit interview back at the team's headquarters, he walked down to the weight room that he so often ignored, and told the trainers he was committed to getting stronger. If he ever saw Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins in a similar situation again, he had to be ready.

Gasol will not admit it, but he can see them coming right now. The Celtics are up 2-0 on the Magic. The Lakers are up 2-0 on the Suns. Gasol is on a collision course with a couple of familiar freight trains. When the Lakers and Celtics met in 2008, Gasol took the brunt of abuse, first from Garnett and Perkins, then from a wave of critics who called him soft. Everything Gasol has accomplished since then is a direct response to the embarrassment he suffered in that series.

The Suns do not have anyone who can approximate the challenge that Garnett and Perkins present, but Gasol is shredding them like a man preparing for bigger things. He scored 29 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Wednesday -- after scoring 21 in Game 1 -- and the Lakers dwarfed the Suns again, 124-112. The Suns do not have a defender who can guard Gasol straight up, and when they double him, he is an adept enough passer that he always seems to find somebody wide open.

Gasol was frustrated, at times, in the regular season the Lakers didn't make a more concerted effort to pound the ball inside. They enjoy a size advantage against almost every team they play; but for some reason, they don't always exploit it. Even against the small-ball Suns, the Lakers seemed satisfied to run and shoot for most of the first three quarters Wednesday. They were sucked into the Suns' style and tied heading into the fourth.

Then they heeded the words of Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who reminded everybody before this series that size really matters. The Lakers went inside to Gasol and he scored 14 points over the final 11 minutes, proving that somebody in Los Angeles besides Kobe Bryant can close.

"This year, Pau is getting a lot more attention in the post than he has in the past, and he's making all the right reads and all the right plays," Bryant said. "He has really figured it out at the right time."

The Suns slowed Bryant, sometimes with two defenders, so he dished out a playoff career-high 13 assists, including three to Gasol in the fourth quarter. When Bryant hits Gasol for a layup or dunk, he has a habit of staring him down and pointing a padded index finger in his face, like a parent who has just found a lost child in a crowd. The pose is becoming awfully familiar.

As well as the Celtics are defending these days, that's how efficiently the Lakers are scoring. Through two games, they have 252 points and are shooting 58 percent, in part because the Suns' defense was vastly overrated, and in part because the Lakers can't miss. Gasol is shooting 65 percent in the series. Lamar Odom, who had a double-double in Game 1 that Amar'e Stoudemire attributed to "luck," posted another in Game 2. Ron Artest, who shot 18 percent from three-point range in the first round against Oklahoma City, was 3-of-6 from that territory Wednesday. Jordan Farmar was 3-of-3. Stopping the Lakers has been such a struggle that Gentry said after his postgame press conference: "I'm open for suggestions."

The Suns can double Bryant or Gasol but not both, a potentially fatal dilemma. With three minutes left in the fourth quarter Wednesday, the crowd at Staples Center chanted "We want Boston," and while the Lakers pretended not to hear, they want the same. It feels like 2008 all over again: Andrew Bynum is injured, Odom is inconsistent, and the onus is back on Gasol. Channing Frye and Robin Lopez cannot stop him. Garnett and Perkins, however, make for a much more formidable obstacle.

They are waiting for him, and he for them, a rematch two years in the making.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.