Right or wrong, finger of blame for Lakers' woes pointing at Gasol
DALLAS -- Does the "why" really matter as much as the "what"?
Pau Gasol isn't playing like Pau Gasol. By extension, the Lakers aren't playing like the Lakers. And anyone who doesn't think it's that simple is trying to go easy on the big fella's feelings because, well, we all know that he's the nicest man in the NBA.
Blame the gremlins (as Lakers coach Phil Jackson did after Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinals series against Dallas in which they trail 3-0), or blame the girls (as one, non-mainstream Internet report did), but just know who will take the blame when the two-time defending champions finally fall: the sensitive Spaniard.
If the Lakers do anything right in Game 4 on Sunday, they should do right by Gasol. Get him the ball. Let him determine his legacy, or at least afford him the opportunity to keep the purple-and-gold people eaters at bay.
The Laker Nation hasn't been zeroed in on one of its own like this since the Kwame Brown debacle, and the chorus of boos extends way beyond the barber shop or even the season ticket holder base. Rapper and LA icon Snoop Dogg told his 3.2 million Twitter followers on Friday that Gasol should be traded for Orlando's Dwight Howard because he was too "soft," a sentiment that Lakers legend Magic Johnson seemed to endorse during ABC's NBA programming on Sunday when he deemed a hypothetical trade proposal swapping a Lakers frontcourt member for Howard a win-win for both teams.
Yet while the notion of a storybook ending happening here is absurd considering the 0-98 mark held by teams that have trailed trail 3-0 in a seven-game series, Gasol deserves a chance to stay his own execution. One good game, one win, would go a long toward relieving the pressure in this situation, reminding the Lakers (un)faithful that -- while Gasol's play has certainly had everything to do with the Lakers' struggles -- their team wouldn't have won back-to-back championships without him. A legacy shouldn't be lost like this.
Besides, there are other factors in play here besides Gasol's. The Lakers' horrific three-point shooting (10 of 52 for 19.2 percent), the obvious lack of championship-level chemistry (see Andrew Bynum's discussion on trust issues), and the Mavericks team that apparently wasn't content winning 50-plus games yet again and not putting up a postseason fight.
Make no mistake, though, the question of "why" was asked in a variety of ways at Lakers practice on Saturday. And it wasn't just the members of the media wondering about the answer.
"If I had the answer, I would've already fixed it," longtime Lakers assistant and possible Jackson replacement Brian Shaw said. "Whatever it is, it's obvious he's having struggles out there on the floor. There's all sorts of things swirling around about what it could be about. I don't know that any of that is true or not, but he's not showing to be the Pau that we are all accustomed to seeing."
The most damning evidence of all has been the before and after of this postseason and his last, as Gasol has seen his scoring decline (19.6 points per game to 13.4) along with his rebounding (11.1 to 7.8) and field-goal percentage (53.9 to 42.2). But the body language hasn't helped, the helpless way in which Gasol has looked when having his game affected by the likes of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood. Add in the now-infamous chest slap from Jackson in the first half of Friday's affair, and the idea that Gasol has no heart has been -- fair or not -- taken to whole a new level.
"We're playing him well sometimes, and I think sometimes he's just missing shots," Haywood said. "Whether you want to say whether that's a funk or whatever, sometimes he's just missing some shots and we've been able to make him uncomfortable, so I guess a little bit of him, a little bit of us, and we'll take it however we can get it."
Gasol called the report about his love life playing a part here "lies and makeup stories," meaning the mystery will remain unsolved. He clearly doesn't look right, his confidence admittedly down and his penchant for getting punished at an all-time high.
"My personal life and my personal things are that -- personal," Gasol said. "And I keep them private. But we (professional athletes) are definitely not robots. We do have things going on in our lives, and I would never use that as an excuse. That's why I never even bring it up, whether it's great what's going on or whether it's not so great."
Yet there's a greater context here that simply can't be forgotten. Before Gasol, there was Bryant twisting in the championship-less wind and a dire need for the sort of presence that he would eventually provide. And no matter how many times the joke is told about how his brother, Memphis' Marc Gasol, is playing the better basketball in these playoffs, it changes nothing of the fact that Gasol's arrival in Los Angeles via the trade from the Grizzlies was the reason the gold standard returned in Tinsel Town.
"I got fired (during the 2006-06 season) because Pau Gasol broke his foot in the world championships (while playing for Spain in the summer of 2006), OK?" former Memphis coach Mike Fratello said by phone on Saturday night. "If Pau had not broken his foot and was healthy to come back, I might have had a chance to last that season...And when I was gone and he was traded, all I know is L.A. won a couple world championships.
"This (Gasol situation) sounds a little bit like what has happened to Derek Jeter in New York, where the guy is batting .250 and they wrote him off before the season even started and it's a guy who, to me, I would play Derek Jeter until the day he said, 'You know what, I'm tired and I don't want to play anymore.' Pau has helped that team win championships. He's having a bad stretch here, but how about the (championships) that they won? How many franchises in the NBA have won back to back championships? How many have (pushed to be in) to four straight NBA Finals?"
That's the "what" that shouldn't be forgotten, no matter how many times Gasol is on the losing end during this particular postseason. Maybe he's dealing with more than we realize. Maybe he's more fatigued, or even more injured, than we are aware. But what he's done in recent years has been good enough to warrant some good will, and understanding why things have changed is just not as important as remembering that this is, by definition, an aberration.
"Is there an athlete who hasn't gone through a time when his numbers don't match what his max numbers have been?" Fratello said. "Take the greatest athlete -- whoever that might be -- and has there been a stretch that they've gone through where it didn't match the rest of the numbers? Isn't the greatness of a player judged over more than just a 10-day or 12-day period? We don't know what's going on in people's personal lives, or family lives."
Nor do we necessarily need to. What matters most is the 'what' and not the 'why.' And Gasol, no matter what happens in this series, remains an enormous part of what has made these Lakers so special.