LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers blast the song "I Love L.A." after every home win, but given the tastes of a certain 7-foot Spaniard, it sounded more appropriate after this one. Over the past four years, Pau Gasol has developed a deep affection for his adopted hometown. Volleyball at Redondo Beach and opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, musicals at the Pantages and concerts at the El Rey. When the Lakers' trade for Chris Paul was vetoed in December, Gasol recovered easier than Lamar Odom, in part because he ended up right where he wanted: back in L.A.
Gasol lost his role as the second option in the Lakers offense this season, sacrificing shots and post position to Andrew Bynum, but he remained fundamentally content. When he stayed put at the trading deadline, he quietly rejoiced, and the Lakers rewarded his loyalty by making him a co-captain. The reprieve was welcome but it was also temporary.
Gasol was admittedly awful in Game 6 at Denver, with three points and three rebounds, recalling his disappearance from last year's Western Conference semifinals against Dallas. He knew the stakes Saturday. It wasn't just the usual win or go home. It was probably worse: Win or leave home. Gasol appeared motivated by something every satisfied employee could understand. He didn't want to move. With a summer of trade speculation approaching, and a procession of U-Hauls circling, Gasol staved them off in an inspired Game 7 performance: 23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, four blocks and a 96-87 win over the go-go Nuggets.
At practice Friday, Lakers assistant coaches battered Gasol in the post with football pads, and he responded: "Hit me harder." Head coach Mike Brown told Gasol in front of the entire team, "Bring it." Brown instructed Gasol to run over and play pick-and-roll with Kobe Bryant every time he dribbled up the wing. "Don't stand around on the weak side," Brown said. "If Kobe tells you to go away don't listen to him." In two days, Gasol underwent a radical metamorphosis, from the proverbial white swan to black, words Bryant used to characterize Gasol a year ago.
When Gasol took the floor Saturday at Staples Center, he was as animated as he's ever been with the Lakers, chest-bumping the basket stanchion, screaming to the ceiling, pushing Bynum in the chest and lifting Ramon Sessions to his feet. He gave a speech in a timeout, pumping his fist four times, which might have been a career-high. "There was a lot of energy going on through my body all night long," Gasol said. "I was excited. I wanted to bring a better effort. I'm not a player who can put up three points and three rebounds in one game."
Gasol scored more points in the first two minutes of Game 7 than he did in all of Game 6. He pulled down more rebounds in one possession of Game 7 than he did in all of Game 6, at least five, before finishing with a tip-in. "He's been giving us one jump," Brown said. "But he kept going and going, two, three, four jumps. Every time the ball went off the rim I was like, 'Dang they're going to get it ... Pau got it again!'"
Game 7s are often overbilled, but this one exceeded the hype. Al Harrington, playing with a torn meniscus in his knee, scored 24 points for the Nuggets. Steve Blake, coming off the bench for the Lakers, made five of six three-pointers. The Nuggets came back from 16 points down in the third quarter and the Lakers from four down in the fourth. Metta World Peace returned from his seven-game suspension and hounded Danilo Gallinari into 1-of-9 shooting, Andre Miller into 1-of-10. Bryant held Ty Lawson scoreless in the fourth quarter and acted as point forward, drawing double-teams at the elbow on virtually every possession and kicking out to whomever was left free. Bryant told Nuggets coach George Karl, "You don't have to double-team me that much. I'm too old."
Still, the past 24 hours at Staples belonged to the Gasol brothers. On Friday, Marc scored 23 points and led the Grizzlies over the Clippers. On Saturday, Pau mimicked his little brother, demonstrating more strength than skill. Gasol's 11 offensive rebounds were reminiscent of the playoffs two years ago, when his tip-in with 0.5 seconds left vanquished Oklahoma City in the first round. After that game, Thunder forward Kevin Durant grabbed his young teammates and huddled them at half-court, saying: "This will make us better." Later, Bryant spotted Durant and Russell Westbrook in the arena hallway and told them: "Y'all are some bad mother------. Glad we're done with you."
Back then, the Lakers were the No. 1 seed and the Thunder the No. 8, but times and records have changed. The Thunder will be a considerable favorite when they host the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals starting Monday in Oklahoma City. The Thunder will enjoy the benefits of rest, home-court advantage, and Derek Fisher. Their crowd, rollicking on Tuesday nights in January, will be especially riled for World Peace, who earned his suspension with an elbow to James Harden's head last month.
The Lakers have not been such an obvious underdog in a playoff series since Gasol arrived in Los Angeles. If they lose, no one will be surprised, but the local outcry will be undiminished. Gasol could still be exiled this summer for a younger power forward or a quicker point guard. The stakes remain the same. He is playing for his place in L.A., trying to keep the moving vans off his block.