Pau Gasol is the NBA’s best all-around big man.
Just ask Kobe Bryant.
“I don’t think it’s close,” said Bryant, No. 1 to Gasol’s 1A on the Lakers.
In the 15 games Gasol had played this season prior to L.A.’s 111-108 Tuesday evening victory over Oklahoma City, the seven-footer had posted the kind of numbers that quickly punch a ticket to the NBA All-Star game.
Try this: 17.1 points on 54.6 percent shooting (14th in the NBA); 12.7 rebounds, which would rank second in the NBA if the Gasol had played enough games; 3.9 assists, good for third on the team; 1.47 blocks, second to Andrew Bynum’s 1.63; and 89.3 percent from the free throw line, which ranked fifth in the NBA and further cements a theory that Gasol must receive as many touches as possible on offense.
Well, the Spaniard was at it again against the Thunder, doing a bit of everything while posting 15 points, 11 rebounds and a season-high six blocks in helping the Lakers to their 15th win in 16 games since he returned to L.A.’s lineup after 11 games spent nursing a strained hamstring.
To Bryant (who oh-by-the-way dropped another 40 points) it’s no coincidence that the Lakers have a 93.75 winning percentage with the multi-talented big man starting at power forward.
“Oh yeah,” said Bryant, nodding his head knowingly. “He’s been a blessing to me. I can’t say enough about him … he knows how much I love him and appreciate him. I think he’s probably under-appreciated, but not from me, that’s for sure.”
Coming off a crucial role in the Lakers’ latest NBA Championship and MVP honors while leading Spain to the 2009 EuroBasket title, Gasol has raised his game to a new level since L.A.’s loss in the 2008 NBA Finals.
That offseason, Gasol realized that he needed to add some strength and develop a nastier attitude in the paint, and he steadily progressed in that facet throughout the Lakers’ 2008-09 campaign until his defense and toughness had reached the point that single-covering Orlando’s Dwight Howard in the Finals was not a problem.
As it was on Tuesday against, well, whoever came into the paint.
“Pau was blocking shots,” said Ron Artest, keeping things simple for us. “He played good.”
The six swats aside, it wasn’t Pau’s best box score of the season by any means (that would be his 26 points, 22 rebounds, four blocks and four assists against Milwaukee last week). But his skill set is so extensive and varied, he always finds ways to contribute in a healthy manner just by playing his game.
11:19, 1st Quarter: After Andrew Bynum missed a layup, Gasol snuck in from the weak side to grab the board and stick it back in.
9:51, 1st: Gasol, while posting up, spotted Bynum under the hoop, and threw a pretty lob pass over his head that somehow wound up in a surprised Bynum’s hands.
5:36, 2nd It doesn’t show up in the box, but Gasol showed why he’s perhaps the league’s best running big by sprinting full-court after blocking a shot, drawing the attention of two Thunder players scrambling back in transition to free Derek Fisher for a wide open jumper.
0:02.9, 3rd: Gasol swatted Russell Westbrook’s layup attempt, rebounded the ball, drew a foul and sank two free throws at the other end.
It’s no coincidence that Gasol’s best quarter, the third, was also L.A.’s best, and the period that won the game. He of Barcelona scored five points, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked two shots and added an assist without a turnover or missed shot as the Lakers outscored the Thunder 34-21 to turn a seven-point deficit into a six-point lead.
OKC refused to quit, hanging around to see Bryant avoid an injury scare and Westbrook have a chance to tie the game on a final-seconds-three-pointer, but in no small thanks to Gasol, L.A. won its fifth straight.
“We stepped up our game in that third quarter,” concluded Gasol. “We really just want to continue to improve on a daily basis.”
Getting better every day? Gasol may well have been talking about himself.
During the team’s East Coast road trip last week, in the lobby of the team’s New York City hotel, an injured Luke Walton saw Gasol walk into the hotel’s entrance, and exchanged pleasantries with his power forward/center for a few minutes before Gasol continued towards the elevators. Walton spent the next several minutes gushing about what a fantastic player Pau is, how he still isn’t getting enough credit, and how impressive he is on a daily basis at both ends of the floor.
Then there are opposing coaches like the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, who even just a week or so ago* couldn’t keep from cringing when hearing Gasol’s name mentioned, still troubled by how promptly the balance of power shifted in the West when Mitch Kupchak acquired Gasol from Memphis.
*To the L.A. Times.
Then, the Lakers couldn’t have been more eager to acquire Gasol. Now, the team that has yet to lose three straight games with Gasol adorned in purple and gold is eagerly working on a contract extension that both Gasol and Phil Jackson say is nearing completion.
No need to ask Bryant how he feels about that.