By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Jun 8 2009 6:28AM
LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers had a three-point lead with less than two minutes to go in overtime when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol took it right at Dwight Howard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Gasol set a screen on Hedo Turkoglu out on the perimeter to free Bryant and rolled to the basket in unison with Kobe as he put the ball on the floor. The second Howard came to help, Bryant delivered the ball to Gasol who went up and finished at the rim, absorbing a foul from Rafer Alston and eluding the Magic's center as he scrambled back toward the baseline.
The prospect of grounding Superman seems a lot more plausible when you have Batman and Robin. It's a good thing these superheroes don't wear masks because we never would have seen Bryant's seething jaw-protruding glare in Game 1 or Gasol's guttural roar that followed the overtime layup in Game 2.
The three-point play put Los Angeles up six with 1:14 remaining and the Lakers held on for a 101-96 win to go up 2-0 in The Finals. (Note: Catch a replay of Game 2 at noon ET Monday on NBA TV.)
"We just put Dwight in a situation where he had to make a choice, simple as that," Bryant said. "Pau and I timed it perfectly with him being parallel to myself and him having the right angle to get it to him just in case Dwight committed. He committed and I got Pau an easy bucket, and one."
All the talk coming into the Finals was about Bryant finally winning a ring by himself, freed from playing the sidekick in Shaquille O'Neal's shadow.
The assumption was that Bryant was solo behind the wheel of L.A.'s championship motorcycle, revving the engine and popping wheelies with the rest of his teammates hitched in a trailer towing behind.
Turns out there's a sidecar.
"Kobe understands and knows that Pau is his ride buddy," said Derek Fisher. "Those two guys are the centerpieces of what we do -- Kobe with his dominance on the perimeter and we need Pau with his dominance in the middle to score baskets and rebound and apply pressure. They were our two All-Stars and they've done it for us all year and they're the two guys that we'll need to continue to do it for us to win this thing."
Bryant has taken on the reputation as the game's ultimate closer, and deservedly so, but it was Gasol who was 3-for-3 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and overtime, compared to Kobe's 3-for-7 and 7-for-8.
Bryant finished with 29 points and eight assists. Gasol had 24 and 10 rebounds. The Lakers finished the game making their last 14 free throws, buoyed by Gasol's marksmanship reminiscent of Game 6 of the West finals when they went 24-for-24. Could that ever happen with Shaq still around?
The Magic adjusted to the pick-and-roll that Bryant and Gasol perfected in Game 1. On Thursday, the play propelled Kobe to 40 points and eight assists. Sunday, it accounted for several of Bryant's seven turnovers as he got stuck with nowhere to go thanks to Orlando's big men hedging out to help.
But the two of them kept at it, never giving up on the play and talking about ways to make it work.
"Their whole defense is cocked toward me and Pau, so we're in constant dialogue that we can see, adjustments that we can make on the fly, and we've been kind of trying to time that up the right way the whole game," Bryant said. "It just didn't work out for us and at the right time it did."
Added Fisher: "Their communication has really increased and improved from the time that Pau showed up midseason last year -- in particular late in games when the ball's in Kobe's hands and defenses are really going to slide over to keep him from dominating the game."
The way they communicate varies -- sometimes it's in English, sometimes it's in Spanish -- and that same fluidity is there when they execute the two-man game -- sometimes it's a Kobe pull-up jumper, sometimes it's a feed to Gasol in the paint.
"You know what? It's just what language comes to me first to be honest with you," Bryant said. "It's just whatever rolls off the tongue."
What rolls off peoples' tongues when it comes to Bryant are words like "cold-blooded" or "assassin" (Lil' Wayne uses the latter in his newest track called "Kobe Bryant"). For Gasol, the floppy-haired, spindly Spaniard who supposedly got bullied by Boston last June, you just hear "soft."
"Because a guy has a set of skills and is more of a finesse player, then he's labeled as a soft player," Gasol said. "I'm not bothered by it because I know I'm a competitor, I'm a winner, I've competed for my whole career and nobody has given me anything. I had to earn everything I got and I'm proud to be where I am today."
Those skills are imperative in this series. One possession, Gasol is chasing Rashard Lewis out on the wing. The next he's banging bodies with Howard even though he's giving up 15 pounds.
"His ability to tip the ball, to get angles, to play his length on people is very striking," Phil Jackson said.
Howard called Lakers backup center D.J. Mbenga his "twin" on Saturday, noting how impressive the Congo native's physique is.
If anybody is qualified to judge whether Gasol is soft or not, it's Mbenga after taking him on in practice every day for the last season and a half.
"Pau will never be soft," Mbenga said with wide eyes. "Who said that? People who say Pau is soft, they're just wrong. They just see outside. They don't see inside. Pau is not a soft guy. He's a strong guy he just doesn't always need to use it. Because when he uses it, you can see."
"I would say strong is here," Mbenga said as he lifted his massive arm and pointed to his head with just one delicate finger. "When you use your brain, you'll be stronger than anybody else."
And when Kobe uses Pau as a teammate like he has so far, the Lakers will be stronger than any other team too.
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