By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted Jun 15 2009 9:38AM
ORLANDO -- For the first time this June, Pau Gasol seemed slightly overwhelmed.
His shirt was soaked with the beverage of champions and his hair was a mess. (Ah, who are we kidding? Gasol's hair is always a mess.) He had just taken photos holding the Larry O'Brien trophy and was headed for the press room, but was swarmed by Spanish media as if he had just caught a pass in the post. He answered questions for dos minutos -- not nearly enough time for his countrymen -- before being led away again, this time to take pictures with Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom.
"This is crazy," he said to no one in particular as he was led back to spend some time in front of NBA Entertainment's photo lens.
He wasn't used to this, all the attention afforded to a newly crowned NBA champion. Snap, snap. Grip and grin. Grin bigger, please? Yes. Snap. OK, Pau, you're done. As he tried to make his way back to the press room for the postgame interviews, someone else tried to make his way in.
"Come on in," Gasol said, stepping aside.
"Still a gentleman," said a guard near the door.
And now, a champion. And that small gesture to a stranger near the door provided a perfect snapshot as to why the 7-foot Spaniard was perfect for the Lakers' triangle offense: Gasol knew when to step aside and defer to others. He knew when to pass, he knew when to shoot and he knew that on occasion he'd need to clean up his teammate's messes on the offensive glass.
If Kobe Bryant was L.A.'s alpha dog during the Lakers' run to a 15th NBA title, Gasol is the beta version -- a new-age post player eager and able to do things in the triangle offense.
"He's a willing passer," Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons said. "You're either a hub or a hole. He's a hub. The offense can function because he's an unselfish player and he has the skills to make the offense work."
Few, if any, big men have done it better than Gasol. Few, if any, have had his unique skill set. Cleamons rattled off some names of big men he's helped Phil Jackson coach in the triangle -- Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley, and of course, Shaquille O'Neal. But Gasol could do things Cartwright and Longley couldn't, such as put the ball on the floor and didn't need to do what O'Neal liked to do, such as score.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who swung the deal last February to bring Gasol to L.A. from Memphis, was succinct about Pau's impact on this title.
"We wouldn't have won it without him," Kupchak said. "Simple as that."
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But last year, it wasn't so simple. Kupchak said he knew Gasol had the skills, but he didn't know how he would fit until he got to Los Angeles. While Gasol made an immediate impact on the offensive end of the floor, the Lakers bowed to a superior Boston Celtics team in The Finals.
One of the reasons often cited for the Lakers' inability to top their hated rivals was a lack of toughness. Bryant was tough, sure. But Gasol? Soon the old European stereotypes started to fly: Gasol was soft, he couldn't bang, and not only that, he shied away from contact. When he did get hit, he flopped. And on and on and on.
Gasol started changing that perception this summer in Beijing. In the first meeting between Team USA and Spain in the Olympics, Bryant ran through Gasol on a screen.
"Kobe doesn't have any friends on the floor when he's playing against somebody else," Gasol said. "That's just the way it is. He's such a great competitor, he wants to win no matter what, no matter who he's playing."
You want to win a title with me, Kobe seemed to say. Suck it up and get gritty. The message had been sent and received. Gasol's defense this season and in these Finals have been a revelation.
He didn't lock down Orlando's Dwight Howard as much as he slowed and frustrated the Magic's All-Star center. Howard may have averaged 16.5 points and 16.5 rebounds for the series, but Gasol made him work for every point and board. Gasol put up stellar numbers himself, including 14 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in the clincher on Sunday.
"I think the thing that helped us get to this level was the improvements that he made defensively," Bryant said. "He did a terrific job defensively for us all year, and particularly in this series."
Also, Gasol knows where he stands in the Lakers' hierarchy.
"I think as teammates we understand what kind of player he is, what he brings to the table, and we try to complement each other," Gasol said of Bryant. "I think what we've been doing well this year is understanding what our roles were, what our abilities are out there as individuals and make it work as a team."
In the end, that was the clarity every Lakers player needed in order to move forward from the loss last year to the Celtics. For Gasol, it was a little passing, a little shooting, a little dirty work and a lot of attention to the details.
"He's a wonderful basketball player," Cleamons said, "and a wonderful human being."
As we saw after he won the title tonight, that's something he won't check at the door.
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