Posted May 21 2010 7:41PM
LOS ANGELES -- Rescued and reenergized 28 months ago, Pau Gasol finds himself two wins shy of his third consecutive NBA Finals.
"It's a great habit to pick up, to get used to," he said. "Not just being here, but doing what it takes to get here individually and collectively. We're a fortunate group as far as how hard we've been working, how well we play together and how far we're getting. We want to continue to be hungry and continue to accomplish more things."
Gasol and the Lakers lead the Western Conference finals 2-0 with Game 3 coming Sunday at Phoenix. Should the defending champs close the deal against the Suns, it'll be the 31st time Los Angeles' original NBA franchise plays for a title.
That staggering level of success -- the Lakers also own 15 championships -- can make for unrealistic expectations. For the likes of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, being on the league's grandest stage in late June is almost a rite of passage.
It wasn't that long ago that the second round stood as Gasol's personal Holy Grail. Actually, just winning one playoff game was. The 7-foot Spaniard led the Grizzlies to the postseason for three straight years (2004-06) -- no small feat in itself -- during his six-plus years in Memphis.
Gasol's playoff record before joining the Purple & Gold stood as a frustrating 0-12. Three first-round sweeps had Gasol wondering if NBA life could ever get better. It did, but only after it got worse.
The Grizzlies got off to a 6-24 start to 2006-07, leading to the firing of Mike Fratello. A fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs wasn't happening. Trade rumors were, and most dealt with Gasol. He knew it was time to move on.
"It's tough," Gasol said. "Sometimes it happens where young, talented players get caught in franchises that might not have a chance. They're always relying on getting really good draft picks to survive and compete, and not really investing on really good free agents that are going to complete your team and surround your talent.
"Sometimes it happens and you have to get lucky."
Getting trading to the Lakers qualifies. The Feb. 1, 2008 deal has gone down as the one of the most lopsided in NBA history, but it seems appropriate for a franchise with such pedigree. The Lakers have been in roughly half of The Finals since the league's inception.
Gasol quickly fit in, earning the trust of Bryant and his teammates from the start. Gasol's combination of size, soft hands and unmatched footwork made for a perfect fit in Jackson's post-centric offense.
"The triangle works from the inside-out, so you have to have big guys that can make plays," Bryant said. "That's the key to have bigs that are passers and are willing passers and have high basketball IQ, and he has all of it."
Skill is only part of Gasol's appeal. His willingness to do what it takes to win, regardless of what is asked, will always be appreciated in a locker room housing Bryant. Gasol filled in at center for an injured Andrew Bynum two years ago during the march to The Finals, taking on the physical rigors of the position. He took his lumps against Boston, as did the Lakers, but Gasol came back stronger last season.
The Lakers completed an impressive 16-7 title march with Gasol averaging 18.3 points and a club-best 10.8 rebounds. He's stepped it up during this run. Gasol's 21 points are second on the team to Bryant (27.5) and 12 boards are third overall in the playoffs.
"He's scoring, obviously, that's important to us," Jackson said of Gasol, "but we really value the defense that he's able to give us against screen-and-roll."
Gasol has especially punished the Suns through two games, averaging 25 points and shooting a sizzling 65.6 percent. He's almost made it look easy. Bryant, for one, isn't surprised that Gasol has taken his game up a notch.
"When playoff time comes around, the big guns got to step up," Bryant said. "That's the only way your team is going to advance because your players that apply the most pressure on the defense have to be able to do that. If they're struggling, then defenses don't have to adjust."
Gasol still had a black eye Friday from a Game 1 collision. He shrugged it off, much as he has Suns defenders through two games. But he's hardly getting ahead of himself despite the Lakers' dominant performance so far against Phoenix.
This isn't old hat for Gasol just yet.
"You've got to understand what you're playing for here," he said. "It's the Western Conference finals. You're two wins away from The Finals. That's how you keep yourself from being relaxed, too confident. You understand that every game is huge."
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