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Scott Howard-Cooper

Pau Gasol's aggressive play in Game 1 of The Finals should quell any doubts about his toughness.
Lisa Brumfield/NBAE/Getty Images

Gasol proving doubters wrong with tough inside game

Posted Jun 4 2010 7:12AM

LOS ANGELES -- There was the primal scream that capped a breakaway dunk, the clinched hands and outstretched arms with straining muscles that punctuated a power move to the rim, and the waist-high, dice-rolling fist pump that underlined an assist on the short Lamar Odom jumper, gyration after celebratory gyration Thursday night.

But mostly, there was a simple statement. Not from Pau Gasol himself, whose response was contained among the 23 points and 14 rebounds while Kevin Garnett scrounged 16 and four. From Doc Rivers.

"If you heard for two years what you couldn't do," the Celtics coach said, "you're probably going to try to come in and try to prove that, and I thought Gasol proved a lot tonight."

Two years. This game had been two years, countless insults and 185 regular-season and playoff appearances in coming. Two years of toughness questions, two years of accusations about being unable to stand up to the physical Celtics front line, two years of building his reputation in every way except responding to the nightmare of shrinking through the 2008 Finals against Boston.

The '09 championship series against Orlando? That was impressive. Gasol spent a lot of time rumbling inside with Dwight Howard, not chasing middleweight Rashard Lewis around the perimeter, and his length gave the best center in the world problems. But it wasn't the Celtics, and Gasol needed the dreaded rivals, the very same Celtics, to earn true public redemption.

Thursday, he got them.

Insert primal scream here.

The first quarter, Gasol had four rebounds and made all three shots.

By halftime, he was at 11 points and seven rebounds, six boards more than Garnett.

At the end of the 102-89 Lakers victory at Staples Center in Game 1 of the Revenge Tour, Gasol had more rebounds than anyone, more blocks (three) than anyone and more points than anyone except Kobe Bryant (30) and Boston's Paul Pierce (24). L.A. as a whole had the advantage on all the important inside categories -- 42-31 in rebounding, 48-30 in points in the paint, 16-0 in second-chance points -- in what became one giant push back at an opponent and an image.

"What I see from him is just the little actions that represent not-backing-down type of things," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Getting hit, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other with the mentality to look at the referee or wonder about the blow and the legitimacy of it. Those are the things he's learned in the last year and a half or two."

There it is again.

Two years ago.

"For me, it was important just to play hard, be aggressive and help out as much as possible out there, win the first game," Gasol said, downplaying any potential image repair. "That was my mindset tonight. There was no statements to be made. My goal, our goal, is to win the championship, not just the first game and not just to make a statement right now. Obviously we're very happy with the result tonight, but now we've just got to focus for Game 2.

"I was ready. I was just ready to play. I like the challenge, and I'm ready to step up and play. That's all I did."

Hardly. Whether he would admit it or not, whether he knew it or not, it was a moment beyond the start of the biggest series of the season. It was, actually, the biggest series of his life.

Dig a trench and jump in, and he's a battler intent on bloodying the other guy this time.

Flinch again, and there'd better be another two years of ear plugs handy.

The answer came immediately.

Here's your shovel back, Celtics. It's been used.

"He was more aggressive," Rivers said. "He attacked us. I thought he was the best player on the floor. I thought he made terrific plays, terrific passes, shot when he should shoot. Yeah, he's better."

Another simple statement. Simple, and screaming and fist-pumping, two years later.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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