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Vince Thomas

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Pau Gasol, you could argue, has been the MVP of The Finals so far.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

'Soft guy' Gasol toughens up to become big man for L.A.


Posted Jun 8 2010 11:09AM

The annoying and slightly childish aspect of the way Pau Gasol's pre-Game 2 comment about Kevin Garnett losing a step was played -- it was, after all, factual and totally devoid of disrespect -- was the winking going on between media and fans. It's like we were running to the school's bad-boy to rat out the school punk.

"Psssst. Hey, tough-guy, you know that punk with the frizzy hair and accent? Yeah, he said you were a sissy. What ya gonna do now? You gonna end him?"

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What did we expect? I guess we thought KG was going to come into Game 2, make Pau whiz in his pants and kick his butt up and down the court.

Not so much. Ray Allen was sublime and Rajon Rondo was virtuosic. But, a case could be made that, for the second straight game, Pau Gasol was the best player on the floor. He followed up his 23-point, 14-board, three-block Game 1 with 25 points, eight boards and six blocks. Clearly, again, he was the best big man. And, at some point, I'm gonna need everyone to stop clowning this dude like he's some yellow-back schmuck afraid of some men in green jerseys.

Gasol is the consensus "best second-best" player in the league, right? Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Josh Smith, Paul Pierce (or Rondo), Caron Butler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups, Carlos Boozer, Manu Ginobili (or Tim Duncan), David West, Chris Kaman, you name him -- he's not better than Pau. In fact, Pau is so good that -- forget "best second-best" -- he's probably the second best player in the Finals overall. 1) Kobe, 2) Pau and then 3) (insert best Celtic). That's where we're at.

Of all the differences between the 2008 Finals and this 2010 version, Pau's development, toughening and arrival is the biggie.

Pau was still a gifted, skilled and cerebral ballplayer in 2008, but he didn't have any mettle. That's what championship runs and, sometimes, humiliating defeats can do for the best players. In 2008, Pau was still very much a complementary player. He had been with the Lakers for a little more than three months when he found himself in a championship street-fight with the Cs. He wasn't ready.

It's not like that was his nature. The Cs physicality and intimidation tactics absolutely threw the Spaniard off his game. His numbers weren't bad -- about 15 and 10 -- but his effort was. The Lakers needed more out him and he didn't fight through and give it to them. Things have changed now. Gasol still has his moments that can frustrate 24/7 maniac-competitors like Kobe, but -- don't get it twisted -- Gasol is a legitimate Laker anchor.

When Kobe went to the bench in the second half with foul trouble, Pau directed traffic and held down the fort. He even barked at Shannon Brown for not feeding him the ball (as Kobe has said, "Pau eats first down there"). Translation: "Don't go to anyone else for right now. These tough guys can't check me." That's how an anchor gets down. Two full seasons and championship runs after his 2008 undressing and Pau is finally a grown man.

The next three road games will be a big test. The crowd will be hostile and the Celtic bigs will play with even more swag. I don't expect Pau to throw three straight 25-10s, but I also don't expect for him to disappear for entire games or get chumped. He's not that guy anymore.

And do you want to know what might really flip you out? Kobe will probably continue to have difficulty against the Celtics' boa constrictor perimeter D. He might not be able to swoop in like a hero and save the Lakers, similar to how he failed to close Game 2. If the Lakers actually end up pulling out this series (and I think they will), it may have just as much to do with Pau outplaying the Celtic bigs as Kobe playing hero.

Yep, "soft" Pau might cop the Bill Russell trophy next week. Ask KG what he thinks about that.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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