Posted Apr 23 2011 2:35AM
NEW ORLEANS -- Seventeen points!
"Incredible, right?" Pau Gasol said, playing along.
"I mean, is that my career high?"
Has to be. Or his 2011 playoff high. Same thing in these panicky moments for Lakers fans.
"I had to play a little better tonight and get off that slump," Gasol said. "Just made better plays, was more decisive, hit a couple shots, and that was it."
Hit a couple shots. That was it.
Such a kidder.
That was everything. That -- 17 points and 10 rebounds while playing with a cold and sinus problems that left him sounding congested -- was the first Gasol sighting of these playoffs in the critical development of Friday night's 100-86 victory for the Lakers to provide a 2-1 lead over the Hornets in the best-of-seven first round.
He even hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock running down in the fourth quarter, his second of 2010-11 and 20th in 10 regular seasons and six-plus years of playoffs. Gasol went from practically never making one to connecting early in the fourth quarter of Game 3 that became the first step in the 12-3 rally that put the Lakers back in control.
Someone asked him in the locker room afterward where that shot came from.
"The corner," he deadpanned.
It was that kind of night. The Gasol Comeback Tour and Comedy Club, live from New Orleans Arena. A double-double, the unlikely shot that helped turn the momentum in the Lakers' favor for good, a few yucks.
He's back, with a vengeance and a laugh track.
"He's just too good a basketball player," coach Phil Jackson said. "He can shoot the basketball. He can handle the ball. He can do a lot of things. It's just a matter of him finding a comfort zone out there. I didn't expect him to find it out at the 3-point line, but we're not surprised when he makes those shots."
How about when he makes any shots?
It wasn't as bad as that, actually, or at least as bad as the numbers made it seem. Gasol was invisible in the opener, but a lot of Lakers were part of the traditional late-season move of leaning on the snooze button too long. He just got more of the criticism, and deservedly so, as an All-Star, the second-highest paid player on the team, and as the guy who got called out by Kobe Bryant. The only surprise was that Jackson didn't also take a swipe at Gasol in the ensuing days, with some snarky comment to the media or a straight-out rip.
If anything, Jackson was publicly supportive leading up to Game 3. With the Gasol questions predictably coming with each day, the coach noted the positives that he was seeing instead of the scoring and rebounding the Lakers were not getting.
It helped, of course, that L.A. won Game 2 to ease concerns about the direction of the entire team. A different outcome and Jackson may have gone into the psychology bag to motivate Gasol or anger Gasol into a solution or whatever it is that Phil does in those special moments of Zen-ness. Instead:
"As long as he doesn't worry about it and he stays doing what we have to get done as far as the team goes, I'm OK if he passes the ball and hits guys that are open and does the right thing," Jackson said. "The last game, he led us in assists. Those are the things he can still do. He can still make plays for us even though he doesn't score. But we'd like to have his offense out there. It makes it a lot easier for us."
Gasol averaged eight points and 5.5 rebounds the first two games while making 4 of 19 shots (21.1 percent), then went all the way to making 7 of 13 attempts Friday as the Lakers beat the Hornets for the sixth time in seven games of 2010-11. They had his offense out there. It made it a lot easier for them.
Gasol didn't appear fazed at all by the commotion of recent days. It helps to be used to it, which says everything about his time in L.A. He understands the frenzy that surrounds the Lakers and that he contributed greatly to the success that created such high expectations. But this wasn't exactly the first time he went deep undercover and got the death stare from Bryant.
Friday, he was back or on the path to back and feeling in a better rhythm, saying, "A little more than I did in the prior games. A little less frustrated. More focused, probably. More confident." Some night.
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