Posted May 7 2011 9:57AM
DALLAS -- Trust issues?
Forget Andrew Bynum's stirring, insightful commentary about the Lakers chemistry after Game 2 of these Western Conference semifinals, hitting close enough to earn a rebuke from VP Magic Johnson. That's nothing in the updated damage report. Try Pau Gasol after this series, after the entire 2011 playoffs, after everything that has gone horribly wrong the last three weeks.
Can the Lakers ever feel safe relying heavily on Gasol again? There's your trust issue.
Ten seasons in the league, seven trips to the playoffs, two times an NBA champion, four All-Star appearances, a trip to the Olympics, another to the heated world championships ... and crumbling before their very eyes. A player who has climbed to the highest plateaus is losing confidence by the game. The Lakers are losing 3-0 to the Mavericks, and Gasol is being shown up by Dirk Nowitzki, even as coach Phil Jackson desperately tries to prop him up for one final push for the threepeat.
The season has been lost, whether by an unimaginable sweep completed here Sunday afternoon or elimination within the next three games after that, but this has become about so much more than 2010-11 ending in flames. For all he proved as the ideal running mate on back-to-back championship teams, Gasol playing in the fetal position makes him undependable all over again and, worse, exactly the kind of shrinking player that demon competitor Kobe Bryant would not want on his team.
There was no such assessment from within the locker room late Friday night after the 98-92 loss to a Mavericks roster that did play with fortitude, again, but the conversation is unavoidable at some point. Gasol's performance and body language when the Lakers need him most has been that bad.
The important disclaimer: It matters not at all how much Gasol is getting scorched by fans and the media. L.A. management has never run a popularity contest, so the public flogging that has accelerated to warp speed the last few days will have no impact on internal conversations on how to move forward.
Plus, Gasol has proven he can stand the pressure. The Lakers don't win either of the last two crowns without the perfect complementary players for Bryant in the complicated Jackson offense. That has to count for something.
"Can a series like this and a playoffs like this undo all the good that you had the previous two seasons?" I asked Gasol after the 12 points and eight rebounds in 40 minutes at American Airlines Center.
"You tell me," he came right back with an icy stare but no anger in his voice. "Can it?"
"Should it? Gasol said. "I don't know. I don't think so."
This was in hushed tones in a quiet visitor's locker room empty for all but a couple dozen media members, a few members of the Lakers support staff and the last players getting dressed for the bus ride back to the hotel. Gasol, to his credit, did not duck anything. He stood back to a row of stalls against one wall and answered all the questions.
"Pau," another reporter began, "those of us who have covered you think you don't look like you. You look like a different guy. What do you think is going on?"
"Just haven't been able to be effective," he said. "I haven't been able to be comfortable out there. I just have to snap out of it really, so I can do my part."
"What is making you uncomfortable?"
"Nothing really that they're doing, to be honest with you. It's not the first time that I've seen or played these kinds of games against these kinds of teams against these kinds of defenses. It is what it is."
"What level of responsibility do you feel personally for the situation you're in right now," someone asked him, meaning the 0-3 deficit that no team has overcome in NBA history.
"Obviously I feel a certain level," Gasol said. "I don't know how much, but definitely I don't like it and I'm upset that I'm not performing as well as I think I should."
Back to me.
"Is your confidence shaken at all?"
"Obviously there's some tension inside of me, I guess," he said, still not ducking. "You can see it. It's tangible."
"When you say it's tangible, as far as the tension, can you describe that? Elaborate on that a little bit?"
"Elaborate?" Gasol replied.
He chuckled, perhaps a nervous laugh, perhaps at finding the question silly.
"Obviously when you're not playing as well as you can, it's frustrating," he said. "So you get frustrated at certain times. You've just got to try to be more decisive out there. When you finish a couple plays and you're successful on a few plays, you keep getting that confidence and that tension goes away. But if you don't, then it seems like it keeps building up a little bit."
Or a lot. Jackson was so frustrated in the first quarter that he smacked Gasol in the chest to punctuate a point when Gasol came to the bench for a timeout, an unheard of reaction by Jackson. In the third quarter, after Jason Terry picked Gasol, despite Lakers coaches having told him before not to hold the ball in such a vulnerable position where a guard could get it, Jackson got in Gasol's face in an animated fashion to start another timeout.
Frustration and a cracking confidence were everywhere, and now there may only be Sunday left to extend the season another game and for Gasol to help salvage his insides. There are important matters at hand, and not just 2010-11 matters. Real trust issues.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. 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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