PAU GASOL: Follow My Lead

When he steps into the bright lights of STAPLES Center this Sunday for Game One of the Lakers' First Round series against the Denver Nuggets, Pau Gasol will officially be entering uncharted territory.

While the Spanish star played in playoff games as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, he has never gone into the postseason with a legitimate chance of wining it all.

"With the Grizzlies, through the years that I've been there, it's always been rebuilding, it's been youth, it's been uncertainty, it's been a lot of changes so that doesn't give you any stability or consistency to get to the goals that the Lakers organization has," said Gasol, still looking like he is struggling to comprehend the stunning midseason trade that brought him to Los Angeles.

"We were a good team, a solid team, we had really good regular seasons, but we were inexperienced as far as the playoff level and we paid that price."

Like a shark smelling blood in water, Pau has taken his teammates' lead-most notably that of fellow superstar Kobe Bryant-and heads into the playoffs this year with his eyes squarely focused on the ultimate prize.

"It's exciting, it's challenging because you have to play your best and you want to be your best since you're next to one of the best so definitely, it's motivating and inspiring," said Gasol about playing with the player (Bryant) whom he considers the most talented he has ever shared a floor with.

With the Lakers' fabled history serving as his guide, Gasol knows he is no longer in Tennessee anymore.

"…I think the mentality of this franchise is the main thing; the history of this franchise, you expect to win and look to win every single year and build this team to win championships," said Gasol.

When the Lakers traded for the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship MVP, they knew they were getting a player with an offensive repertoire that was as polished as any big man in the game today. As it turns out, they also acquired a natural-born leader.

"I think the international stage and international competition gives you experience, gives you knowledge about what it takes to win and what you have to do," said Gasol. "You can play as hard anywhere. All players look for one thing and that's the gold medal and I know how that feels to get there."

Even though Pau has yet to sweat it out in the NBA Finals, he is more than accustomed to playing amidst incredible expectations.

"I think in both situations, now here with the Lakers and with the national team, we always have an opportunity to be great and to win and contend for championships and get real high and deep in our competition," said Gasol.

While Pau's initial months in the purple and gold were something of an extended honeymoon, the center admits that his recent ankle injury brought him-and the team-back down to earth. But, the time off also allowed him to reflect on his stroke of much-deserved good fortune.

"Obviously, it's been a big change for me and I've been nothing but thankful and grateful to have the opportunity and it's been working out pretty good," said an inspired Gasol with an air of modesty that is all but unheard of in his new city.

Averaging almost 19 points and eight rebounds since joining L.A., Pau's impact has been felt far beyond the stat sheet as he's single-handedly rejuvenated the game's best player in Kobe Bryant and provided newfound hope for the Lakers' loyal fan base.

"It's (winning a championship) always been one of my goals and I was hoping before this trade happened, that one day before my career ended that I would have this opportunity," said Gasol. "It came at this time and it is definitely something I want to take advantage of."

"Whatever it takes for me to do to win at the playoff level, that's what I want to do, no matter what it is."

Banished to one of the smallest markets in the league, Pau knows that this is his first real shot at achieving his elusive NBA championship dreams.

"Everybody's on the right page, on the same page," said Gasol. "We all are pursuing one thing and its winning and team success. We are over the individual stuff and we all pursue that collective success."

While the final chapter of the center's magical season is just beginning, the Lakers are following Pau's lead in what they hope will be a storybook ending.