LOS ANGELES -- With Kobe Bryant (temporarily) some 6,000 miles away in Germany and Dwight Howard (permanently) some 1,500 miles away in Houston, Pau Gasol had plenty of room to operate on the court for the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.
Gasol had 13 shot attempts in 23 minutes in the Lakers' 97-88 loss to the Denver Nuggets. While he didn't shoot the ball all that well (4-for-13 for 13 points) in his preseason debut and the first organized game he's played in more than five months, just the sheer amount of touches was a welcome change for the 13-year veteran.
"I think that's a good indication of how much liberty and how much my teammates also trust me to make plays and make shots and then, when the defense collapses, find them," Gasol said after the game.
It was also a far cry from last season, when he was often positioned at the elbow to create space for Howard, while Bryant was left cajoling Gasol to buck the system for his own benefit.
"He tells me to run to the post, take [position] and screw everything else," Gasol said last season, sharing Bryant's message to him.
Now, it's sanctioned by coach Mike D'Antoni, too.
"I don't want to run to it all the time, but a good portion of the game, I want to be able to operate from that position and make plays," Gasol said.
Even Nick Young, who hardly ever sees a shot he doesn't take (he has had 25 shot attempts in 45 minutes through the first two preseason games), knows that getting Gasol involved is part of the plan.
"Of course, we got to feed that big man, Pau," Young said. "Let him go to work."
Steve Nash, who should have the ball in his hands more this season deciding where it will go, spoke about the importance of going to Gasol.
"He’s going to be very central to what we do," Nash said. "He’s somebody that we want to run the offense through a lot -- get him in pick-and-rolls, get him on the post, get him on the elbow -- and have him involved and be a threat as much as possible."
There's been a lot of positive vibes surrounding Gasol during training camp. General manager Mitch Kupchak predicted he'll return to All-Star level. D'Antoni has commented on how fresh his center looks after undergoing a procedure on both of his knees during the offseason. Gasol is exercising caution when it comes to his personal expectations.
"I take it one day at at time," Gasol said. "I can't really get too excited or too hyped when things go well or feel well. It's a long season. It's my 13th season in the NBA, and this year, I want to have a great year, personally and collectively. So, I'm just going to continue to work every day, stay focused, stay locked into what I have to do to make sure I do my part to be able to perform my best.
"Hopefully, I'll be back in the All-Star team this year, but you have to earn that."
Denver coach Brian Shaw was an assistant with the Lakers when Gasol made three of his four All-Star appearances and won two championships. He knows all about Gasol earning his place in the league and said that Gasol can resume that success.
"I think he’s one of the most skilled big men in the game, still to this day," Shaw said. "He’s had to endure coaching changes and philosophy changes right when he was probably getting to the point where he was the most settled. So, that’s an adjustment, and playing [in Los Angeles] -- there’s a lot of pressure that comes with it. But, I think they’ll be able to get a training camp under their belt under D’Antoni, and I think he’ll get back up to the level that people around here are expecting him to play at."