Pau Gasol reminds us what he can be

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was a come-full-circle kind of day for Pau Gasol.

It was five years ago Friday that Gasol was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Los Angeles Lakers -- a tenure with the team that has included three All-Star appearances, three trips to the Finals and two NBA titles -- and yet Gasol needed Dwight Howard's latest injury just to crack the starting lineup again.

I know, the Oscars are this month, but forget " Life of Pi" and consider Life of Pau.

With Howard out indefinitely (he's listed as day-to-day, but earlier in the season Steve Blake got platelet-rich plasma therapy from the same Dr. Steven Yoon whom Howard is going to see Saturday and Blake was told the PRP takes seven to 10 days to kick in), Gasol will be asked to start regularly. He'll have the offense run through him again in the post both early (13 points in the first quarter in the Lakers' 111-100 win over Minnesota on Friday) and late (nine points in the fourth, including five in a row after the Timberwolves had cut the Lakers' 29-point lead down to just four). He'll be the team's primary focus on the block for the first time since Phil Jackson was the coach.

And his reward will be either going back to the bench when Howard returns or maybe even boosting his trade stock at the perfect time with the Feb. 21 deal deadline fast approaching.

Now, you could say the $19 million salary Gasol is raking in this season should be reward enough, but the point is the guy who wears No. 16 for the Lakers is in a classic catch-22 situation.

The juxtaposition of what he can still be -- a starting center who put up 22 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against the Wolves while showing the soft shooting stroke to allow him to go 5-for-5 on free throws and 1-for-1 from 3-point range -- was strikingly apparent against what he is: a 32-year-old in his 12th season who says he's playing through a pain level of 6 to 7 in his knees because of tendinitis, and 7 to 8 in his right foot because of fasciitis and who scored 20 or more points for just the third time in 34 games played this season.

"It's been a rough, rough season so far," Gasol said after the Lakers' victory brought the team to a 21-26 record and gave L.A. its first road victory of 2013. The Lakers had gone 0-8 since last winning a game away from Staples Center, against Golden State on Dec. 22. "There's no way around it. But you just stay with it, keep playing. You never know when things can change direction and you just got to just play your game when you're out there. Tonight, I was able to start, play more minutes, get a good flow, and it was a good game."

Gasol said starting felt "like the good, old days," and Kobe Bryant made it sound as if those days never left.

"Nothing that Laker fans haven't seen for the past five years," Bryant said. "Honestly, it's not like a big deal. When he's featured, this is what he does. It's nothing out of the ordinary. It's not anything that's unexpected. This is the Pau that helped us get back-to-back championships."

Metta World Peace, who won one of those rings with Gasol, didn't want to make a big deal of it either.

"Pau went to the championship three years in a row, I mean, come on," World Peace said. "If he plays great, I'm not like, 'Wow.'"

However, before the Lakers embarked on their seven-game road trip, Gasol had a moment that made many people go 'Wow,' when he openly griped about being benched in the fourth quarter, even though the Lakers won their game against the New Orleans Hornets.

That night, Gasol played as effectively as he can -- seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists as he racked up a plus-21 in 21 minutes -- and he didn't play in the fourth quarter as the Hornets cut the Lakers' 18-point lead to one, because coach Mike D'Antoni decided he liked the feel of Antawn Jamison out there running more of the spread offense he's used to rather than trying to find a way to play Gasol and Howard at the same time.

It was tough to see, Gasol barely batting an eyelash while his teammates went crazy with celebration on the bench around him when Steve Nash hit a late bucket to seal the game against the Hornets. That's not the guy he is. That's not what he's all about.

D'Antoni said at Friday's shootaround that he doesn't have any personality conflict with Gasol and that he likes him, but it's apparent the coach and the player see Gasol's game dramatically different. To D'Antoni, Gasol is a highly skilled center who can flourish as the lone post guy in his system -- but that leaves him as a backup in L.A. because the coach and the team's priority is to play Howard No. 1 to keep him happy on offense so that Howard brings the defensive effort he's capable of and also to keep him engaged so he'll want to re-sign with the Lakers in the offseason. Meanwhile, Gasol looks at himself as a world-class player, one who nearly single-handedly led a Spain upset of USA Basketball's Hall of Fame-laden roster in the gold-medal game at the Olympics last summer.

He'll get back to being that guy for the time being. Nash said after the game that Gasol is "going to have a more central role," but everyone involved knows that will change to become more fringe when L.A.'s other center returns from his shoulder injury.

Yes, it felt like the good old days for Pau Gasol on Friday.

But, with the way the Lakers are set up right now, it's hard to see too many more good new days coming down the pike featuring Gasol. Happy anniversary, indeed.