Better late than never, Pau finally showed up to the party.
Or rather, one big moment I feared might not happen at all. The moment Pau Gasol decided to announce his presence.
Last night's loss to the Cavs featured Pau in one of his worst games of the season. Tentative. Settling for jumpers and flipped shots --mostly missed--instead of driving on slower, bigger defenders like Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and making them work. Equally ineffective while bodying (sort of) Shaq on the other side of the ball. Crunch time collapses. Getting blocked at the rim twice distracted him enough to miss a key pair at the stripe. I don't travel with the team, so I couldn't verify if that debacle also sparked a failure to box out Anderson Varejao for a crucial rebound of missed second freebie by LeBron James (which trigger-effected Ron Artest into a loose ball foul), but Gasol admitted being displeased with himself.
In theory, the beauty of a back-to-back is the redemptive shot is presented that much sooner (in an earlier time zone to boot). But for much of this game, Pau didn't appear particularly geeked to cash in.
After connecting on his first shot, Pau often looked like a zombie, his energy low as he kept allowing David Lee oodles of space to can jumpers despite repeated makes. (During a postgame interview, Gasol told KCAL sideline reporter/ESPN Los Angeles.com's John Ireland the New York forward "got going and hit some jumpers we weren't counting on.") Missing his first two at the stripe, which felt like a nightmarish hangover continuing for a guy shooting 74 percent on a career (and nearly 85 percent as we speak). After getting subbed out in the first quarter for Lamar Odom (usually the time LO relieves Andrew Bynum, who put together a pretty nice 19/6 line in just 26 minutes), Pau's built on the ho-hum first quarter by doing... not a whole helluva lot more. With three quarters in the books and the Lakers trailing 85-84, Pau's box score entry was 10 points (an efficient-but-mousy 4-6 clip), three rebounds, one block and another early substitution in favor of Odom. In the meantime, the Lakers were putting up points by the bushel but failing to create separation. On yet another night where Kobe's shot failed him (8-24 for 27 points), the purple and gold needed a boost from the hombre often the difference between the Lakers being "good enough" or "seriously good."
That moment arrived during the fourth quarter
Suddenly, Gasol woke up and helped spark the push that eventually landed the Lakers a win. Ten points on 3-3 shooting. One miss in five tries at the line. Five rebounds. Three blocks. Two dimes, one a perfectly timed bounce pass to Kobe the instant he felt a double team coming. After Kobe canned a triple and bumped the lead to eleven, he clenched both fists and jutted that jaw, embodying the team-wide energy rising along with Pau's. Gasol's verve grew even further after he drew a charge on Lee, a sequence sandwiched between a hook shot basket and a score putting back LO's miss at the rim.
Not that Gasol was perfect during the final frame. There was a bobbling of a bullet pass from Kobe and the subsequent travel while trying to recovery, which blew as wide open a layup offering as he'll ever get. He got an earful from Phil Jackson after getting beaten badly down the floor by Lee for an eventual layup. Nor did he "win the game" for the Lakers. Odom collected fourteen boards. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar combined for twenty off the bench. Artest helped match New York's torrid first half with eleven early points and a trio of triples. Derek Fisher drew the offensive fouls seemingly only he can. Despite faulty aim, Kobe managed six assists and could have had a few more. But between the defensive breakdowns, 13 offensive rebounds allowed and big games from Lee and Wilson Chandler, plus a burst of Jordan Hill, those team-wide contributions weren't quite enough to leave the Knicks on the other side of the hump. Gasol's work down the stretch reminded once again how drastically the Lakers can change when he is (and isn't) present and accounted for.
And as a bonus, he had pledged a grand for every point scored towards relief in Haiti, so it was as truly meaningful a night as any for El Spaniard to finally come through.