Pau Gasol took a lot of flak when the Lakers bowed out in six games against an aggressive, physical Celtics team in 2008. Although Gasol is 7-feet tall, his critics derided him as a compromised big man, neither tough enough to perform the function of a traditional center or power forward nor stretchy enough to make offenses pay from deep. That fancy skill set -- the capacity to execute the high-low game, hit cutters, run the floor, find open pockets of space, launch hooks with a soft touch -- none of it was worth a thing when you were confined to a street fight against a team like Boston. Jeff Van Gundy described this sentiment during Thursday night's broadcast. "Everybody who knows basketball understands that when [the Lakers'] toughness was questioned, that was code for, 'Pau Gasol is soft and we can attack him,'" Van Gundy said.
Gasol was a convenient scapegoat for a team that couldn't find open looks against a stifling Boston defense. Perhaps Gasol wasn't sufficiently aggressive in the 2008 Finals, although the Lakers' inability to work inside had a lot more to do with the Celtics' defensive pressure than any real or perceived squishiness from the Lakers. Toughness can often be one of those self-fulfilling attributes -- absent until it suddenly becomes present at the moment of achievement.
On Thursday night in Game 1, the Lakers dominated the Celtics in the paint (48-30) and in second chance points (16-0). Kevin Garnett, often regarded as the paragon of intensity, spent most of his evening confined to the perimeter. Meanwhile Gasol set up shop at the elbow and, when he wanted to, down on the low block. Should we ascribe Gasol's success to toughness, or is it the fluency that comes with applying that varied skill set over and over and over again for more than 28 months in a system that runs on trust and precision?