LOS ANGELES – Pau Gasol(notes) never forgets the way Kevin Garnett(notes) belittled and humiliated him, treating the European's arrival to the NBA as an invitation to berate him with sharp words and sharper elbows. Gasol hates Garnett for it, they will tell you. There’s a visceral disdain that’s stayed with the Los Angeles Lakers star, an obsession that goes beyond beating Garnett, but embarrassing him.
When Gasol grabbed a rebound over Garnett late in the Lakers’ 102-89 Game 1 victory, missed a shot, grabbed the ball again and laid it into the basket, he couldn’t help himself. Out of nowhere, out of character, Gasol flexed his arms and screamed into the Staples Center din. It was an unmistakable mimic of K.G., a sarcastic ode to a bully he vows will never take his lunch money again.
Over these 2½ seasons with the Lakers, Gasol has slowly, surely, shed his inhibitions and developed a tougher, saltier shell. It comes with the way he talks, the way he carries himself and, most of all, the way he obliterates people on the court. For two years, he’s listened to everyone talk about how the Celtics pounded him in the NBA Finals, how the resistance of his 7 feet of skin and bones was futile to Garnett’s fury.
Gasol listened to it all and beat Dwight Howard(notes) and the Orlando Magic for a championship in 2009, but Game 1 of these Finals became where Gasol started to exact his revenge and transform his image forever. He gave Garnett a beating: 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. All night at Staples, he gave Garnett hell.
Most of all, Gasol delivered Garnett an unmistakable message: All your yelling, chest pounding and tough-guy snarl can’t defend me anymore. As Gasol steps into his prime, a sliding Garnett will be offered no mercy, no quarter.
“He attacked us,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “If you heard for two years what you couldn’t do, you’re probably going to come in and try to prove that. I thought Gasol proved a lot.”
Gasol is a genius in the low post with footwork and touch like no one else in the world. With Kobe Bryant(notes) dropping 30 points on the Celtics, the complement of Gasol inside makes the Lakers unbeatable. Two years later, Gasol has Andrew Bynum(notes) on the floor with him, too.
Together, they crushed the Celtics in second-chance points (16-0) and points in the paint (48-30). The Lakers walked into the Staples Center as defending champions and behaved accordingly. They hit first and again, and never stopped coming at the Celtics.
This started with Gasol, who grows so weary of the nitpicking on his toughness that forever belies the way with which his immense skill can dominate games. On the eve of Game 1, you could sense Gasol fortifying himself for the onslaught of tenacity and tumult that comes out of Garnett.
“If anything, I try to use that to motivate me and get me pissed, pissed off and really attack him,” Gasol said. “I’m not that kind of player. I don’t talk trash. I don’t need to talk to you about anything.”
So much has changed in these two years since the ’08 Finals, and much of it centers on Garnett’s advancing age and deteriorating body. Garnett was ruthless, but those days are over. He’s still a good player, but no longer great. When he needed lift to finish near the basket, he couldn’t summon it. When he needed lateral quickness to stay with Gasol, it was gone.
“I’m better than what I was tonight,” Garnett said. “I played like [expletive].”
Privately, the Celtics’ worse fears were that Garnett couldn’t make it strong to the finish. Antawn Jamison(notes) had his moments in the conference semifinals, but never outplayed Garnett. Rashard Lewis(notes) was easy for K.G. because he’s so one-dimensional catching and shooting from deep. Gasol is different, “The best post player in the world, maybe one of the most-skilled ever,” Lamar Odom(notes) said. Gasol is going to take Garnett inside and out, and show him how he’s mastered that triangle offense since his arrival to the Lakers.
When the Lakers traded for Gasol 2½ years ago, those close to him spoke of his uncertainty of stepping out of the small-market Memphis shadows and into the bright lights, big stage of Los Angeles. As much as anything, Bryant made Gasol’s toughness and resolve a project of his. He worked him over mentally and physically in practices. Kobe destroyed him with a hard screen in a USA-Spain game at the 2008 Olympics, a reminder that what Gasol had given him in those NBA Finals wasn’t nearly enough.
Between then and now, Gasol has become one of the 10 best players on the planet, an NBA champion, but his work won’t be done until he makes Garnett and these Celtics treat him with respect. He remembers how Garnett mistreated him, how far over the line he went to belittle his Spaniard brethren, Jose Calderon(notes) of the Toronto Raptors.
Gasol isn’t just chasing a championship in these Finals, but retribution. He’s going to score and rebound over Garnett, scream in his face and exact every bit of retribution that he believes is owed him. Pau Gasol wants his lunch money back, and he’s coming for Kevin Garnett now, coming with a vengeance.