The Los Angeles Lakers had eliminated the Phoenix Suns to secure their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and Pau Gasol(notes) was on his way to the team bus. He knew where he was headed, but also where he had come from. Gasol is increasingly recognized as the game's greatest power forward, but he hasn't forgotten that more than a few people questioned two years ago whether he had the mettle to help Kobe Bryant(notes) win a championship.
Kevin Garnett(notes) and the Boston Celtics manhandled Gasol in the 2008 Finals, overwhelming the Lakers' frontline on their way to the championship. Now, Gasol gets another crack at the Celtics and a chance to show how much he has grown in these two years.
"I just remember all the criticizing after the Finals," Gasol told Yahoo! Sports. "Nothing was really made of the fact that we got there and what we did to get there and the things we did well. I was one of the people that the media focused on sticking and criticizing."
Gasol had helped make the Lakers into a contender after the Memphis Grizzlies traded him to L.A. midway through the 2007-08 season. They rolled into the Finals and were considered favorites to beat the Celtics. Garnett, however, was hardly impressed. He set the tone for the series in Game 1 when he got physical with Gasol and totaled 24 points and 13 rebounds, a performance that included a powerful put-back dunk late in the Celtics' victory.
Garnett – and Kendrick Perkins(notes) and Leon Powe(notes) – continued to push Gasol around during the remainder of the series. Privately, the Celtics mocked the Lakers' so-called savior. Media and fans derided Gasol as "soft," a label that clung to him for much of his career in Memphis. During Boston's championship-clinching rout of the Lakers in Game 6, Gasol finished with more turnovers (five) than baskets (four). He averaged just 12.1 points during the series.
"He competes hard. He makes you work," Gasol said of Garnett. "You got to be ready for him."
No one questions Gasol's versatility; he's able to score in the post, shoot outside and take his man off the dribble. The knock on him in the past is that he relied too heavily on his skills and didn't put enough time in the weight room. That changed after he was battered by the Celtics.
"The motivation came from the loss and how bad it felt," Gasol said. "I just understand and realized that each day you can get better, you really can get better. That was really the motivation. The Game 6 blowout that we took – that was key."
Gasol found some solace in leading Spain to the gold-medal game in the Beijing Olympics later that summer. With Garnett sidelined by a knee injury and no longer standing in his way, Gasol then helped the Lakers win last season's title by beating the Orlando Magic in the Finals.
Gasol has averaged 20 points and 10.9 rebounds in this year's playoffs while battling the Utah Jazz's Carlos Boozer(notes) and the Suns' Amar'e Stoundemire in the West semifinals and finals. The Celtics' frontline, however, represents his biggest test, even if Garnett isn't playing at the same level he did two years ago. Garnett appeared to grow stronger in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but there's no denying that his knee injury has robbed him of some of his explosiveness. This is for sure: K.G.'s competitiveness hasn't waned.
"I really don't know much about [Garnett's injury], but it looks healthier than he was halfway through the season when you really thought he was limping," Gasol said. "But now, he's playing at a high level. He played really, really well against Cleveland. He played on a high level against Orlando. I'm sure they are expecting him to play at a high level against us."
What hasn't changed: Garnett continues to try to intimidate his opponents, if not physically, then verbally. Lakers coach Phil Jackson described the Celtics' efforts as a "smackdown mentality."
"That's not our kind of team," Jackson said. "We don't go out there to smack people around. I call it more resiliency."
Gasol will need to stand strong for the Lakers to win. He's a more confident player – and more tested – than he was two years ago. He also seems ready for whatever woofing or shoving Garnett gives him.
"That's all right," Gasol said. "I'm a really experienced player and I like to compete, too.
"It's a precious opportunity and no team wants to waste it. That's the bottom line: Who wants it more and is going to do what it takes to get it."