LOS ANGELES – The stateside resistance to the European player has been vast and vicious. The American basketball culture has had a bad habit of dismissing Pau Gasol(notes) with its tired and twisted refrain: The Spaniard is soft.
This foolishness has never inspired public indignation out of the Los Angeles Lakers' star, no defiant declarations that he'll show everyone the truth. Gasol is too smart to get overworked over American small-mindedness masquerading as fear of a burgeoning base of overseas talent. Secure in his immense talent, his Euro and NBA credentials, the resentment doesn't rule him.
"Because a guy has a set of skills and is more of a finesse player, then he's labeled as a soft player," Gasol said. "I'm not bothered by it because I know I'm a competitor. I've competed my whole career and nobody has given me anything. …
"I'm a winner."
Once again, Gasol made his case. He raised his fists into the air Sunday night, the purple and gold streamers dancing down to the Staples Center floor. The Lakers had survived a blown layup at the regulation buzzer, an Orlando Magic lob that could've reshaped everything in these NBA Finals.
Yet, Courtney Lee(notes) missed and that'll be a play that the Magic will remember a long, long time. These Lakers are too talented, too tested, to let games get away like they did in Game 2. Lee missed, and Gasol made the Magic pay a steep price. As much as anything, Gasol will be remembered as the biggest reason Kobe Bryant(notes) wins a championship without Shaquille O'Neal(notes). As much as anything, he has been the salvation of a forlorn franchise.
For everything that Gasol had to exert in the exhausting defense of the Magic's Dwight Howard(notes), he still delivered 24 points and 10 rebounds in the Lakers' 101-96 overtime victory. Game 2 was a testament to his resourcefulness and resolve. Gasol doesn't beat you with overpowering strength, but understated savvy.
"His hand-eye coordination is remarkable for someone that size," the Lakers' Lamar Odom(notes) said. "He never drops the ball. He's great at catching and delivering really quick, keeping the basketball high. He's one of the best basketball players I've ever played with."
Soft doesn't survive as Kobe's co-star. Soft doesn't thrive with his body entangled in Dwight Howard.
This isn't football, where sheer physical strength is far more rewarded with results. This is basketball, where the game will forever reward the simple genius of passing and catching and shooting the ball. His footwork is magnificent, a European staple that comes from a generation of soccer players who eventually picked up the ball and started bouncing it.
He doesn't treat basketball in the obsessive way that Bryant does. He goes to museums and concerts and sits for hours in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee. Gasol was the perfect complement to Bryant – tough enough to take Bryant's berating, but smart enough to compartmentalize the cursing and be wiser for it. It helps that Bryant grew up in Europe, and sometimes even speaks Spanish to Gasol on the floor.
All along, the question has been for Los Angeles: Would Gasol and Odom be there when Bryant needed them most? Those two were hit the hardest in last season's Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, but remember something: Bryant played lousy too. Without Andrew Bynum(notes), the Lakers' frontline was overmatched. With him, maybe they were too. For Gasol, it was the deepest he had ever gone into the playoffs, the most he had ever demanded of his body. As usual, his self-critique was brutally honest.
"I fell short at the end," Gasol said. "I ran out of energy and couldn't deliver."
Not this time, not these Finals.
When Lakers center Bynum got into foul trouble, it was Gasol defending the Magic's monolith in the middle. Yes, Gasol has worked harder in the weight room this season, but it wasn't brawn that discombobulated Howard. Gasol pushed Howard to the baseline on defense, which allowed another Laker, or two, to trap him and inspire an unseemly seven turnovers.
"They're frustrating me," Howard sighed later.
When Bryant turned the ball over and missed shots and had his own jumper blocked at the fourth-quarter buzzer, Gasol had his back. He made overtime his own, and made the Magic forever regret that they didn't close out Game 2 when they had the chance. Gasol had seven points in OT, including a three-point play when Howard cracked him good on a layup.
The basket was immense – extending the Lakers to a 97-91 lead – and it came out of the bond between Bryant and Gasol. "Their whole defense is cocked toward me and Pau, so we're in constant dialogue," Bryant said. "There are adjustments we make on the fly. We had been trying to time that up the right way the whole game."
Right player, right time. Gasol is the anti-Shaq in every way, the perfectly measured and cool complement to Kobe's fire and ferocity. These are different times for the Lakers, a different cast. They are beating the Magic 2-0 as this best-of-seven series goes to Orlando now, and the most rewarding part for the Lakers has to be the way that Gasol and Odom have grown as complimentary stars to Bryant.
"I've always been impressed with his ability to find angles," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "It's not as easy as it might appear, even with his slight or slender build. His ability to tip the ball, to get angles, to play his length on people is very striking."
Gasol has shown a different side to his greatness with his sturdy stands on Howard, but his true gifts are with the grace and guile he plays the game. The European star brought a different dimension to the NBA, bigger players with broader skills. In a lot of ways, Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki(notes) played a part in forcing a broken American feeder system to re-examine the way it prepares players for the pros.
In the end, this transformation of the NBA is the reason why Bryant will win his post-Shaq title, and Jackson will pass Red Auerbach with his 10th coaching championship.
The Lakers are close now, two victories away and Pau Gasol raised his fists into the Staples Center air on Sunday night. This wasn't so much vindication as validation. Los Angeles is on the cusp of another title and that never would've happened unless the floppy haired Spaniard came to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Right player, right team, right time.
And sorry, but soft doesn't deliver salvation.