Gasol returns to old self in Lakers' win

NEW ORLEANS – Pau Gasol(notes) missed a shot at the rim. He grabbed the rebound. He missed again at the rim. He grabbed the rebound. With the Los Angeles Lakers again struggling to fight off the New Orleans, with their All-Star forward’s pliability again being called into question, Pau Gasol finally had enough.

He took the ball and dunked it. Then he screamed, not so much in elation, but to release 2 1/2 games and nearly six days worth of frustration.

The basket didn’t count – the refs ruled Gasol had been fouled before he went up for the dunk – but it didn’t matter. The Lakers had been waiting for such aggression from Gasol since the playoffs started. This time he delivered.

Gasol went on to total 17 points and 10 rebounds, helping push the Lakers to their 100-86 victory over the Hornets in Game 3. The Lakers took a 2-1 lead in the series, giving them control heading into Sunday’s Game 4. After a rough first two games in which he averaged just eight points on 21.1 percent shooting, Gasol finally had reason to smile in these playoffs.

“I was trying to explode a little bit and get myself going,” Gasol said. “…That’s what I tried to do on that play.”

It worked.

Gasol had arguably been the Lakers’ most steady player during the regular season, averaging 18.8 points and 10.2 rebounds while playing in all 82 games. Four of those were played against the Hornets when he averaged 22.3 points and 12.8 boards. He seemed poised to continue that dominance with 6-foot-9 forward Carl Landry(notes) defending him.

Gasol, however, scored just eight points in the Lakers’ Game 1 loss then followed with eight more when they won Game 2. Even worse: He totaled just 11 rebounds in the two games. Kobe Bryant(notes) made clear the Lakers expected – and needed – more from Gasol. Once again, Gasol was left to weather criticism that his play was too soft, a familiar label stuck to him after the Boston Celtics manhandled the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.

“I don’t think I have to prove anything,” Gasol said. “I’ve already let people know what type of player I am with what I’ve done. If you have a couple tough games, if the team wins, that’s what ultimately is important. I was upset the first game because my performance didn’t contribute to us having a better chance to win.”

The Lakers say they never doubted Gasol.

“He’s going to continue to play and he’s tough,” Lamar Odom(notes) said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for that and how strong he is mentally.”

Gasol also started off slow in Game 3, totaling just four points and no free-throw attempts with two turnovers in the first half. Midway through the half, Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) gave Gasol a pep talk – and made sure his teammates didn’t lose faith in him.

“Derek came to the bench and was like, ‘All say ‘Aye’ when Pau gets the ball that he can do what he wants to do, miss or make,’ ” Odom said. “And we all said, ‘Aye,’ and let him know we’re going to ride with you all the way through.”

Fisher let Gasol know the Lakers were depending on him.

“Everything obviously starts with Kobe,” Fisher said. “But without Pau’s presence, we don’t go that far and I reminded him of that fact. I just sensed he was thinking too much and he wanted to do well for the team. We as a team had to flip it back and say, ‘We got your back. You go out and do the rest. Be Pau Gasol.' He responded.”

Gasol finally started to get going in the third quarter. His dunk over DJ Mbenga(notes) didn’t count, but netted him a pair of free throws. Forty-four seconds into the third quarter, he hit the biggest shot of the game: a 3-pointer just in front of the Hornets’ bench with the shot clock ticking down.

It was just Gasol’s second 3-pointer of the season. Not long after, Andrew Bynum(notes) went to the bench for a rest and Gasol took over, totaling seven points in the final quarter.

“He is just too good of a basketball player,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He can shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, he can do a lot of things. It’s just a matter of him finding his comfort zone out there. I didn’t expect him to find it out on the 3-point line, but we are not surprised when he makes those kinds of shots.”

A large contingent of Lakers fans voiced and clapped their approval when Gasol finally exited the game with 1:11 left. As Gasol walked off the court, Bryant reached back and gave him a fist pound.

Bryant didn’t say anything to Gasol, but he didn’t have to. Everyone knew what he was thinking.

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