Lakers Need Pau Gasol to Find Old Groove
Yes, 17 points (on 8-of-17 shooting) to go along with eight rebounds and three assists is an adequate line for an NBA big in any game, much less one the magnitude of the nationally televised showdown between the two-time defending champs and the team that many anointed in the offseason as the next in line to steal their crown.
The only problem is, we were watching.
While Gasol's numbers were more than serviceable for many, his performance was well below average for what we've come to expect the last couple of seasons, and even what we began to get used to at the beginning of this one.
Something's not quite right with Pau Gasol. And until he can fix whatever the issue is, the Lakers are going to continue to struggle.
Phil Jackson afterward claimed to know what's going on, but decided at this time to keep it to himself.
"I have some thoughts on it, but I'm not going to share them with you right now," Jackson said. "But I do have some thoughts on it. They're just speculations, though."
No reasons for the drop in Gasol's play were given by Jackson, but he did point to some specifics in terms of what he's seeing out of his starting center's game right now.
"He's got no base," Jackson said. "He's not shooting the ball with a base, he's kind of just lollygagging, putting a soft kind of release on his shot."
Emphasis was placed on the word "soft," with a brief pause added for effect.
"He's not decisive about his jumpshots or passes," Jackson continued. "And those are the things that really concern us because his game has to be effective for us to be consistently good."
In other words, the Lakers success hinges primarily on the play of Gasol.
Gasol got off to an 0-for-7 start from the field in the first quarter, missing at least three of those shots at point blank range, including two tip-in attempts right at the basket.
"Shots weren't going in early on," Gasol said, when asked about the reason for his slow start. "A couple of rolls that could have gone in didn't that usually would."
While Gasol was struggling, the Heat's Chris Bosh was feasting, going 4-for-7 for nine points in the period, while grabbing six rebounds -- twice as many as Gasol's three, and in three-and-a-half fewer minutes on the floor.
There were plenty of issues on the Lakers' end beyond Gasol's poor start that were equally important reasons as to why Miami was able to cruise -- Ron Artest's early foul trouble and intent on playing one-on-one instead of team defense, a lack of ball movement offensively, and a defensive effort from the Heat that held L.A. to just 80 points on 40.5 percent shooting were the primary ones.
Gasol didn't cite any personal issue that was preventing him from performing at a championship level, but rather stuck to the team's greater issue of being perhaps too overconfident every time they hit the floor.
"Maybe (it's) just thinking we'll show up and the other team is going to fold and just give us the win without having to really earn it," Gasol said. "That's not how it's going to work out."
Overall talent should be a big advantage for the Lakers against most teams, and even if that might not be true against the loaded Miami Heat, L.A.'s size and skill in the frontcourt is supposed to make up for that. If Gasol isn't hitting on all cylinders, the Lakers become vulnerable, and apparently, easy to expose.
There is help on the way -- theoretically, of course, given his injury history -- in the return of Andrew Bynum to the rotation. Bynum is still working his way back from offseason surgery, and while he is getting limited minutes, his conditioning isn't quite to the point where he's able to contribute much beyond around 18 minutes per game. The Lakers are at their best, most dominant selves when Bynum is playing side-by-side next to Gasol in the team's starting lineup. He has yet to do that this season in any of his six appearances.
"Just reactions right now," Jackson said, when asked about the reason for bringing Bynum along slowly. "Conditioning is part of that, but just his reactive ability and reacting to the ball in the game is still an issue ... Andrew's not ready to play those kind of minutes right now."
Bynum's return to playing a starter's role on this team will certainly make things easier for Gasol, but that's a ways off, and seems somewhat irrelevant to what's changed in Gasol recently. He said all the right things afterward, but seemed to avoid wanting to take on too much personal responsibility for the team's recent poor play. Instead, he emphasized the importance of the team as a whole getting mad enough to do something about it.
"It should piss us off," Gasol said, when asked how his team should react to the beating at the hands of the Heat. "It should make us really upset, and it should make us come out the next game (playing) really, really hard -- as a unit. Together. We can't be trying to do it on our own.
"We're going to live and die as a group, and that's what we need to understand."
That may be the case. But ultimately, the group won't be a championship one unless Gasol can return to playing his elite level of basketball.