On Friday afternoon, in the hours before Game 3, I told my editor that Pau Gasol was coming to play. Forget the lackluster production over the past two games, you can pencil him in for 20 and 10, I said. In fact I was so sure I even told him the title of the article I was going to write after the game was over: “Return of the Black Swan.”
As the next few hours unfolded I watched as Gasol struggled to get it going. He couldn’t find a rhythm early, forcing a couple shots and getting called for offensive fouls on two separate occasions where he was overly aggressive trying to back his man down. It looked like we were on our way to a repeat performance of Games 1 and 2.
Slowly but surely though he gutted it out. There was a lucky bounce on a jumper that finally went his way. A nice interior shovel pass to Bynum for a dunk. A volleyball tap back for an offensive rebound. A drop off dime to Artest for a jam. He even hit a corner 3 – ball early in the fourth quarter that pushed the Lakers lead back up to eight.
The sequence that defined Gasol’s gritty effort, and really his series so far, was a moment of inspired play that took place during the second half. Gasol found himself fighting for a bucket under the basket. He powered up a layup attempt, grabbed his own miss, fought through defenders arms and dunked it with authority. The thing was, a foul had already been called on the first attempt and no one had heard the whistle. Pau had earned two free throws but the bucket didn’t count. Sort of an encapsulation of everything that hadn’t quite gone right so far in the series.
Still, eventually Pau earned his numbers: 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists. Pretty close to what I thought he’d do coming in. But it was hardly a dominant performance. Of course that’s kind of the beauty of Gasol. He just goes about his business and at the end of the day you realize his fingerprints are all over the box score.
Some folks, including myself, have openly wondered what’s wrong with Pau during the first two games. Is he tired? Injured? Mentally out of it?
But here’s the deal: you don’t become a two time champion and an All-Star by accident. And watching Gasol battle last night and shrug off the questions about his early playoff performances led me to a realization. Soon enough Gasol will be back to throwing up 20 and 10 games like they were peace signs at a Phish concert. His consistent greatness will fade into the background of Kobe’s monstrous scoring output, Fisher’s clutchness or Artest’s antics.
In two weeks time we’ll all be back to taking Gasol for granted and the media’s focus will be squarely elsewhere. I think that in itself is a testament to just how good Pau is. That is to say the only times we notice The Black Swan is during a conspicuous absence. Fortunately for the Lakers, I’m pretty sure The Swan is now back for good.
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