When Pau Gasol sat down at the podium for his postgame news conference after Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, the first question to come his way was about his own individual contributions against the Celtics — 23 points and 14 rebounds, his ninth double-double of this postseason.
“Yeah, yeah,” Gasol replied as he heard his Game 1 stat line read back to him. “I knew that.”
If you know Gasol, you know how funny a moment it was — you saw the modest Gasol, on the game’s biggest stage, suddenly letting the world know how self-aware he really was.
Gasol’s never been comfortable with questions about himself. He often speaks in the first-person plural — we prepared well, we played well, we are looking forward to the games ahead. He’s never much for individual self-promotion.
But in the Finals, against the Celtics, with a chance to redeem himself after a disappointing effort two years ago, something clicked.
The Boston fans and media members who criticized him during the 2008 Finals got through to him. They mocked him, they gave him demeaning nicknames like “Pau GaSoft,” and they constantly reminded him that Kevin Garnett was still better.
But they also motivated him to be better this time around. Stronger, more aggressive, more active.
“I was ready,” Gasol said after Game 1. “I was just ready to play. I like the challenge, and I’m ready to step up and play. So that’s what I did.
“For me, it was important just to play hard, be aggressive and help as much as possible out there. Win the first game, that was my mindset. There were no statements to be made. Our goal is to win the championship, not just the first game. Not just to make a statement here, right now. It’s a good step, and obviously we’re happy about the result tonight, but now we’ve got to focus on Game 2.”
Gasol knows by now that he and the rest of the Laker bigs will be a key to this series. They have a chance to do some real damage. Garnett is wearing out. Kendrick Perkins has been a bit tentative ever since his sixth technical foul of these playoffs scared him straight. Rasheed Wallace is still battling back pain and rusty from lack of practice, and Glen Davis‘ undersized frame will be exposed against the big, tall, long Lakers.
So the Laker bigs have stepped up and decided to dominate. In Game 1, the Lakers outrebounded the Celtics 42-31. They outscored them 48-30 in the paint. They scored 16 second-chance points to the Celtics’ zero — in no small part because Gasol had as many offensive rebounds (eight) as the Celtics’ entire roster.
Gasol is the biggest reason that the Lakers ruled the paint in Game 1.
And in a series that’s predictably become physical from the very start, Gasol isn’t afraid to be the most physical player on the floor. He’s not the finesse big man he looked like two years ago.
“What I’ve seen from him is just the little actions that represent not backing down,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Getting hit, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other, with the mentality of looking at the referee or wondering about the blow or the legitimacy of it. Those are things that I think he’s learned in the last year and a half or two.”
The Celtics notice the difference in Gasol, no doubt. In 2008, they manhandled him; in 2010, the lanky Spaniard’s putting up a fight.
“He was more aggressive,” said Boston coach Doc Rivers. “He attacked us. I thought he was the best player on the floor at points tonight. I thought he made terrific plays, terrific passes, shot when he should shoot. So yeah, he’s better. He was far more aggressive.”
Last time these teams met in the Finals, Gasol didn’t have what it took to stand up to the Celtics. This time, he’s proving a whole lot of people wrong.
“Listen,” Rivers said. “If you heard for two years what you couldn’t do, you’re probably going to come in and try to do it. I thought Gasol proved a lot tonight.”
He proved that the Lakers have a big advantage going forward.