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Lakers' Pau Gasol and Phil Jackson acknowledge flagrant foul against Phoenix, but are satisfied with increased physical presence

March 14, 2010 |  5:38 pm

As he approached the small gathering of reporters following Sunday's practice in El Segundo, Lakers forward Pau Gasol let out a smile. There's not a better feeling knowing your Crest-kid friendly teeth no longer have braces, a two-and-a-half year venture that ended Thursday morning when they were removed just before the team's trip to Phoenix.

"Hopefully I don't get popped in the mouth and lose a couple of teeth," Gasol joked.

A reporter had an immediate comeback, suggesting that may happen since he's been throwing elbows lately, most notably his hard foul in the Lakers' 102-96 victory Friday against the Phoenix Suns. In that game, Gasol made a hard foul with 5:06 remaining in the fourth quarter on Phoenix backup center Louis Amundson across his face after he received a pass from guard Steve Nash inside. Suns Coach Alvin Gentry ran to the mid-court line and immediately told officials they should've given Gasol a flagrant foul. Instead, they ejected Gentry, who had to be restrained from his coaching staff and Phoenix guard Jason Richardson.

After watching the replay, Gasol admitted he thought the call should've been a flagrant foul. But he simply called the play "an accident," and that it was just part of his intention to play more aggressively.

Of course, Gasol's reputation as a physical presence has been spotty at best and has often earned him the reputation as being a soft player. That may have been an appropriate description for his play during the 2008 NBA Finals, but now it's often confused with his finesse flair around the basket. There's no doubt, however, opponents have tried rattling him, though he's made a conscious effort to indicate it won't intimidate him.

Nonetheless, Gasol started off this month pretty sluggish, shooting below .500 in two of the first three games and looking out of rhythm. After the Lakers' embarrassing 98-83 loss March 5 to Charlotte, Lakers coach Phil Jackson had Gasol meet with former Knicks forward Charles Oakley, who knew a thing or two about playing physical. 

Gasol then came out last week against Orlando letting frustrations get the best of him. After Orlando Center Dwight Howard tugged at Gasol's jersey, Gasol responded on the other end by hitting his head on a dunk, good enough for a flagrant foul. Jackson didn't subscribe to the theory that Gasol has overcompensated, adding that it's not in Gasol's nature to play dirty. Instead, Jackson wants him to play "firm," maintaining a fine line between playing physical and dirty.

As Jackson mentioned in the video above, Gasol improved tremendously between the first and second half against Phoenix. He appeared sluggish in the first half and had trouble defending Amare Stoudemire, but then his energy and effort level increased in the second half, finishing with a respectable 15 points on seven of 11 shooting, along with eight rebounds and four blocks. That effort came on the heel of center Andrew Bynum scoring 18 points on eight of 12 shooting, marking the second consecutive game he has shot at that rate.

Of course, the question on whether Gasol and Bynum can produce together on a consistent basis has often been asked, but never fully answered except for a sprinkle of games here or there. But Jackson and forwards Lamar Odom and Ron Artest expect that relationship to flourish.

Meanwhile, Gasol brought up something unrelated, but something that could apply all too well to his effort in improving his physical presence and playing alongside Bynum. That involves his teeth, which will now require a retainer on a nightly basis. As someone who wore braces myself, I can attest that it's far easier said than done to remember putting on that piece of plastic before falling asleep. We'll soon see if the efforts to play physical and in complementing Bynum will pose similar long-term challenges.

--Mark Medina

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