It seems Phil Jackson wants a lot more out of Pau Gasol
During his pre-training camp press conference, Jackson was asked an innocent question about how much Gasol's decision to sit out of the 2010 FIBA World Championship will do for him this season. Instead, Jackson poked fun at Gasol's busy travel schedule: "Pau was jumping over kids in India. What was he, ambassador for the world? Mr. Peace? He should start the Palestine-Israeli peace talks. Pau was everywhere, it seemed like, this summer. Hopefully he has rested and he's ready to play."
Jackson carried the barbs overseas when the team traveled to Europe for a pair of exhibition games. In Gasol's hometown! The appreciative homecoming crowd would've loved to hear gushing praise about their Barcelona hero from his head coach. Instead, Jackson playfully called Gasol out as the reason why the Lakers looked so sluggish in practice. "I had five guys miss the team bus this morning," Jackson told reporters. "I blame Pau for that, but we won't hold it against him. He took them out last night and showed them some of the sights of Barcelona. We got a little bit behind the eight-ball on this trip."
And after the Lakers' 98-95 victory Wednesday over the Sacramento Kings, Jackson hardly provided a good reference for Gasol's 18-point, 12-rebound performance on seven of 15 shooting. "He's still on vacation," Jackson told reporters. "His stats were better than I thought when I came and looked at the stat sheet. But I thought he missed some real easy shots."
So what gives?
Well, it's obvious Gasol is one of Jackson's favorite targets, as the Zen Master ribbed him on his acting in "CSI: Miami" and questioned his toughness during the rare poor performances. In turn, Gasol has put on a nonchalant front, though Jackson has still believed the comments irk him.
Jackson's latest public challenge entails what he expects out of Gasol beginning Saturday night at Staples Center in an exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. Because of the team's back-to-back games, Jackson plans to play his starters heavy minutes tonight and then allow them more rest on Sunday. And with Andrew Bynum's absence as he continues to recover from surgery on his right knee, Gasol will command more attention inside. Also, considering Jackson's plans to limit Kobe Bryant to under 24 minutes, Jackson told reporters after the Lakers' win against the Kings that Gasol has "got to be the next guy in line."
"I don't know. I didn't know that," Gasol said when told of Jackson's recent comments. "I didn't hear any of those comments. I didn't pay any attention to that. I always adjust to the team needs."
Jackson's psychology with Gasol goes beyond needling him for his four of eight from the line against Sacramento and missing a few easy shots. You also have to consider these comments address more than just preseason because, frankly, the preseason doesn't matter. Jackson seems to be laying the ground work for what might be an unfortunate reality that Bynum may not return as late as December, and it's uncertain when Bryant will feel fully healed from surgery on his right knee. That means not only does Gasol need to post the normally consistent numbers he usually does, he has to be prepared to carry the team. That means he'll need to have more than 15 field-goal attempts even if the interior defense doesn't have to worry about another seven-footer.
"The more we play together, the better," Gasol said of his relationship with Bynum. "The less we play, the less accustomed we'll be to each other. When we play together out there, it's a big lineup. It takes time to get used to even though we're good basketball players. When you play quality players next to you, it makes the game easier. It does change the spacing a little bit and habits a little bit."
Gasol has been in this position already. No doubt Bynum's presence during the NBA Finals gave the Lakers easy baskets and rebounds, a stronger defensive rotation and matchup problems. Because of Bynum's limitation with the torn cartilage in his right knee and Lamar Odom's disappearing act, Gasol carried a heavy load inside during the Finals. But as far as leading a team? Gasol led the Lakers with 18.4 points per game during their 4-1 mark when Bryant nursed a sprained left ankle. But consider the rest of the Lakers' offense in Bynum (17.4 points per game in two appearances, missing three games because of a sore right hip), Ron Artest (14.4), Odom (14.6), and Shannon Brown (14.6). Obviously the Lakers benefit when the team plays as a unit and collectively feels involved. Surely the Lakers will also field various lineup combinations during the exhibition contests. But the call for Gasol to lead the team in case Bynum and/or Bryant are out or limited during the early part of the regular season would require something more.
"If Andrew were healthier, there's no doubt I'd be playing less this preseason. I'd be playing less also [in the regular season] a few minutes here and there. At the end of the year, I don't know if it's a big change or difference. We'll see."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers forward Pau Gasol is expected to play heavy minutes in Saturday night's exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. Credit: Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty Images