Lakers forward Pau Gasol gradually phasing back into form
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has prodded Pau Gasol all preseason, saying just last week that he's "been on vacation" ever since the Lakers began training camp nearly a month ago. He's repeatedly pushed Gasol into preparing for what may become an inevitable scenario once the Lakers start the season Oct. 26 against Houston. Despite the progress Kobe Bryant showed in the Lakers' 99-94 preseason loss Sunday to the Utah Jazz, there's still uncertainty over how much strength he will have in his right knee by the season opener. There's also, of course, uncertainty on when Andrew Bynum will return from rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee.
I documented in detail Jackson's expectation of Gasol becoming the team's leader in case Bryant and Bynum aren't up to speed at the beginning of the season. The post also looked at how Gasol might adjust fitting into that role. As with any preseason game, it's necessary to take Sunday's result, and more importantly the team's development, as simply a non-definitive snapshot that could change as early as the next exhibition. Gasol's performance against Utah, for example, showcased gradual progress, while still revealing there's more work to do.
"Not bad, getting better," Gasol said after posting 28 points and nine rebounds on eight of 15 shooting. "Rhythm feeling a little stronger and testing a couple things. Overall, not bad."
Not bad, considering he led the team in scoring. Not bad, considering he went 12 of 14 from the free-throw line after entering the contest shooting 60% from the stripe. Not bad, considering Gasol showcased his usual nifty footwork and length in the post.
But it wasn't great either. Gasol started out two for eight, with Jackson saying he had "close shots, but he just didn't have good shots." Gasol struggled matching up with Utah newcomer Al Jefferson, who had 14 points on five of nine shooting and beat Gasol a few times on quick drop steps. And he doesn't look close to the player who Jackson called the team's MVP for the last 30 games of the regular season, nor is he as sharp as when he averaged 18.6 points and 11.6 rebounds in the 2010 Finals, including a 19-point, 18-rebound performance in Game 7.
Jackson understands that will come, his tone changing Sunday with more encouragement.
"I think he's starting to get in game shape," Jackson said. "There's some empathy for him, not sympathy."
And in return, Gasol seems to be embracing what the team expects from him. His preseason 29.2 minutes per game ranks second behind Lamar Odom (33.6), and he played 36 against Utah partly because rookie forward Derrick Caracter sat out with back spasms.
"It's important that I deliver, that Lamar delivers," Gasol said. "Pretty much everybody needs to step up. Theo [Ratliff] needs to be ready also. Obviously we understand the situation."
-- Mark Medina
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