Pau Gasol maintaining positive attitude about heavy playing time
Any time Andrew Bynum rehabilitates his surgically repaired right knee during Lakers practice, it serves as a visual reminder for Pau Gasol as to why Coach Phil Jackson has asked him to assume a heavier workload.
Considering Jackson doesn't anticipate Bynum will begin practicing at least until after the Lakers' three-game trip this week, Gasol's large responsibility will likely remain the same Saturday night at Staples Center against Phoenix. That's why it's not a surprise that when Gasol sees Bynum in practice, he's counting down the days as every Lakers fan does for when he'll finally step on the court in an actual game.
"Whenever that is, we'll be all happy about it," Gasol said. "Probably one of the first ones will be me."
That comment drew laughs from reporters and led them to ask the exact reason why Gasol will feel so elated. "I don't know," Gasol replied sheepishly.
The reason doesn't need to be stated. Bynum's return will make it nearly impossible for teams to stop the Lakers' frontline considering it will feature two 7-footers. It will help sharpen the team's defensive rotations in terms of size, length and stopping players from penetrating the lane. And it will help relieve some of Gasol's playing time, a team-leading 38.4 minutes per game that Jackson described as "tremendous."
Unlike a certain player in South Beach, however, you won't hear Gasol complaining about that workload.
"Not a chance. I enjoy playing," Gasol said when asked whether he has popped off about playing 44 minutes in a game, the amount of time that caused LeBron James to complain about his responsibility in Miami's 112-107 loss Thursday to Boston and the amount of time Gasol logged in three of the past five contests. "Some nights those 44 [minutes] are going to feel a lot more than others, depending on the opponent. But I'm fine playing the way I'm playing right now. Obviously it's not ideal at this point in the year, but it is what it is and the circumstances we're in."
So while James is backtracking and saying his quotes were taken out of context, Gasol's quotes this season have already added enough context. Clearly, Gasol thinks the heavy minutes have proved challenging, but it's nothing he's skirting. He opened the first week with Western Conference player-of-the-week honors, began the past week logging his fourth career triple-double, and his 22.7 points per game only rank behind Kobe Bryant's 25.2 points per game clip, and his 52.9% mark from the field only trails Lamar Odom's shooting percentage (59.1%).
Gasol's play has rarely featured many hiccups, though the most recent one came in the Lakers' 118-112 loss Thursday to the Denver Nuggets where he clouded his double-double (17 points, 20 rebounds) with a six-of-17 showing from the field and three turnovers.
"He just had an off night," Jackson said.
Nonetheless, Jackson has wondered aloud for the past week how he needs to limit those minutes. He's floated different lineup combinations, ranging from accelerating the learning curve for rookie Derrick Caracter, forcing Theo Ratliff to test his left knee tendinitis, switching Ron Artest at power forward and even considering have rookie Devin Ebanks also assume some time at that position. Jackson has taken measures to find ways for players to rest whenever possible. He gave the team the day off twice in the past week and even encourages Gasol to decrease his intensity level during practice so he can sustain that for the game. And though Jackson concedes Gasol's playing time "wears a little bit at him with the weight of this," it's something he'll have to somehow shoulder for at least a few more weeks.
But when he sees Bynum running on an anti-gravity treadmill, performing various exercises on a medicine ball or receiving treatment, Gasol doesn't just immediately envision how soon he won't have to handle as much responsibility. He also reflects on his strained left hamstring that sidelined him during the 2009-2010 season for the first 11 games, the anxiety surrounding his return and the need to be patient with the rehab process. Likewise, Gasol expresses sympathy for Bynum because the psychological components likely remain the same for his teammate, though Bynum's rehab involves fully recovering from off-season surgery on his right knee. That shows that the importance surrounding Bynum's return goes beyond easing Gasol's workload and his reluctant willingness to embrace it.
So while Gasol says regarding James, "that's up to him if he doesn't want to play," the Lakers' recently converted center will continue marching forward.
"There's no excuses," Gasol said. "There's no point on debating or discussing it. You gotta do what you gotta do."
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Photo: Lakers forward Pau Gasol tries to make his way past Denver center Nene during the third quarter of the Lakers' 118-112 loss Thursday. Credit: Rick Giase/EPA.