Pau Gasol's working relationship with Kobe Bryant key to increased aggressiveness in past three games
The two shared a light hug after Kobe Bryant found Pau Gasol open in the lane off a pick-and-roll. Bryant patted Gasol on the back after he cut through the lane, drew a foul and nearly converted on the And-1. And Gasol returned the favor when he found Bryant open himself after he cut through the lane.
The plays described above in the Lakers' win last week against Houston perfectly exemplify the harmonious relationship Bryant and Gasol have, with Bryant's alpha-male personality meshing well with Gasol's diplomatic nature. The above examples also illustrate the one-two punch Bryant and Gasol can produce. Bryant's penchant for scoring becomes easier when defenses draw in to stop the Lakers' frontline. Gasol's want to provide a post presence on mid-range jumpers and cuts to the basket alleviate the double-team and physical pressure Bryant has to absorb on most nights as a marked man. And the above examples illustrate the engaged on-court communication the two consistently have. They point out mismatches on the floor, figure out where to properly find each other in the triangle and throw off the opposition by speaking to each other in Spanish.
But that harmonious relationship hasn't always translated to fruitful off-the-court discussions. The Lakers' offensive inconsistency and frequent teammate passivity has spurred Bryant to take over games with varying degrees of success. Gasol's struggle in fighting through physical play and remaining engaged when he didn't have the ball resulted in El Spaniard playing at a tepid rate. And the cyclical nature of those habits became a nuanced exercise on who to blame, whether it Bryant's responsibility to elevate the play of everyone around them so he didn't have to shoot all the time or if it was Gasol's responsibility to find enough open looks, play with enough aggression and provide enough energy to make Bryant comfortable enough to give him more touches.
But that all jumpstarted for the better when Bryant approached Gasol prior to the Lakers' victory last week against Houston about becoming more aggressive.
"He's an easy going and selfless person, makes passes and takes shots as it comes to him," Bryant said. "But sometimes he just has to go get it."
Gasol followed the blueprint Bryant outlined for him and it has entailed a 26.33 points per game average on 65.9% shooting in the past three games. Considering Gasol enters Monday night's game against Memphis with what always becomes a competitive matchup with his brother, Marc, it's safe to presume he'll continue that aggressiveness.
With the Lakers (35-16) in the second contest of a seven-game trip where the they hope to establish an identity beyond a inconsistent team that brings unreliable results against both sub .500 teams and the league's best, Gasol's aggressive play very well could be the key ingredient in ensuring that turnaround. After all, Gasol's season-high 34-point effort coinciding with Bryant's 32-point outputs in the Lakers' 101-95 victory Friday over New Orleans marked the Lakers' 5-1 all-time record when the two each score at least 30 points and represented the team's 5-1 record this season when the two each drop at least 25.
"It works well," said Gasol, who is second on the team in scoring (18.7) and assists (3.6), and first in rebounding (10.5) and shot blocking (1.86). "Every time I communicate, it has a very good effect and very good impact. It means we're both tuned in and we both try to stay on the same page."
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson couldn't help but add some biting humor to the context of Gasol's increased aggressiveness, telling reporters, including The Times' Broderick Turner, "I talk to him every day about being aggressive." He also reminded the media that Gasol's increased aggressiveness won't lead to play like physical Celtics forward Kevin Garnett: "He's not going to go around punching guys [below the belt]," a dig at Garnett for recently getting ejected for hitting Phoenix forward Channing Frye below the belt during a game. And Jackson expressed amusement following the Lakers' 89-88 loss Thursday against San Antonio that Gasol "got smacked around a little bit" when an inadvertent elbow from Spurs forward Antonio McDyess sent Gasol to the ground and hurt his eyesight.
"The one thing I'm always on him about is getting that first rebound. 'Don't let them knock it out of your hands," Jackson told reporters. "Don't let them knock it away from you.' That's what I'm really about in Pau's aggressiveness, is go get the ball in tough situations and hang on to it. Otherwise, all this talk about how aggressive he's not, how aggressive he is, falls on deaf ears."
That would've fallen on deaf ears if not for Bryant's conversation, a topic Gasol admitted he avoided following the Lakers' 109-96 loss last week to Boston. After that game, Gasol lamented the offensive chemistry, arguing the Lakers need to play a more balanced offense that emphasizes utilizing the Lakers' front line. Gasol by no means faulted Bryant's 41-point performance on 16 of 29 shooting, adding the root of Bryant's individual play pointed to Gasol's lack of aggressiveness in getting open looks. Yet, it's a topic Gasol admitted he hadn't addressed with Bryant about it, saying, "I'm just trying to do the right thing."
Ironically enough, it was Bryant's nature in sparking the conversation that proved to be the right thing to do and the more aggressive thing to do than to wonder out loud to the media how to become more aggressive. That doesn't mean Bryant's completely absolved from blame. There are times, although few, where his shooting tendencies happen even when Gasol and others are playing aggressively. Bryant's lack of aggressiveness on defense also sets a poor example in the message he preached to Gasol. But this has little to do with who's right or wrong because the two's message proves well-meaning and it speaks to a season-wide lesson Derek Fisher has stressed the past few years that teammates must adjust on how they play around Bryant more than Bryant needing to adjust his play around their teammates, a sentiment Lamar Odom reiterated even when Bryant passed him up on a wide-open three pointer that could've avoided overtime against Houston.
"He understands and knows the game," Odom said of Bryant. "He wants us all to be aggressive, just as aggressive as he is."
For Gasol, that increased aggressiveness has resulted in the past three games being as nearly effective at shots at the rim (eight of 15), shots from less than 10 feet (seven of 11), shots between 10-15 feet (seven of 10) and shots between 16-23 feet (seven of 11). "I think that's something that's going to stick with him," Bryant said. "It's going to continue to play that way."
Of course, that is so long as Gasol maintains that aggressiveness.
"If you're more aggressive and you cut hard and you ask for the ball and you get to the position with a better base and better position, your teammates are going throw it to you," Gasol said. "They're going to see that. They're going to see that energy. I think that's something that I need to keep up."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after power forward Pau Gasol scores against the Thunder in a recent Monday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol confers with coach Phil Jackson and guard Kobe Bryant during a break in recent game against the Celtics. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times