Pau Gasol largely responsible for Lakers' 109-100 Game 1 loss to New Orleans Hornets
"Where ... is Pau Gasol?" the official said to himself. The locker room just opened to the media at 11 a.m. Sunday, 90 minutes before the Lakers' Game 1 matchup with New Orleans and Gasol remained nowhere in sight. That prompted some concerns since this coincided with the team's rule that players arrive at least 90 minutes for tipoff. Moments later, Lakers forwards Lamar Odom and Ron Artest slipped into the locker room and quickly dressed, hoping to avoid getting caught by assistant coach Frank Hamblen, who's in charge of monitoring such things. Meanwhile, Lakers forward Luke Walton sat by his locker, laughed at his teammates' tactics in avoiding detection and remarked the team has set up a standings race on who collected the most "silly fines," infractions such as arriving late to a game or a cell phone going off that ultimately costs a player at least $50 and goes into a pot for team dinners.
"There's no way to tell who's winning," Walton said. "There's so much going on. It changes every week and someone takes over the lead."
That ongoing change perfectly epitomizes what plagued the Lakers in their 109-100 loss Sunday to New Orleans in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series, a game that featured little team chemistry and a split in playoff readiness. No one represented that better than Gasol, whose eight points on two-of-nine shooting, six rebounds, zero offensive rebounds and poor defense on pick-and-roll plays contributed to the defeat. Adding injury to insult, he sustained a cut below his left eye during a collision with New Orleans center, and former teammate DJ Mbenga.
"I wasn't very sharp," Gasol said. "I couldn't get into a good rhythm. I didn't get myself going at all. It's up to me and get some energy out there and be aggressive and find ways to get that rhythm."
It's not fair to pin the loss entirely on Gasol. Odom's 10 points on three-of-six shooting featured six of those points coming in the last minute of the game when the outcome determined and pointed to his failure to lead a bench unit that already lacked Steve Blake (chicken pox) and a limited Matt Barnes (zero points on zero-of-two shooting in eight minutes in his first appearance since missing the last two games because of soreness in his surgically repaired right knee). Lakers center Andrew Bynum returned in his first game since suffering a bone bruise last week with the same amount of fouls as field goals (four), showing he could've finished with more than nine rebounds and two blocks had he played smarter and kept his emotions in check. And the Lakers' 13 turnovers featured five from Bryant, thanks to pesky former teammate in Trevor Ariza and speedy guard Chris Paul adding some stain to Bryant's 34 points on 13-of-26 shooting.
But no one epitomized everything that went wrong for the Lakers in opening the 2011 NBA playoffs more than Gasol. As Bryant said, "Pau's our guy. He's the next in line and the pressure and responsibility comes along with that." It's easy to call it a lack of urgency, but do you characterize that stereotype to Bryant, who carried the offense by making seemingly impossible shots, largely slicing a 55-47 halftime deficit to 73-72 after hurting his neck after he fell into an empty courtside chair next to AEG chief Tim Leiweke? It's convenient to describe the Lakers as still uninterested in these games, but do you apply that to Artest, who scored 16 points on four-of-eight shooting, kept Bynum calm during frustrating play, filled in Gasol's rebounding spot with 11 boards and prompted Jackson to call him "the best player in the game." It's a knee-jerk reaction to pinpoint Paul's 33 points on 11-of-18 shooting to an aging Derek Fisher, who was unable to keep up with him on screen-and-roll plays. But mostly it was Fisher who held his own and then called out for help in pointing out rotations, only to find Gasol proved too slow and too passive to react.
Fisher's never the type to call out Gasol publicly, but he's right in disputing the charge that the Lakers lacked urgency. Only certain players did, namely Gasol. "I can't speak for everybody in terms of our mentality collectively as a group," he said. "I didn't get a sense that we didn't take this seriously and thought we could show up and win. They showed up and played better than us today." But Bryant was someone who was willing to speak candidly on that, even though he acknowledged neither of them spoke afterward. "He's not naturally aggressive," Bryant said of Gasol. "Even when I'm tired, I'm naturally aggressive. You have to rev him up a little bit to get him going. I think this game here, he's going to use it as motivation and come back in Game 2 and be ready to go. I have no doubt about it."
But he didn't in Game 1, a problem considering Jackson had largely stressed how the team's key in putting away New Orleans pointed to why they swept them 4-0 in the regular season: each time the Lakers overwhelmingly dominated with inside production against an undersized center Emeka Okafor and solid but less talented as well as undersized power forward Carl Landry. To make the draw even easier for the Lakers, the Hornets entered this series without power forward David West, who suffered a season-ending aneterior cruciate ligament injury with nine games left in the season. The fact Gasol couldn't replicate the 22.2 points on 70.5% shooting in four games this season goes beyond comprehension. But there he was at Staples Center failing to get a base, threw up flat shots and communicated on defense so ineffectively that he guarded Paul one on one in two consecutive possessions only to get burned both times.
"We played bad basketball," said Bynum, who described his right knee as fine. "That's what happened. That's really it. That's what it is. Bad basketball, everybody except Kobe and Ron. I was in foul trouble early and I only played 25 minutes. The way we were playing, you're going to lose the game. Defensively we did a horrible job. We walked through the stuff the day before and it's not translating through the game."
Gasol's struggles pointed to problems that connected to the entire team. His passiveness spurred Bryant to rightfully take over the game, a strategy that proved an unwinnable option after going three-of-nine shooting in the fourth quarter. Gasol's passiveness exposed the Lakers without a frontline identity as he didn't do anything to make up for the production lost with Bynum's foul trouble. And his passiveness on defense created a trickle effect, causing everyone to move out of their own rotations and contradict everything they went over in Saturday's practice.
The Lakers' loss shouldn't be too surprising if you consider their five-game losing streak that followed a 17-1 mark after the All-Star break, Jackson's observation that the team lacked focus this week in practice and the Lakers drawing a first-round opponent some privately acknowledged to me would prove to be the easiest. It turns out the Lakers were wrong, as is Odom's cliched contention of the value in being humbled. There's no need for the Lakers to draw any motivation because the 16 wins needed for another Larry O'Brien Trophy should prove motivating enough. Gasol's effort fulfilled that description the most and even led one fan at Staples Center to yell, "Are you going to show up in Game 2?"
He better, and that includes showing up to Staples Center on time.
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Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol battles Hornets center Aaron Gray and guard Jarrett Jack for a rebound on Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2011