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Pau Gasol's soft reputation continues to be overblown

April 6, 2011 |  5:08 pm

Sitting shirtless by his locker, Lakers forward Ron Artest requested that I back up so my camera could fully zoom in on his pectoral muscles.

He had just been reveling in the irony about what Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire recently said about Pau Gasol"He's still soft. He's a good player, but he also has help with Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and those 7-footers down there." Artest immediately countered, pointing out that Stoudemire posed naked on the cover of ESPN The Magazine's body issue, holding a basketball in one hand and covering his bare private parts with the other. "That's tough?" Artest said, drawing laughs from nearby teammates stretching in the locker room. "You've got no right to call Pau soft when you're dropping it like it's hot."

But what about Thunder center Kendrick Perkins? He made the same charge a little more than a month ago. As soon as I mentioned that, that's when Artest responded more with body language.

"That's why they got us," Artest said while flexing his muscles.

Unlike Artest, Gasol didn't share much amusement over the back-and-forth. Nor did he suddenly rip off his shirt and flex, hoping that would quiet any rumblings about his manhood. "I don't pay attention," he said, diplomatically. "It's a matter of jealousy."

So what's it going to take for those inaccurate comments finally to stop?

"Go win another championship and do it again," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "That keeps people quiet really quick."

Well, not really. Gasol's already accomplished that twice with the Lakers and each trip to the NBA Finals has brought closer examination of whether Gasol had evolved after being physically manhandled in the 2008 NBA Finals against Boston.

He responded the following season by bulking up and limiting Magic center Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Finals. Gasol entered the 2010 Finals, however, answering the same questions all week about his alleged lack of toughness in the 2008 Finals loss and how he had grown from that experience. Though there's no doubt Gasol was muscled inside in the 2008 Finals, most of it had to do with him not playing aggressively enough and lacking the strength to compete with Boston's physicality. His increased devotion to the weight room and increased aggressiveness complemented his mastery of the triangle offense, quick footwork, solid midrange game and accurate touch around the basket.

"When Pau came here," Odom noted, "we started getting back to the championship round."

Interesting how that works. In a funny twist, Gasol went through last season's championship run victimizing the same players who now boast that he's still soft. The Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns in six games in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, a series that featured Gasol scoring at ease partly because of Stoudemire's lack of defense. Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals showcased Gasol posting 19 points and 18 rebounds, while Perkins sat out of because of torn medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee. 

The Lakers went to great lengths defending El Spaniard, initially led by Bynum attacking Stoudemire on Twitter: "The NBA is a weird place! How can a man that plays 0 defense call a 2 time champion soft?" But there's always rumblings, even within the Lakers, about whether Gasol has proven his toughness, and for legitimate reasons. Many questioned how Gasol could fall to fatigue so quickly during Bynum's 25-game absence while rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee at the start of this season after Gasol had taken the whole summer off from basketball. With Gasol playing in the Lakers' 86-85 loss Tuesday to the Utah Jazz with a bone bruise in his right knee, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, in a half-joking and half-serious tone, told reporters, "Don't baby him" by expressing concern about the  injury. Bryant had even gone to great lengths to implore Gasol to be more aggressive inside instead of relying on Bryant to involve him in the offense. And  Jackson, who's needled Gasol plenty of times about his toughness when he finds it convenient, didn't sound entirely complimentary when defending Gasol from Stoudemire's charge of softness.

"The perception of this tall, lanky guy and how he plays the game may appear that way," Jackson said. "But he somehow has a knack of getting those 20 points and nine rebounds night in and night out. He's a pretty amazing athlete. The tenacity is there. He's a pretty tenacious guy and he wants to win. It's evident in the way we've played since he's come onto this team."

Gasol is never going to evolve into a enforcer player and he conceded as much as Jackson and opposing team's players tend to pick on him because of his friendly personality. "If I wasn't as nice or I cursed more and I was dirtier, that would change. But I'm not that kind of person."

The Lakers are fine with that. After all, Gasol averages 18.9 points on 52.8% shooting and 10.2 rebounds, numbers, by the way, that eclipse both Stoudemire's and Perkins' production. But basketball is never about statistics. It's about a player's presence on the floor. Gasol stormed into the game against Utah and scored 12 of his 19 first-quarter points with sequences that define too well his efficient skill set. A baseline jumper, a block against Paul Millsap, a lob to Bynum, two consecutive lefty hooks off spin moves and a kick-out to Derek Fisher for a three-pointer after a double team all served as plays that epitomized what Gasol brings on a consistent basis.

"When you're a finesse player and make a move and go to the hole, some people say you're soft," said Odom, who acknowledged that he used to have that reputation andthat  his recent unisex fragrance ad in which he appears unclothed with Khloe Kardashian has given opponents more ammo. "I know a lot of people who are big and bulky and go to the hole and trick you with it, and they think they're playing hard and tough, but it's just a misperception."

It's unfortunately a misperception that Gasol will continue to live with since it's been with him ever since winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award 10 seasons ago. The tag still clearly bothers him, as indicated by his serious reaction toward Stoudemire's recent comments. Gasol's continual effort to laugh off Jackson's zings also often mask his annoyance and frustration over his coach's mind games.  Gasol doesn't need to worry about proving his manhood to Stoudemire. There's no chance New York will advance to the NBA Finals. But when the Lakers play host to Oklahoma City on Sunday, there's no need for Gasol to prove anything to Perkins. His usual game will prove good enough.

"Some dudes in the park, work on being tough and being hard, and Pau is working on his skills," Artest said. "That's how it goes. They go mad hard, but Pau has got moves.

"I can be hard," Artest continued, pointing at his chest again. "That's why we here."

-- Mark Medina

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