Pau Gasol has plenty of motivation in off-season
With a hushed tone and slumped shoulders, Pau Gasol entered his exit interview with obvious signs the Lakers' early playoff exit still wore on him.
"He was noticeably down and hurt," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said.
But just when it seemed the discussion would lead into another meandering commentary on his need to be more aggressive, frustration over strongly denied reports suggesting he had relationship problems with his girlfriend, Kobe Bryant and Bryant's wife, Vanessa, and his desire to make it all go away, Gasol latched onto the criticism and relished it.
"The point of emphasis [in the exit interview] was to try to understand and embrace the moment," said Gasol, whose 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting and tepid play were a big reason for the Lakers' early elimination. "Through the rough times, you appreciate more the good times you might’ve had and how hard it is to get there. I'll start off next season clean cut and just full of hunger again."
The force that will drive that resurgence are the same images that defined Gasol's poor postseason. Coach Phil Jackson thumped his chest during a timeout in Game 3, providing the rightful image for the team's frustration with the star's poor play and Gasol's inability to stop it. Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki nailed jumper after jumper over Gasol, providing the rightful image for his defensive inconsistency and unreliability. And Lakers Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Magic Johnson cited Gasol as a possible trade option for the Lakers to acquire Magic center Dwight Howard, providing the rightful image to an overreactive public that somehow forgot that Gasol's arrival from Memphis spawned three NBA Finals appearances and two NBA championships.
Gasol won't like replaying any of those images of the 2011 NBA playoffs in what will become a long offseason. But that's exactly the point.
"The thing that makes me the angriest is me not playing at my best and me not being able to help the team accomplish its goals," Gasol said. "That’s what makes me the angriest. The rest of the stuff, you can brush it off. It’s not that big of a deal. Obviously it’s not pleasant. Obviously you don’t appreciate it. But I feel like I have to embrace it too. It’s going to make me ready."
There's of course tangible ways he's looking to rebound from a tough season that featured Gasol struggling with playing heavy minutes in place of the rehabbing Andrew Bynum for the first 24 games, providing varying spurts of aggressiveness and periodically showing up late to Staples Center for unknown reasons. Gasol is strongly considering playing for the Spanish national team this summer. He's starting to ignore the false reports saying he had broken up with his girlfriend Silvia Lopez Castro. And he's accepting the criticism of his play as valid.
Surely, Gasol could've made these adjustments during the playoffs, and Derek Fisher believes he could've helped more. He argued he would have spoken up with more support had he known about the false reports about Gasol's relationship and the heavy focus on Gasol's play as a commentary as to the reason why the Lakers lost in the playoffs.
"I wish we could have done something to make it better, not because we thought he was struggling and he was causing us problems," Fisher said, "but so we could've done something so that all that would've just shut up. If we had kept winning, there wouldn't be much for people to say."
Fair enough, but as Bryant said pretty accurately after Gasol's struggles in a Game 1 first-round loss to New Orleans, "He's our guy. He's the next in line. Responsibility and the pressure comes along with that." Surely, Bryant could've been healthier and had more endurance to close out games, Fisher could've hit more clutch shots, Lamar Odom could've duplicated his regular-season consistency into the playoffs, Ron Artest could've been more reliable and the bench could've stopped playing so poorly. But fans at Staples Center booed Gasol in the final moments of the Game 2 loss because his talent level gave him a better position to turn around the Lakers' struggles.
An off-season filled with frustration will prove beneficial for Gasol for the same reason he thrived overcoming the "soft" label after the Lakers' 2008 NBA FInals loss to Boston with two consecutive NBA titles, increased aggressiveness and improvement in refusing to back down from physical play.
"I just kept that feeling of frustration and certain anger and I kept it inside of me pretty much all next season long," Gasol said. "It helped me just push through things and get myself working even harder and being 100% devoted tuned in to what I need to do to help this team win a championship and prove myself and be the player that I want to be."
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Photo: Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki works along the baseline against Lakers power forward Pau Gasol in the first half of Game 4 on Sunday afternoon in Dallas. Credit: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images / May 8, 2011