NEW ORLEANS -- Two Los Angeles Lakers players with two drastically different demeanors stepped into each others' shoes for a bit of bizzaro world. The one player who has no trouble admitting he uses therapy played listener leading up to Friday night's Game 3 in New Orleans.
"Pau [Gasol] told me before the game in the elevator, 'Let's go loco tonight,'" Lakers quirky forward Ron Artest said. "You know, just play hard and get back to doing as best we could."
Sounds pretty loco, I know. I guess it's any means necessary to break a slump.
The heavily maligned Gasol said he hasn't beat himself up after drudging through late season toughness issues that boiled over into Games 1 and 2 against the New Orleans Hornets, but his teammates sensed Gasol could use the pick-me-up. Gasol finally began the process of breaking out of his slumber of softness toward the end of the Lakers' 100-86 win over the Hornets to take back control of their first-round playoff series.
Gasol started Game 3 the same way he began the first two games. He was nonexistent, missing shots short and long. Soft Gasol, back again.
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That is until late in the third quarter, and ironically enough it was a waived-off basket that may have brought him back to life.
Gasol, as he had consistently done in the previous two games shooting a combined 4-of-19 from the floor, missed a couple of gimmies. But then he muscled through a foul by the Hornets' Willie Green and hammered home a dunk with 9.5 seconds remaining in the third quarter letting out a screeching howl and violently throwing his arms skyward. It's the first time this series Gasol went from extra soft Charmin to John Wayne toilet paper -- rough, tough and doesn't take crap from anyone.
"I was just trying to explode a little bit really, get a little more aggressive out there and get more explosive out there," Gasol said. "Just get my body to explode. That's what I tried to do on that play. ... I finished well even though it didn't count. Then I continued to play and got myself more comfortable out there."
It visibly changed Gasol.
Gasol reverted back to sissy mode briefly by missing a short one-hander in the lane, but came back on the next possession to drain a 3-pointer of all things. Gasol and the Hornets' D.J. Mbenga jostled back and forth forcing a foul on Mbenga. This is the same Mbenga who cut Gasol below the eye in Game 1, leaving the Lakers All-Star stunned the rest of the game. Gasol followed that up with buckets inside and outside on back-to-back possessions to push Los Angeles up 85-71.
"Pau's going to play well," the Lakers' Lamar Odom said. "He's going to get on. He's been playing basketball for a long time. You've got to understand how much basketball he's played since he came here. ... He hasn't had too many bad games in between those. An off night, so what? You make, you miss, you put it behind you, you move on. ... He's going to continue to play. He's tough. He doesn't get enough credit for that, how strong he is mentally. He keeps playing and keeps playing. He's going to hit his shots."
Artest added: "Pau had ups and downs in the game, and then he came alive. We're still figuring some things out. ... Everybody's talking about Pau ... a man with two rings."
Odom and Artest are correct on both accounts.
But it's the fact that Gasol receives little credit for being tough even from inside his own bench with the likes of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant throwing occasional stones at the Spanish giant. That should tell you something.
Gasol deflected the criticism after his 17-point, 10-rebound performance on Friday night.
"[The chatter] wasn't a big deal to me really," Gasol said. "I don't think I have to prove anything. I think people know what kind of player that I am and what I've done. You can have a couple of tough games. Bottom line, it the team wins, that's what ultimately is important. I was upset the first game because probably my performance didn't contribute enough and have a chance to win that game. Second game, it was better even though I struggled shooting the same way. I was more aggressive and I made more plays in different aspects. [Friday] I played a better game. So hopefully Sunday I can continue on this line, ascending line."
The Lakers can't win another championship without an ascending Gasol scoring and confidence line.
Bryant chalked up 34 points in Game 1 with virtually no help from anyone else, and the Hornets stole one at Staples Center.
Andrew Bynum has been dominant against the Hornets in Games 2 and 3, but his spill early in the third quarter is another reminder of his shaky vitality. Bynum landed on the foot of the Hornets' Marco Belinelli and went tumbling down holding his oft-injured right knee. It turned out to be nothing, but that nothing has the potential for another Bynum injury something.
The key to the NBA title trifecta isn't Kobe, it's Gasol. Even through Kobe's arrogance he at least has to realize that.
"We ride with him," Odom said of Gasol. "All the way. We let him know that as a team."