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Gasol back on track, even as strong Lakers wallow in discontent


After being shopped by the Lakers, Gasol says putting it behind him 'has been really nice.' (Getty Images)  
After being shopped by the Lakers, Gasol says putting it behind him 'has been really nice.' (Getty Images)  

There's always drama in Lakerland. In the past, Phil Jackson would just ramble on about one "situation" or another, sprinkle in some Zen wisdom and hand out the next book on the team reading list, and all would turn out swell.

The challenges are different this season for the Lakers under Mike Brown. Summoning the mystical powers necessary to motivate Lamar Odom is no longer the Lakers' problem, and Derek Fisher isn't around anymore to play good cop to Kobe Bryant's bad cop in the locker room. This week alone saw the Bryant benching, followed by the Andrew Bynum benching, followed by a home loss to the new powerhouse of the Western Conference, Oklahoma City.

Funny, in 2010 when the Lakers faced the Thunder in the first round, Jackson admitted to not really knowing much about what he called "Oklahoma," a team that now sits firmly atop the West, while the Lakers seem to be just trying to hang on.

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For all the discontent, nobody will remember the outcome of Thursday night's game -- a 102-93 victory for the Thunder -- come playoff time. The Kobe and Bynum benchings will be mere footnotes to a strange regular season from which it is difficult, even now, to draw any firm conclusions.

For what it's worth, there remains one center of Zen-like solemnity on the Lakers' roster -- Pau Gasol. If not for the quirk of league ownership blocking a December trade sending Chris Paul to the Lakers, Gasol would be in Houston at this very moment, presumably helping the Rockets fight for a higher playoff seed instead of simply trying to get into the postseason. If not for other circumstances, known and unknown, Gasol might very well be in Houston anyway, but the Lakers held onto him at the trade deadline and dealt Fisher instead.

"Just to not have to deal with the uncertainty and the insecurity of not knowing where you're going to be and if you are going to get traded or not and all that stuff," Gasol said in a phone interview this week. "I think that's a big load off anybody's shoulders. To be able to put that behind me has been nice, has been really nice. So now I can just focus on helping the team and do my best, play my best out there."

Gasol has played better since the trade deadline, posting six double-doubles in eight games. The Lakers, however, are 4-4 over that stretch. Kobe is still Kobe, Ramon Sessions has added a dynamic element to the offense and at the very least, Gasol -- hypersensitive about trade talk and off-the-court discomfort -- is relaxed and engaged.

"We always have stuff going on," Gasol said. "But I think it's the same as any other team. We get so much coverage, it just seems like it's a bigger deal than what it is. We just have to move on from all those things that happened, grow from it, learn from it and make sure we're all on the same page, and things will be good. There's so much talent on this team that we have to get over anything that could create any cracks on our team or any discomfort."

Sounds like the same old story. Sounds like the same old Lakers. At least Brown can put a checkmark in the box next to Gasol's name on the list of Lakers needing coddling or other forms of special treatment.

"I think the good thing about it is, we have a month ahead of us that's going to be very demanding, very challenging," Gasol said. "We play twice against Oklahoma and three times San Antonio, and I think it's going to tell us where we are. It's going to test us, so I look forward to that. I think that will get us where we need to be going into the playoffs."

As much as I admire the Thunder and respect the Spurs, I still view the Lakers as a major threat. For their eventual playoff opponents to view them any other way would be irresponsible. No other team in the league has two 7-footers as talented and potentially impactful as Gasol and Bynum. Nobody else has Bryant. If Metta World Peace can figure out whether he's Metta World Peace or Ron Artest, and if Sessions is up to the task of jazzing up the offense in the postseason, this is a team that could inflict harm.

Before the Lakers worry about whether they can beat Oklahoma City, they have to stay ahead of the slumping Clippers and protect the No. 3 seed, which would allow them to avoid the formidable challenge presented by the Thunder until the conference finals.

"If this team is at its best, we're going to have a really good chance," Gasol said. "It doesn't matter who we play. We need to build momentum and we need to build a way of playing during these last 16, 17 games until the playoffs start. That's when we're really going to be tested and when we really have to deliver."

For now, Gasol is in a good place -- still in L.A., and still finding time for a charity event that is close to his heart. As one of the founding NBA ambassadors of the Hoops for St. Jude program, Gasol is involved once again this season with Hoops for St. Jude Week -- an annual series of initiatives aimed at raising money and awareness in the fight against childhood cancer.

Along with Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Rudy Gay, David Lee and Nuggets coach George Karl, Gasol has been involved in public-service announcements and hospital visits and has interacted with children undergoing cancer treatment as part of Hoops Week. The annual event, in which St. Jude partners with the NBA, concludes Friday, but some initiatives spill into next week. And as Gasol knows, St. Jude's work never ends.

"That's one of the most powerful things that athletes can do is be able to just inject that energy and motivation to these kids who are suffering at such a critical time in their life," Gasol said.

Gasol first became involved with Memphis-based St. Jude when he played for the Grizzlies. His father, Agusti, worked there as a registered nurse. The fight is close to Gasol, who lost his grandfather and only aunt to cancer.

"I'm just doing whatever I can," Gasol said.

One fight at a time.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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