While accepting the NBA Finals MVP trophy from Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant appeared almost embarrassed that he was receiving an award despite a very subpar performance in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics.
Bryant may have been best player in the series against the Celtics, but it was his teammate Pau Gasol who proved to be more valuable. And deep down somewhere in his cold-blooded body, Bryant knew it.
“I can’t say enough about the Spaniard,” Bryant said, acknowledging the impact of his teammate Pau Gasol in front the 19,000 fans inside Staples Center who were celebrating the Lakers’ back-to-back NBA titles and the franchise’s 16th overall.
“The man was unbelievable. We couldn’t have won it without him,” Bryant continued.
As good as Bryant was in the series, the Celtics defense made him into a volume shooter and had a counter for his every move. However, the Celtics had no answer for the talented 7-foot Spaniard.
Kevin Garnett tried, but he ran out of gas. Rasheed Wallace tried, but he was too old and injured. Kendrick Perkins had some success, but his knee gave out. And Glen “Big Baby” Davis was stout, but he was just too short.
Gasol took on the entire Celtics’ frontcourt and won.
“Think about what we’ve accomplished since he’s come to this team. I don’t know if you can think of another player in the last five, six years that changed teams and had that kind of impact,” Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher said of Gasol. “His skill set and his ability to play the game all the way around: shooting, passing, ball-handling, length, size.”
Since acquiring (ahem! stealing) Gasol from Memphis in 2008, the Lakers have been to three consecutive NBA Finals and won nearly 80% of their games. Gasol immediately clicked with Bryant and the two have become the best 1-2 punch in the Association.
“There is a God,” Bryant said two years ago when the Spaniard first arrived.
Former TNT analyst and current Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins calls Gasol “the most skilled big man in the game.”
I’ll take it one step farther. Pau Gasol is the BEST big man in the game.
His performance in the seven-game series against Boston was Hall-of-Fame stuff, and that alone should elevate him to first-team All-NBA status. In my book, he has surpassed Orlando’s Dwight Howard as the best low-post player in the NBA.
Howard (aka Blankman) relies solely on his athletic talents to dominate games. Gasol may not possess Howard’s brute strength and explosive legs, but his skill level is far greater than Howard’s. It’s not even close.
Gasol is so much more polished as a low-post player. He can score with either hand, passes well out of double teams, has an above-average mid-range jump shot, makes free throws, is a very underrated l0w-post defender and knows how to stay out of foul trouble.
Gasol also has a very high basketball IQ, which allows the Lakers to run their high-post sets through him. His ability to read defenses and make the correct play is about as good as any big man who has ever played the game. Just ask Steve Nash.
“He’s extremely long,” said the Suns All-Star point guard, whose team struggled to contain Gasol in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. “He’s a good shooter and passer for a big guy. He can look over the defense, look over double teams. He’s extremely versatile. He can put the ball on the floor and make plays. He’s a terrific player.”
Gasol was an absolute beast in the deciding game against Boston, scoring 19 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. When the Lakers, including Bryant, were launching brick, after brick, after brick, it was Gasol who kept giving his teammates extra possessions with his game-high nine offensive rebounds. His determined effort afforded the Lakers a 53-40 rebounding advantage – 23-8 on the offensive boards.
“If you don’t make shots you have to make sure you get your second-chance opportunities, and that’s pretty much what I figured early on in the game,” Gasol said. “So we had to work extremely hard to get those boards, pursue them to get our opportunities because we weren’t shooting the ball well. We were rushing a little bit. It’s Game 7. There’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot going on. So we just continue to hustle, continue to work.”
In the last two games at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Gasol scored 36 points, grabbed 31 rebounds and had 13 assists. For the series, he averaged 18.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
“What I see from him is just a little actions that represent not backing down, getting hit, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other with the mentality of looking at the referee or wonder about the blow or the legitimacy of it. Those are the things that he has learned in the last year and half or two,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of Gasol, who was heavily criticized for playing “soft” against the Celtics in the 2008 Finals.
He obviously learned his lesson and has gotten physically stronger.
The perception is that Gasol tends to shy away from contact. On the exterior, he appears to be this whimpy guy who easily gets bullied. But in reality, he’s about as tough as they come and he proved it Game 7.
Two plays late in the fourth quarter against Boston captured Gasol’s evolution as a clutch performer.
The first was his block on Paul Pierce that allowed the Lakers to maintain their four-point lead. Then, after a Bryant miss, Gasol gobbled up a rebound over Rajon Rondo and passed to a cutting Bryant, who then drew a foul that resulted in two free throws. Bryant’s free throws gave the Lakes a 76-70 lead.
“I was able to box him out, hold him with one arm and get it with the other one and kick it out,” Gasol recalled. “I’m pretty proud of that play. Those little plays, those little things make a huge difference, especially at that point of the game. I’m glad that things turned out the way they did and we’re enjoying this incredible victory.”
Gasol has come a long way in his basketball journey. He has supplanted Dirk Nowitzki as the best European player in the NBA, but he’s got bigger goals than just being a flag-bearer for European or international players. He continues to work because he wants to be considered the best.
And I think he’s there now.
“For me, it’s incredible. It’s like I’m living in a different dimension,” Gasol said of winning a second NBA championship ring. “If I could get a Genie and asked for a wish, this would be my wish as far as my basketball life and career. I’m so thankful for having this opportunity. I continued to work hard and it has really paid off.”
Though the Lakers didn’t play their best in the finale, the fact that they were able to grind out a come-from-behind victory against the supposedly more grittier team in the Celtics was quite an achievement, and Gasol was right in the middle of it.
“It just tells how much we wanted this, and how much will and determination we put into this,” Gasol said. “It’s very sweet. It feels amazing to win a championship. It definitely adds up when you beat Boston. Especially the rivalry, the history of the franchises and our individual and personal history in 2008. It feels that much better. We won the championship, and that’s the ultimate accomplishment.”
Gasol added: “We’ve definitely grown. We’ve definitely grown as a team, grown as individuals and obviously it shows. Back-to-back championships is a pretty tough thing to do and we’re proud of that. Now we want to enjoy it, embrace it and have a beautiful summer.”