Whether the Lakers win or lose, the focus is always on Kobe Bryant -- and rightly so because he's the best player in the known world. But more and more NBA watchers are discovering that Pau Gasol has usurped Tim Duncan and has become the league's new Big Fundamental.
Not only that, Gasol has also meshed seamlessly with Kobe, and earned his respect. This was evidenced late in Game 2 when Gasol was prepared to set a wing-high screen for Kobe, until Bryant waved him back into the low post. "You," Kobe said, then delivered a crisp entry pass and watched with pleasure as Gasol once again took Amar'e Stoudemire to school. This time with a double-spin move that led to a short jumper.
This is not the same Pau Gasol who toiled for Memphis. His movements are quicker and more defined. He has expanded his offensive repertoire and increased both his defensive range and understanding.
Even if Gasol is bumped off his favorite spot on the left box, he can still turn, face, shoot, pass or drive. And Gasol's left hand is the best of any of his peers. It's this versatility that is especially dangerous when opponents are of a mind to focus on Kobe with double teams and stacked defenses.
Also, although this was not demonstrated in Game 2 when he missed several springers, Gasol can step out past the stripe and knock down mid-range jumpers. This ability keeps the middle open for Kobe's drives, allows Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom space to operate in the low post, and provides a scoring option when the defense collapses. Plus, because of his size and long arms, Gasol can easily deliver lob passes if Bynum or Odom are fronted in the pivot.
Moreover, Gasol's slick passwork enables the Lakers to play inside-out offense that can take full advantage of turned heads, momentary defensive confusion, and aggressive dive cuts by his teammates. In Game 2, for example, Gasol made a kick-out pass to Kobe from the jaws of a double team that forced the Suns' defense to compromise its balance, thereby leaving Artest unguarded on the weak-side wing. Kobe got the assist when his pass to Artest led to a successful jumper, but Gasol executed the most underrated pass in the game -- the pass that enables a subsequent assist-pass.
His length and ability to seal defenders also make fronting Gasol extremely risky, as he readily proved against the Suns on Wednesday.
In other words, Gasol's versatility with the ball creates problems that no playoff opponent thus far has been able to solve. Indeed, the Celtics are the only potential rival that, in Rasheed Wallace, have the personnel to make life difficult for Gasol.
Adding to Gasol's package is his sky-high basketball IQ. No other big man in the league moves so efficiently without the ball. In particular, Gasol is completely homed in on Kobe's intentions. Notice how many times Kobe delivered assist-passes to Gasol on the move, and how often these two celebrated their cohesion with joyous high-fives.
Gasol is likewise especially attuned to Odom's off-the-ball maneuvers. In Game 2, three of Gasol's five dimes were dropped on Odom in the paint.
In addition, Gasol's can set effective screens, then either roll hoopward, slip the screen, or fade to create space for his jumpers. Any defender whose head tends to swivel will be burned by a timely backdoor cut that inevitably eventuates in a layup or a dunk.
Nor is Gasol's skill-set limited to the attack zone. When the Lakers were temporarily stymied by a full-court press sprung by Phoenix, Gasol quickly moved into a release spot to catch a pass and instantly relieve the pressure. Twice more, Gasol carried the ball across the time-line to foil full-court zone traps. On one of these excursions Gasol escaped an approaching defender by changing direction with a smooth behind-the-back dribble.
It's Odom's presence that has made Kobe diminish his domination of the ball and, in truth, forced him to wholeheartedly trust his teammates. As a result, the triangle is as effective these days as it ever has been since the heydays of MJ and Scottie Pippen.
Even more influential is Gasol's screen/roll defense. By unofficial count, Gasol made 17 exceptional shows on the Suns high screen/rolls in Game 2. He stepped up, spread out, and forced (mostly) Nash to back up before even thinking of trying to turn the corner. One of Gasol's shows so astounded Leandro Barbosa that the Brazilian Blur fumbled his dribble into the hands of Jordan Farmar -- who got credit for the steal.
Gasol's non-spectacular defense was another under-the-radar reason for the Lakers latest triumph. As when his long arms distracted Steve Nash and forced first a turnover, and then a crudely misfired 3-point shot. Or the third-quarter sequence when Gasol made Goran Dragic change his shot so much that he missed a layup. Not to forget an aggressive switch-out by that caused the hot-shooting Grant Hill to miss a rare jumper.
Gasol's long-armed defense also discombobulated Stoudemire, blocking a layup, forcing a brick when he stood his ground in an iso situation, and generally discouraging Stoudemire from attacking him with the ball.
Simply put, Gasol is too talented, too resourceful, and too crafty for the comparatively unevolved Stoudemire to compete with on even terms. But Stoudemire has plenty of company.
For example, Gasol is taller and longer than Duncan, but not quite as strong. Neither is an exceptional face-up jump shooter or is possessed of exceptional hops. Gasol has a vastly superior left hand and more junk in his trunk in the low-post. Gasol's handle is also better than Duncan's, he moves more efficiently without the ball, and is a much slicker passer.
On defense, Gasol gets the edge in screen/roll and man-to-man defense, while TD's help defense remains unchallenged among the NBA's bigs.
Moreover, with his 34th birthday rapidly approaching, Duncan has lost a step and is past his peak. But Gasol is TD's junior by approximately four years and is at the top of his game.
So, if there's very little that's fundamentally sound about Dwight Howard's overall game, if Shaq is old and in the way, and if Yao is perpetually down and out, then Pau Gasol has emerged, not only as the NBA's reigning master of basic basketball, but as the best center on the planet.
With the unequaled duo of Kobe and Gasol playing so well together, and obviously enjoying their partnership, the Lakers seem destined to repeat.